Editor’s View: UK’s four barriers to acting like the French

Many have looked in admiration at the activities of French farmers protesting across the water.

The observation from some is: “We could do with a bit of that here.”

Indeed, there are calls for peaceful protests in our postbag this week and debates abound on social media. But, so far, there has been much more talk than action.

See also: European farmer protests place focus on British farming concerns

About the author

Andrew Meredith
Farmers Weekly editor
Andrew has been Farmers Weekly editor since January 2021 after doing stints on the business and arable desks. Before joining the team, he worked on his family’s upland beef and sheep farm in mid Wales and studied agriculture at Aberystwyth University. In his free time he can normally be found continuing his research into which shop sells London’s finest Scotch egg.
Read more articles by Andrew Meredith

So, what would it take for it to escalate in the UK? There are four hurdles I think any would-be protest organiser needs to overcome.

First, there needs to be widespread resentment of the way the government is treating the sector. Some will say we have reached that stage already, others will not.

As agricultural policy continues to diverge along devolved lines, anger will rise and fall in different nations at different times.

I would judge frustration to be closest to boiling point in Wales at the moment, amid budget cuts and fears that future schemes will not be practical.

Second, you need a trigger to convince people that now is the time to make the effort to protest.

In France, that was fury at the failure of the government to pay compensation for cattle killed by epizootic haemorrhagic disease, and admiration for the protests in Germany over proposals to increase diesel taxes.

Here, potential future flashpoints may be the forthcoming budget, were it to tinker with tax breaks.

A disease outbreak arising from lax biosecurity checks at the border would also be guaranteed to infuriate, especially after many warnings and stories about the flow of illegal products.

Third, you need clearly defined goals that you would like the government to implement to remedy the perceived wrong.

French farming union FNSEA has a set of 40 demands distilled into three categories – the dignity of farmers, fair remuneration for their work, and the need to re-establish an acceptable regulatory framework.

Fourth, protestors need to feel they have cultural permission from society to cause mayhem.

Consumers must be willing to be inconvenienced, and there must be little fear of a heavy-handed police response.

Neither may necessarily be the case here, unless the public are won over to the goals of the campaign – whatever they may be.

A final thought: Outbreaks of protest are as much about passion as they are process.

The almost insurmountable barriers to change can occasionally be swept aside by the white heat of a once-in-a-generation personality – were one to emerge.

Oliver Cromwell was in that category. It was 375 years ago this week that the protest he led reached a climax with the execution of Charles I.

See more