In this week’s New Statesman: The cheap food delusion

Colin Tudge on a food chain out of control. PLUS: Lord Ashcroft profiled.

Colin Tudge: The global food chain is out of control

Colin Tudge, author of Good Food for Everyone Forever and co-founder of the Campaign for Real Farming and the Oxford Real Farming Conference, writes a searing report on the state of a globalised food chain built to “maximise wealth” with scant regard for consumer welfare. He writes: “...the whole, ever more complicated global food chain is absolutely not under control.”

If agriculture in Britain and around the world were designed to do what most people innocently suppose is its job – to provide us all with good food without wrecking the environment at large and driving our fellow creatures to extinction – it would not resemble what we have now...

Horseburgers perhaps are just a scam that was waiting to happen but far worse disasters are waiting to happen, too.

As things are, despite the soothing words from on high, they are inevitable: not accidents at all, but systemic. We have already seen far worse.

Tudge reminds that these events are the “inevitable” outcome of industry “shortcomings” –  “...not accidents at all, but systemic. We have already seen far worse.” He recalls disasters like the foot-and-mouth outbreak of 2001 and the mad cow disease (BSE) of 1986, a “home-grown” epidemic that “began with cost-cutting just the same”.

Tudge sees a radical solution in downsizing, arguing:

We need nothing less than an agrarian renaissance...

If we in Britain did set out to grow our own food we could easily be self-reliant; so could most countries in the world.... “Self-reliant” does not mean “self-sufficient”; naturally, we should continue to import tea, coffee, oranges, bananas, cinnamon and nutmeg... But we should not be reliant on imported meat, and certainly should not be scouring the world for whatever is cheapest...

 

Lord Ashcroft: The Tory Kingmaker

This week Andrew Gimson, author of Boris: the Rise of Boris Johnson, profiles Lord Ashcroft, the self-made Tory billionaire who can supply the ammunition to destroy the Prime Minister. Ashcroft initially agreed to be interviewed then, but then requested the interview be conducted over email.

“It turned out that Ashcroft did not really wish to see me,” writes Gimson. “He had closed the discussion down before it even got started. This guardedness is a deeply ingrained characteristic.”

Gimson quotes Ashcroft who, when describing himself in his book Dirty Politics, Dirty Times (2005), wrote: “I am a private rather than a secretive man.” Gimson also queries Ashcroft on his “second political career” – the Lord’s “significant” commitment to poling:

As Ashcroft relates: “Almost overnight I became fascinated by polling and by what could and could not be achieved by the process. In no time at all, I was a polling bore.

Later on Andrew Mitchell describes what it was like to travel with Ashcroft – the two visited 24 countries together when Mitchell was shadow development secretary. Mitchell said:

He’s a very good friend of mine. He is brilliant company and has a tremendously wicked sense of humour which makes him all the more enjoyable to spend time with. He is a very good friend and a truly terrible enemy. He has an elephantine memory, which of course is even worse in an enemy, because it means he never forgets.

Ashcroft once compared himself politically to “a lion stalking its prey” – and GImson writes that some in the party find “the ruthlessness with which he denounces those who have offended him is a bit off-putting”:

Some Tories resent his power and find him “ruthless” and “repellent”. They feel that he is “quite menacing in his personal dealings”, consider him a natural monopolist who wants to buy influence, and say he reminds them of “the villain in a Bond movie”. They reckon he is always “sizing you up and looking for your weaknesses”...

It is easy to imagine that if Ashcroft gets enraged with the government at the same time as the voters he is polling, he could emerge as a tribune of the people...Ashcroft the pollster is now a convincing enough figure to supply the ammunition that could destroy a prime minister.

 

ELSEWHERE IN THE MAGAZINE:

 

Michael Berrett: Long walk to freedom

In the NS Essay this week Michael Barrett, professor of biochemical parasitology at the University of Glasgow, explores the legacy of David Livingstone – explorer and tropical disease researcher – 200 years after his birth. Livingstone’s remarkable travels through Africa eventually killed him, but his research opened the way for great scientific discovery, and his reputation is one of social progressiveness. Barrett begins:

On 1 May 1873, at the age of 60, Dr David Livingstone died while on an ultimately futile quest to identify the source of the River Nile. The deprivations that Livingstone suffered over the 30 years that span his three great expeditions to Africa are astonishing. His first aim had been to bring Christianity to Africa; he died fighting to end the slave trade…

His unyielding Christianity led him to reject the theories of his contemporary and fellow explorer Charles Darwin. Their contributions to cataloguing the natural world were, however, comparable. Livingstone’s published accounts of nature’s wondrous diversity were received with the kind of awe that David Attenborough inspires today…

He learned to speak the languages of those among whom he tried to spread the gospel. He wished to treat Africans with respect; he tested their medicines and embraced many of their customs. He gave his life in the fight against the slave trade. Few European place names were preserved in post-colonial Africa but it is still possible to visit the towns of Livingstone in Zambia and Blantyre in Malawi.

When Kenneth Kaunda, the former president of Zambia, described David Livingstone as the first African freedom fighter, he might just have had a point.

Anthony Seldon: Balls must go

In a guest column this week, Anthony Seldon, co-author of Brown at 10, writes an open letter to the shadow chancellor opining that for the good of himself, his family and the party, “the time has come for you to fall on your sword.”

After 20 unbroken years at the heart of politic... quitting in the next few months until, say, 2017 would undoubtedly benefit your leader, your party, your wife and even yourself. Let me explain...

Read this piece in full on the website now.

 

George Eaton: Miliband’s mansion tax retoxifies the Tory brand

In the politics column this week George Eaton writes on Miliband’s inspired twinning of a popular tax cut (10p tax rate) with a popular tax rise (mansion tax), a move that will “retoxify the Conservative brand while reinforcing the impression of the Lib Dems as the helpless hostages of a Tory clique.”

Read this piece in full on the website now.

 

In the Critics

  • Writer and former television producer David Herman takes aim at the cosy nostalgia of British TV drama. “British television is on a huge nostalgia binge”
  • Our lead book review sees American critic and poet Adam Kirsch write on James Lasdun’s memoir of being stalked, Give Me Everything You Have
  • Jonathan Derbyshire talks to the historian Paul Kennedy in the Books Interview
  • Richard Mabey reviews Field Notes from a Hidden City, an “urban nature diary” by Esther Woolfson
  • Bryan Appleyard reviews The God Argument: the Case Against Religion and for Humanism by A C Grayling
  • David Cesarani reviews Helga’s Diary: a Young Girl’s Account of Life in a Concentration Camp by Helga Weiss
  • Kate Mossman reviews new albums by John Grant and Steve Earle
  • Ryan Gilbey reviews Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder and the screen adaptation of David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas

 

Read about this and much more in our “In the Critics” blog on Cultural Capital

Purchase a copy of this week's New Statesman in newsstands today, or online at: subscribe.newstatesman.com

 

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.