Speeches, etc.

Margaret Thatcher

Speech to National Farmers Union

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: Hilton Hotel, central London
Source: Thatcher Archive: speaking text
Editorial comments: The press release (86/78) was embargoed until 2100. The speaking text includes an introduction omitted from the press release, as well as stylistic changes introduced by MT.
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 1813
Themes: Agriculture, Parliament, Economic policy - theory and process, General Elections, Energy, European Union (general), Labour Party & socialism

I'm grateful for the honour of being invited to propose the toast to agriculture and the National Farmers' Union at a dinner so crowded with the distinguished leaders of your industry. ([Note by MT] 8th Presidential year—Presided over a period in which the whole European venture has taken effect and have seen to it that the farming voice is always heard. Tribute—President of European Fedn. of Farmers' Unions.)

There are so many politicians here tonight who have served at the Ministry of Agriculture that I feel deprived. I have never myself held an agriculture brief, though I once had something to do with milk. I went from education in Government, where I worked on the three Rs, to shadowing the Treasury in Opposition where I learned what Labour Chancellors mean by the three Rs— “This is ours, that is ours, everything is ours” . [end p1]

It was also at that time that I had the job of fighting the Government's Capital Transfer Tax proposals. It was one of your members who best summed up our opposition to that measure when he said that he had wanted his son to share in his business, but it looked as though the Government was going to beat his son to it. [end p2]

“As the male strawberry said to the female strawberry, we used to be in the same bed together, now we are in the same jam.”

As you know, more and more of our opponents are developing a love of the land. You will remember that Liberal song from the beginning of the century—sung by the old Labour Party— “God gave the land to the people” . Of course, recently he has been a bit more selective. He has been giving the land to Labour Ministers.

However, I always try to be generous and charitable to my opponents. And one reason why I want to see that the agricultural industry has a secure and prosperous future is so as to make proper provision for one or two people who are going to be taking up farming full-time after the next Election. [end p3]

You have timed this dinner particularly well. It is good of you, Sir Henry, to lay on a celebration at such short notice ([Note by MT] Impartial—just right.) You must have had great faith in our ability to persuade all the minority parties to follow our lead and vote to defeat the government.

Start of press release: ‘The outcome of last night's vote.’

It was more than a defeat over the Green Pound. It was an expression of no confidence in the Government's agricultural policy, by those who have British farming at heart.

The John SilkinMinister has accepted the decision of the House of Commons with bad grace. [end p4]

He has now had to argue the Conservative policy in Brussels, though he warned us today, not in the House, over the radio, that he intends to do so “selectively” !

He chose to react to our victory with an angry charge about raising food prices. But it has yet to be explained how he could have argued for a 5%; devaluation at half past four on Monday afternoon but, by half past ten that evening, have concluded that his 5%; would not have affected prices, but that our 7½%; would!

Still, I am not here to gloat over the discomfiture of the Government. Rather, I want to explain why we forced a debate on the Green Pound and took it to the vote; [end p5] and why we believe that better prices for farmers are in the best interest of producers and consumers and the nation.

There is a basic difference of approach which divides my Party from the Socialists. They are concerned with the short run, we with the long term.

If we did not devalue the Green Pound, food prices to the consumer and the food processing industry would be a little lower.

Fine! you say. But for how long? [end p6]

Not for very long. Because, with present prices, many of our livestock farmers are losing money; some are going out of business; others will follow if things go on as they are.

The Minister should learn that you don't feed a country by ruining its farmers.

It may be argued that farmers ought to be able to compete in the market. So they should. But in what market, and on what terms, and with whom? Our farmers are being asked to compete not on equal terms, but against heavily subsidised competitors. Other European farmers cash in on the subsidies, ours have to carry the losses.

And if our farmers are squeezed out of business now, what will happen later on? [end p7]

For farming is a long-term business. Damage it now, and you reduce its potential in years to come. The present government will not be here in years to come; but we shall, the next generation of our people will.

The next generation will need a prosperous farming industry able to meet a fair share, a growing share of home demand at reasonable, competitive prices.

True, this year, next year, the year after, with North Sea Oil money coming in, we could afford to import more food and damn the British farmer. But in twenty years time—not long in a nation's life—some, or almost all, of the oil may be gone. [end p8]

Where should we be then if our agriculture were gone too?

Suppose that we had been dealing with the balance between home production and imports of cars, television tubes, textiles, footwear. Can you imagine the uproar—and justifiably—in industrial towns up and down the country? Would not Socialist MPs be claiming that jobs were being destroyed by subsidised imports dumped on our shores? But when subsidised foodstuffs are destroying the livelihood of our farmers—is that different? Not to us.

If you ruin the farmer now, for the sake of a halfpenny on the Retail Price Index, you not only undermine our future capacity to produce our food: you destroy values that go far beyond economics. [end p9]

Farming provides an vital element in the life of the nation: continuity from generation to generation, balance between town and country. Most farmers are family farmers, rooted in the countryside, linking past with future, independent as far as it is possible to be in our over-governed state.

We are determined that they should remain so. We wish our opponents shared our aspirations. But they seem to see things differently. [end p10]

For their main aim is to increase the power of the State over the individual. The farmer, the independent family farmer, is an obstacle to this aim; and long may he remain so. If all that was needed for farming prosperity was a marriage between agriculture and the State, then Russia would be feeding the world. But under a collectivist regime she depends on the free countries to feed her people.

The effect of Capital Transfer Tax, the proposed Wealth Tax, the threatened nationalisation of the land, would lead to a one-generation society, to the end of the independent farmer as we have known him. [end p11]

In the short run, food prices will rise a little. We knew this when John Peyton embarked on the campaign in November. But in the long run, issues of such magnitude are at stake that we should never forget them when we debate more immediate matters.

One such matter which has been exercising your thoughts is the apparent conflict of interest between those who produce food, those who process it, those who distribute it, and those who consume it. Each group has its own problems, but they cannot all advance their fortunes at the expense of one another. [end p12]

It is not the business of politicians to please everyone. That would be impossible. It is our business to try to do justice to everyone.

Those who seek a fair deal for themselves will, I know, be prepared to give a fair deal to others.

Nowhere is this truer than in the case of farming. Farmers, their suppliers—who also employ workers—food processors and distributors are mutually dependent and are natural allies. And remember without a strong home agriculture, our food processors and consumers would be excessively dependent on the uncertainties of the world market. [end p13]

Interdependence goes even further. Agriculture depends on the overall strength of the economy. Had the pound remained strong and able to look the other European currencies in the face—which it could have done had our economy matched theirs—there would have been little or no Green Pound problem. For the Green Pound problem stems from the pound's weakness, which in turn stems from British industry's lack of productivity, from excessive government expenditure and interference.

But whatever the causes of these ills, the British farmer, with his own splendid record of productivity and innovation is the last person who ought to be made to pay for the shortcomings of others. [end p14]

It is tempting to blame the EEC, another of the Socialists' bogeymen. But the EEC is not to blame; the EEC is what you make of it. It is the British Government, not the EEC, which has distorted the value of the Green Pound. The EEC accepts the value we give it.

They will do so now, when Mr Silkin puts it to them in Brussels. He has chosen to forget what he must have known when he himself made the proposal to devalue by 5%;. That the difference between his proposal and ours amounted, at most, to one sixth of one penny in the £1 on the cost of living. [end p15] [Manuscript addition by MT]

At least that's I expected [sic] He seems to have misunderstood the very clear guidance he was given by the House of Commons. [Typescript resumes]

And this complaint from a government which itself has already devalued the £1 in your pocket by 46p.

But I am used to seeing the government attack us either for having no policies at all, or for having policies which they claim would lead to disaster, and then finally accepting most of what we have been saying all along.

We were criticised in some quarters for bringing out The Right Approach, our policy statement, so early. But I sometimes wonder what the government would have done without it. Over past months they have taken some of our advice: on public spending and education, on housing and defence—and now on agriculture. [end p16]

It now seems that they are shortly going to take our advice on taxation, on profit-sharing, on a fairer deal for small businesses.

So it is not surprising that over the past year deterioration has slowed down. Conservative policies do work. Yet I am sure you will understand if I say that it is about time that we had a government that believed in what it was doing, did it in time, and did it in full.

I understand from what I read in the papers that we shall have that government shortly, perhaps in October. It cannot come a moment too soon. [end p17]

Farming and its way of life are threatened.

They are part of our national heritage.

They encourage those qualities which have contributed so much to the tradition that is Britain.

Independence, enterprise, skill, hard work and responsibility.

And just as we conserve the best buildings because they represent the history of our nation—so we must conserve the best values for they are the foundation of our national character. They are the basis on which democracy itself is built. [end p18]

Let politicians and people alike heed the words of the poet. This great heritage:

“That which thy fathers bequeathed thee, earn it anew if thou woulds't possess it.”

In that spirit and with high hopes for the future, I give you the toast ‘British Agriculture and the NFU.’