“A nation of shopkeepers” – the infamously derisory description of the British often, but inaccurately, attributed to Napoleon – was actually first coined in an altogether non-pejorative sense by the economist Adam Smith in his seminal work of 1776, The Wealth of Nations.
Adam Smith used the phrase to describe how commerce and trade had made Britain, a nation of relatively scarce natural resources, such a dominant power around the world.
That was something Napoleon reflected on, in far more complimentary fashion than is generally ascribed to him, while in exile on St Helena almost half a century later.
Trade and commerce have always been the foundation on which this nation was built.
That trade was, in turn, built on a progressive and productive farming sector, inspired by the likes of Townshend and Coke, which fuelled both the Industrial Revolution and the rise of Britain as a global power in the 18th and 19th centuries.
And there is still much to celebrate about British agriculture and its proud history of innovation that exists to this day, not only at farm level, but in the many world-leading agri-tech businesses that export high-value goods and services all over the world.
Given that Brexit was seen by many within our own industry as offering the chance to unhitch ourselves from the yoke of European agri-technophobia and forge ahead into a brave new world of commercial opportunity, I guess I am not the only one more than a little concerned by the vision for Britain’s countryside as set out by Defra secretary Michael Gove in last week’s Sunday Telegraph.
Mr Gove began his missive with a polemic against the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), stating how it had, in his opinion, “merely rewarded land ownership rather than management” – a view I have some sympathy with.
He then opined that the CAP had subsequently “damaged the countryside and biodiversity” – a view I have no sympathy with.
He then went on to laud the entire canon of European environmental legislation, and committed to not only enshrine it, in totality, in UK law as part of the EU Withdrawal Bill, but in addition, to build on that already onerous and often inappropriate regulatory burden in order to deliver the government’s vision of a “Green Brexit”. So much for the much-anticipated bonfire of EU regulation.
Furthermore, the prospect of the environmental “mega-quango” he plans to set up to enforce these higher voluntary standards fills me with dread.
I shudder to think what motley collection of the unaccountable will end up, in the interests of “balance”, shaping the future of a countryside whose principal purpose has for centuries been to produce the nation’s food.
Any mention of farming and food production was eerily absent from what Mr Gove described as “an opportunity to set the gold standard for environmental science and become a home for centres of environmental excellence”.
Call me a cynic if you like, but I struggle to see how this is going to help our economy in any meaningful way.
Indeed, the inevitable export of UK food production that will accompany the creation of this illusory eco-Utopia is not only extremely short-sighted, naive and crassly hypocritical, but is almost totally at odds with the core values of a government which, on all other fronts, is actively promoting business and economic growth.
Forget a nation of shopkeepers. Under Mr Gove’s shiny new vision of the future we can look forward to becoming a nation of impoverished park keepers.