Wednesday 30 September 2020

What is it with Liz Truss and cheese?


Let me start with a full and frank disclosure: I like cheese, and I eat more cheese than is good for me. I am not, however, obsessed with cheese in the way that the International Trade Secretary seems to be. One of her early forays into the comedy circuit world of international trade was her infamous speech at a Tory Party conference in 2016, which (because it’s always worth another watch) is available here. As she makes clear, “That. Is. A. Dis-grace.” Although the disgrace in this speech isn’t really much to do with cheese imports.

Last month, she hailed the new trade deal with Japan, which more or less replicates the deal we previously had as part of the EU. The deal nearly foundered, however, on the vexed question of the Japanese desire for Stilton. Or rather, the lack of such a desire - their desire to eat it didn’t entirely match Truss’ desire to sell it to them. However, an eventual concession by the Japanese now allows the UK to sell them as much Stilton as the Japanese want, although there is, of course, no known mechanism in any trade deal to ensure that people want a product which they regard as being rather odd.

And earlier this month, Truss has dismissed all concerns about a trade deal with the US allowing in hormone-fed cattle or chlorinated chicken by arguing that the deal actually has more to do with shipping ‘artisan cheeses’ across the Atlantic. It’s a statement that demonstrates that her understanding of the dairy industry (to the extent that she has one) far outstrips her understanding of US trade priorities.

Now I don’t want to underestimate the importance of the dairy industry to those who work in it; and its importance is obviously greater here in Wales than it is in the UK as a whole. But cheese accounts for around a third of all dairy produce, which amounts to about 16.9% of agricultural GDP in the UK, which in turn amounts to around 0.61% of UK GDP. Simple mathematics shows us that cheese therefore accounts for around 0.03% of UK GDP. Anyone who believes that a marginal increase in exports in such a small element of such a small sector is going to make up for a Brexit-led slump in trade is either mathematically challenged, or else has been eating too much of the wrong cheeses. Trying to spot the silver lining, at least it's a step forward from one of her predecessors who apparently thought that the UK’s trade would be saved by ‘innovative jam’.


dafis said...

Hard cheese, silly cow Truss is in a bit of a jam, or should that be a bit of a pickle instead ?

Jonathan said...

When I worked for NYK Lines our Japanese colleagues entertained us with fantastic genuine Sukiyaki. At the return match we gave them the full English/London smoked salmon, beef etc. When the Stilton arrived they looked sceptically at it and said "But this is mould!".
In 2016 candidate Trump did a "Town Hall" in Wisconsin. Wide variety of questions on education, help for small companies, health plans etc. With each question Trump asked for context. The context was: education = "Cheese training", small companies "Cheese making", health plans - yes, you guessed it. Wisconsin/US cheese is not chlorinated. It is not a health risk like their supermarket salads. But the cheese is very very bland.

John Dixon said...


I rather suspect that Ms Truss envisaged cheese as an export not an import...

Jonathan said...

Yes, she probably did. Which means she does not understand international trade.Truss and others might fancy exporting Stilton to Japan. Non-tariff barrier = that "mould"! More so in the case of US Trade. She is not the only Brit who thinks that the Americans defer to us because we do irony, culture and history and Americans don't; that they will let us export to them but we won't have to import from the US. Well she's forgetting that Americans beat "England" in 2 wars and are proud of it. Truss might fancy getting Stilton and Cheddar etc into the US, a modest vision as you say. Two problems. The US is protectionist - so they banned Welsh lamb using BSE/Chernobyl as the non-tariff barrier excuse. In fact they simply protected Rocky Mountain Lamb for 20+ years. Second, the Americans will demand a big quid pro quo - the UK would have to import loads of Wisconsin mild or New York Sharp (in fact blunt!). And you can't really say our US Cousins (including my wife) are wrong. Trump will follow the American way of doing Trade deals, just more effectively. Wouldn't Wales love a Welsh leader kicking a door down to promote Welsh exports? Can you suggest a name though?

John Dixon said...

"...she does not understand international trade" that maybe ever so slightly understated!

"...not the only Brit who thinks that the Americans defer to us because we do irony, culture and history... [and] ...that they will let us export to them but we won't have to import from the US" I think it's actually worse than that. They seem to have some strange belief that because the US (along with Canada, New Zealand and Australia) speak 'English', then they somehow have a natural affinity with 'the motherland' which will make them a soft touch. The naivete would be almost touching, if it weren't for the jobs and livelihoods about to be sacrificed in the process of learning just how wrong that view is.

"Wouldn't Wales love a Welsh leader kicking a door down to promote Welsh exports? Can you suggest a name though?" Given that the impending loss of substantial proportions of existing exports makes current leaders look more like rabbits in the headlights than agents of their own fate, no obvious names from the current crop spring to mind.