On this day (5 August) 40 years ago, Ronald Reagan taught the political world a chilling lesson: if you want to break an entire movement, you just need to win one fight.
After 11,359 striking air traffic controllers defied his order to return to work, the president terminated their contracts, and barred them all for life from working in federal jobs. Just nine months previously, the controllers’ union had backed Reagan’s bid for the presidency. But when they gambled on his support in their 1981 dispute, he seized the chance to destroy them.
By winning that one battle, Reagan established a template for corporate America to follow. An era of miserly pay deals, mass lay-offs and rising inequality ensued. A study by Wright State University showed the annual wages of unionised workers were significantly lower by 1990 than they would have been without Reagan’s actions.
The US trade unions opposed every move, but corporations were authorised to sack and replace anyone on strike, and so the ability of workers to win those fights was dramatically reduced.
Across the Atlantic in 1981, Margaret Thatcher was taking note, and, like Reagan, set out not just to defeat the miners' strike three years later, but break the entire union movement.
Four decades on, another Tory who calls Ronald Reagan her political hero is trying to pull the same trick. International Trade Secretary Liz Truss seems to believe that embracing untrammelled free trade will unleash another Eighties-style corporate free-for-all in Britain. But, right now, Britain’s farming communities stand in her way.
In recent decades, we have loaded additional cost burdens on the farming industry to meet our concerns on food safety, animal welfare and the protection of our environment. At the same time, farmers have struggled through the BSE crisis, swine flu, avian flu, foot and mouth disease, the Covid-19 pandemic and Brexit, not to mention the relentless pressure on their profits caused by supermarket price wars.
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Any sensible government would recognise that now is the time to give farmers some support and breathing space, understanding the huge pressures, tiny margins and increasingly high production costs they are facing.
But Liz Truss wants her free trade deals. She knows that for other countries, tariff-free, quota-free access to the UK food market is the key negotiating demand. And she appears to be more than willing to give it up, even if that means allowing UK farmers to be undercut by the world’s biggest agricultural corporations, whose industrial feedlots, minimal regulation and rock-bottom production costs give them an unassailable price advantage.
Last year, however, Truss reached too quickly for the prize of a free trade deal with the United States. So poor is the reputation of US farming that thousands signed petitions to stop her and marched on Westminster, and campaign groups from all political corners united in opposition.
A chastened Trade Secretary started again, and has returned with a strategy straight out of Reagan’s playbook. The new fight she has chosen is over deals with Australia and New Zealand, and she is counting on support from the British public to win it. According to her department’s internal polling, net support for those deals stands at 59 per cent, compared to 45 per cent for the United States, or 30 per cent for China.
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City AM recently reported a “source close to Liz Truss” saying the National Farmers Union would shoot themselves in the foot by opposing the deals, given their widespread popularity. No doubt she thinks the Labour Party is making the same mistake.
And yet, just because Truss’s choice of battle has shifted, the issues at stake have not. Britain’s farming communities still face being undercut by the agricultural corporations that dominate Australian and New Zealand farming: corporations who do not meet the same standards required of our farmers, and therefore are not competing on equal terms.
Take climate change: British farmers are taking steps to reach net zero by 2040, while Australia is officially listed as a global deforestation hotspot due to its widespread land-clearing for cattle farming.
British farmers need a level playing field of the kind they currently have with Europe, where the same standards and zero tariffs mean fair competition. They would welcome trade agreements on that basis with countries around the world, as would Labour. But Truss won’t make that demand of Australia and New Zealand, any more than Reagan would do a deal with the striking controllers.
She is determined to win this fight and use her new deals as a template for more one-way agreements with America, Brazil and Canada. The cumulative impact of those deals would destroy British farming as we know it, and once the deal is made with Australia and New Zealand, there is no going back. She knows that very well.
Those of us who care about the safety of our food, the wellbeing of our farming communities, the welfare of our farm animals and the future of our planet need to wake up to it, too. Liz Truss has chosen the fight she thinks she can win. It’s up to us to prove her wrong.