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28 February 2024

Mark Drakeford doesn’t understand Wales

The First Minster’s socialism is numb to the realities of Welsh life – just look at farming.

By Will Lloyd

It is hard to imagine a political battle with such divergent protagonists. On one side Mark Drakeford, the outgoing Welsh First Minister; on the other, thousands of Welsh farmers who are revolting against his government’s proposed Sustainable Farming Scheme (SFS). Drakeford, the former academic and social worker, is a creature of windowless conference rooms and dreary party political meetings. If you asked artificial intelligence to generate an image of an “impossibly bland sociologist”, it would send back a Drakeford mugshot. The most telling fact about him, a fascinating and under-discussed figure, is this: during the pandemic, when Drakeford vanquished Covid by banning Welsh supermarkets from selling toys, he told an interviewer that he was isolating in a miniature hut at the bottom of his garden, away from his family. He seemed delighted.

The Welsh farmers who help to feed this country did not have the option of sitting out Covid in tiny sheds. I imagine they were quite busy. Few groups in Britain are as reliant on the whims of regulators, markets, negotiators, shifting ideological fashions and politicians as they are; few groups are as powerless. Their protests in recent weeks, which mirror similar rebellions in continental Europe and were unerringly foreseen in Michel Houellebecq’s choppy 2019 novel Sérotonine, have attracted little attention in the rest of Britain.

In contrast with other recent social justice movements, the Welsh farmers have not hijacked the headlines. They have not been invited to guest-edit magazines in London. Their grievances have not led to so-called reckonings on the boards of publishing houses, charities, the civil service, arts institutions or the BBC. Perhaps the demonstrations of the kind we have seen in Wales – with tractors blocking roads and the storming of political meetings – would be headline news were they being organised by a more appealing demographic group than the poor old Welsh.

Not that the farmers seem bothered by Britain’s inattention. “Wherever Drakeford and his colleagues go, they will find tractors on the roads and people on the streets,” a Pembrokeshire dairy producer told the Daily Mail. “I’ve been farming my whole life, and have never known anger like it.”

They have every right to be angry. The SFS, which will be phased in from 2025, is supposed to replace the old, pre-Brexit EU subsidies. As with many other Labour schemes in Wales, it is also designed to fight the “climate and nature emergency”. The farmers who receive the money must give 10 per cent of their land away to tree planting. Another 10 per cent must also be given back to nature as wildlife habitat. Welsh farmers are effectively being told to stop farming a fifth of the land they own, a development that is unlikely to make much difference to the climate emergency but will ensure that many go out of business.

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The SFS’s own impact assessment suggests the policy could lead to the loss of 5,500 jobs – one in nine people who work in Welsh agriculture. When farmers in Europe blockaded roads with their tractors earlier this year, they were protesting a diktat that asked them to set between 4 and 7 per cent of land aside for environmental purposes. The SFS is three to five times more taxing. Drakeford has called the plan “unavoidable” due to Brexit, while acidly describing protesters in Rhyl as people with “nothing better to do, apparently”. He does not believe the farmers have a right to decide what to do with the subsidy. A poll found that just 3 per cent of them trust Drakeford’s government.

There are many criticisms that can be made of the SFS. The most common, made by the farmers themselves, blame the policy on the “eco brigade”: Extinction Rebellion and sundry NGOs with an interest in climate justice. But in truth, browsing the 90-page consultation document behind it, the SFS is a classic Drakeford policy. Its proposals include the surreal suggestion that farmers take online personal development courses. There are stipulations regarding the height and width of hedgerows. Every farmer must build two large ponds on their property. The SFS is like a manual for piano playing written by somebody who cannot read music. It is profoundly, hermetically numb.

That chilly remoteness is the hallmark of Drakeford’s six years in office. He assumed power in 2018, promising to follow the “radical socialist traditions” of flashier Labour Welshmen such as Aneurin Bevan. Drakeford is the only Corbynite to ever hold significant power in Britain. As such, his six years as First Minister stand as both a hallucinatory alternate universe where Corbyn actually governed the country and a possible future blueprint for what Drakeford calls “21st-century socialism”.

It is a puzzling kind of ideology. Drakeford strangles the speed limit for cars. He bans the building of crucial infrastructure. He brings in punitive levies on tourists and 300 per cent taxes on holiday homes. Proposals to ban the sale of coffee to under-16s were agonisingly mulled over in the Senedd. Yes, Drakeford has overseen a shift towards state intervention and ownership. But the Welsh economy has barely noticed and droops behind almost every other part of the country, ranking 11th out of the 12 UK nations and regions.

There will be many demands on Keir Starmer to indulge in Drakeford-style socialism in the years ahead: to prioritise the fantasies of urban policymakers over the realities of rural people, to be guided by abstract dogmas rather than the needs of workers and their families. The chaotic evidence of Drakeford’s Wales suggests these are demands he should ignore.

[See also: The prime minister for victims]


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This article appears in the 28 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The QE Theory of Everything

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