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.




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:


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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David Cameron’s starter homes: poor policy, but good politics

David Cameron's electoral coalition of buy-to-let retirees and dual-earner couples remains intact: for now.

The only working age demographic to do better under the Coalition was dual-earner couples – without children. They were the main beneficiaries of the threshold raise – which may “take the poorest out of tax” in theory but in practice hands a sizeable tax cut to peope earning above average. They will reap the fruits of the government’s Help to Buy ISAs. And, not having children, they were insulated from cuts to child tax credits, reductions in public services, and the rising cost of childcare. (Childcare costs now mean a couple on average income, working full-time, find that the extra earnings from both remaining in work are wiped out by the costs of care)

And they were a vital part of the Conservatives’ electoral coalition. Voters who lived in new housing estates on the edges of seats like Amber Valley and throughout the Midlands overwhelmingly backed the Conservatives.

That’s the political backdrop to David Cameron’s announcement later today to change planning to unlock new housing units – what the government dubs “Starter Homes”. The government will redefine “affordable housing”  to up to £250,000 outside of London and £450,000 and under within it, while reducing the ability of councils to insist on certain types of buildings. He’ll describe it as part of the drive to make the next ten years “the turnaround decade”: years in which people will feel more in control of their lives, more affluent, and more successful.

The end result: a proliferation of one and two bedroom flats and homes, available to the highly-paid: and to that vital component of Cameron’s coalition: the dual-earner, childless couple, particularly in the Midlands, where the housing market is not yet in a state of crisis. (And it's not bad for that other pillar of the Conservative majority: well-heeled pensioners using buy-to-let as a pension plan.)

The policy may well be junk-rated but the politics has a triple A rating: along with affluent retirees, if the Conservatives can keep those dual-earner couples in the Tory column, they will remain in office for the forseeable future.

Just one problem, really: what happens if they decide they want room for kids? Cameron’s “turnaround decade” might end up in entirely the wrong sort of turnaround for Conservative prospects.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.