Wednesday 16 March 2016

Not much of an argument

It’s not often that I find myself defending the leader of the Conservative Assembly group; in fact it may even be a first.  But yesterday’s attack on him for alleged hypocrisy in accepting payments under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) whilst advocating leaving the EU seemed to me to be more than a little misplaced.  I see no inconsistency between arguing for a different way of doing things on the one hand and making the best of the current situation on the other.  It would be unkind of me (although that won’t stop me) to point out that the criticism seems to be coming mostly from his own party, but whoever is doing it, attacking him personally for accepting farm subsidies from the EU which are not currently available from the UK Government is a long way removed from grown-up debate.  

(A more accurate accusation of hypocrisy would compare his support for farming subsidies to well-off farmers such as himself with his opposition to benefit payments for the poorest in society.  When is a benefit not a benefit? The answer, it seems, is that it depends on to whom it is being paid.)
The spokesperson for Davies is entirely correct to say that the money is effectively funded from the UK’s contributions; and those campaigning for a ‘leave’ vote are equally right in saying that, freed of having to pay the money into the EU, the UK government could simply make the payments direct to UK farmers.  There is no magic money tree in Brussels from which the money springs forth, no more than there is a magic money tree in London from which the block grant to the Assembly springs forth.  In effect, making payments to ‘Brussels’ (or any central government) is, in part, a redistributive mechanism; all countries make payments in and all countries receive payments out, but the proportion of receipts is not the same as the proportion of payments.
On the question of the flow of funds to Wales, the ‘remainers’ are repeatedly asking us to accept that we can trust Brussels more than London to pass funding on to Wales.  I happen to think that they are right on that question (which, incidentally, is part of the reason for a nationalist being more supportive of membership of the EU than of the UK); but that’s because I see the EU as being instinctively more redistributive than the UK.  (It’s not as redistributive as I’d wish, but we’re dealing here with the two options which are on the table, rather than what I might wish for.) 
The issue does, though, draw attention yet again to one of the weaknesses of the ‘remain’ campaign.  I just don’t feel that repeatedly telling us ‘you can trust Brussels more than you can trust us’ is the cleverest argument to be putting.  Politicians supporting continued membership of the EU seem almost afraid to put the underlying argument – that of a deliberately redistributive policy – before us, but that is, in essence, the real difference on this issue.  The ‘leavers’ are playing an essentially selfish hand – we can keep all our money and not pay any to those foreigners across the water - whilst the ‘remainers’ are effectively arguing for a system of active aid to the poorest regions of the EU.  But instead of putting that argument of principle, which actually equates Wales with other countries and nations within the EU and argues for the institution in principle, the ‘remainers’ are responding to selfishness by trying to put a selfish spin on their line as well – ‘we (Wales) will do better in than out’.  It’s not an argument which does much for me.
On the specific of the CAP, there’s another point as well.  As a rule, I tend to argue that trying to predict whether something will or will not change in the future is a dodgy business.  In principle, we can no more be certain that the CAP will continue unchanged than we can be certain that the UK Government would simply replace the CAP subsidies with UK subsidies.  I’ll make an exception in this case, though.  Despite the widespread understanding and agreement that the CAP needs to change, there are so many vested interests and obstacles to change that I think we can be reasonably certain that we will see no significant change any time soon.  However, arguing that the EU is sclerotically unable to make necessary changes doesn’t strike me as the most brilliant argument for continued membership either.


Democritus said...

I see the perverse and murderous Common Agricultural Policy as the single best argument for leaving. It keeps our food prices high by keeping cheaper foodstuffs from Africa and the rest of the world off our shelves and it holds back african farmers from moving beyond subsistence to more efficient and productive farming integrated with the transport and processing infrastructure to bring fresh produce to first world consumers. Andrew RT Davies is to be commended for his unfarmerlike vision to able to see beyond his own farm and willing to pay the price in terms of his own business for the wider benefit of humanity.

John Dixon said...

I'm not going to defend the CAP overall; thee's a great deal wrong with it. I'm not as convinced as you seem to be that the solution is to stop all protection for EU farmers and depend on imported food, but this isn't reallt the place for a detailed debate about agricultural policy.

Call me a cynic, but somehow, I very much doubt that the motivation for the position taken by Davies is a "vision to able to see beyond his own farm and willing to pay the price in terms of his own business for the wider benefit of humanity", although I'd actually be delighted if it turned out that he was so motivated.