Is democracy too good for us farmers?
By Oliver Walston
(Filed: 16/02/2003)

Connoisseurs of the macabre should travel to Warwickshire this week to witness a large and ancient corpse twitch convulsively. I refer, of course, to the annual general meeting of the National Farmers Union, which will take place on Tuesday. If ever an organisation was past its sell-by date, it is the once mighty and now impotent NFU. Rigid in its refusal to allow any semblance of democracy, riven by internal tensions, its income and membership in free-fall, the NFU is this year 99 years old - and shows its age.

It was not always thus. Back in 1904, when the NFU was founded, farming was the single greatest employer in the nation. Today agriculture employs fewer people than hairdressing.

At the beginning of the 20th century most farms in Britain were mixed farms producing both animals and crops, which meant that from Cornwall to Caithness all farmers had fundamentally similar interests, which is why the NFU could genuinely claim to represent the interests of all its members.

Today, after half a century of specialisation, an invisible line runs diagonally across the country, separating the small livestock holdings in the north and west from the larger arable farms in the south and east. The Devon cattleman needs low grain prices to feed his animals while a Cambridgeshire arable farmer like me requires high grain prices to stay afloat. No wonder that within the NFU council fraternal sentiment is in short supply.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that while the small farms of the west provide the bulk of the NFU's membership, the larger operations in the east provide most of its money. If the leadership leans towards the west, it is in danger of losing its income; if it favours the east, it risks losing its members. Meanwhile both factions bicker continuously, neurotically convinced that the union has been captured by their opponents.

The clearest example of how the NFU mindset has remained frozen is seen by the leadership's attitude to democracy: they are against it. In the early days, before the appearance of the crystal set, let alone television and the internet, the NFU revolved around the local branch, to which members would come in their pony traps. These groups would elect a member to sit on the county committee, which in turn would elect an important man to make the long and arduous journey to London to join the council in Agriculture House.

This council is today a tightly-knit oligarchy of 86 self-important men and three women, who ensure that, in the time-honoured tradition of Buggins' Turn, the leadership is selected from within the group. Out of this stagnant pool the president emerges, unsullied by anything as sordid as democracy.

One month ago the council met to consider a request from the Wakefield and Leeds branches, which respectfully suggested that in the 21st century it might not be an entirely bad idea to allow individual members of the NFU to vote for the union's leaders by postal ballot. It asked that the proposition should actually be debated at this week's AGM. The council's response was immediate, unambiguous and predictable: it refused to allow such a motion.

Why, the council wondered, did the ordinary members feel the need for a vote? The president and his acolytes were, after all, elected by the council, which in turn had been elected by the county committees, which in turn had been elected by the local branches. Thus it was abundantly clear that the NFU was already a perfect democratic organisation.

It is doubtful if any of the council members were aware that this was the precise argument used by Stalin to show that he had been democratically elected by the Soviet people. He pointed out that the local party branches sent delegates to the regional congresses, which sent delegates to the Politburo.

Twenty years ago, when TUC leaders tried the same argument on Mrs Thatcher they got short shrift, and the ensuing legislation forced direct elections on the unwilling unions. Since then even the Conservative Party has accepted that its leader should be elected directly by rank and file members. But not the NFU.

Direct democracy will not only encourage younger farmers to take an active part in their union, it will also give the elected president greater credibility and legitimacy when he faces Whitehall or Brussels. But it will also have a less predictable benefits. A directly-elected president will probably come from the west and may well be a man who prefers blocking motorways to having cups of tea in Whitehall. Yet at least he will bring with him a vigour and a blast of fresh thinking that has been missing in the NFU for generations. No wonder the British public increasingly regards farmers as jokes or tragedies. And sometimes both.

  • Oliver Walston is a farmer and broadcaster.
    Kevin Myers is away.