23 July 2023

The crisply styled Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office has rediscovered and, in the modern way of things, rebranded the agricultural attaché. First installed in diplomatic missions after the First World War, not least those of the United States, this officer has re-appeared in some British missions abroad in the last few years as an ‘agri-food-and-drink attaché’; at least one has even been appointed at counsellor rank.

In June 2020 a government plan was announced to promote a ‘bounce back’ from the sufferings during the pandemic of the British agriculture, food and drink industry. As part of this an ‘Agri-food Counsellor’ was appointed to promote its exports in the Gulf, probably based at the so-called ‘British Embassy’ in Dubai (really a consulate-general since the embassy proper is in the UAE capital, Abu Dhabi); and around the same time another was installed in China. They were to report to the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra). In November 2021, it was announced – with the usual wince-inducing hyperbole – that a further eight were to be appointed and ‘placed in key markets to promote Global Britain’s world-leading produce.’ By early 2023 it was confirmed that 11 were in place, covering Africa, Brazil, Canada, China, the Gulf states, India, Japan, Mexico, Thailand, the USA, and Vietnam. Why has there been this determination to place such officers in the country’s overseas missions?

The answer is in the fear of the Conservative Party that it was haemorrhaging support to the Liberal and Labour parties in farming communities, traditionally among its staunchest supporters; it had to be seen to be doing something for them. It is bad enough that British farmers should have been hit hard by developments for which the government had half-way plausible alibis, notably huge increases in energy and fertilizer costs, worrying climatic changes, rising rural crime, and even the pandemic itself. But then to be hammered by Conservative policies as well had brought their anger to fever pitch. Chief among these was the devastating impact of the loss of seasonal workers from the EU, seen most graphically in crops rotting in the fields; the complexity and uncertainty of the national subsidy scheme for farmers that replaced EU subsidies, which is contingent on their generation of public goods rather than the size of their fields; and more recently the trade deals with Australia and New Zealand that increased their exposure to foreign competition in the home market. So much, the farmers reckon, for the ‘sunlit uplands’ of Brexit promised by Boris Johnson. At the annual conference of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) in February 2023 the hapless Environment Secretary, Thérèse Coffey, was booed.

Just how uphill it will be for the Conservatives to regain the trust of farming communities was shown only last week when their hold on the rural parliamentary seat of Somerton and Frome in the West Country was completely shattered by the Liberal Party. In their quest to restore this trust 11 agricultural attachés are unlikely to do much more in the short term than advertise their remorse – and their need. It is true that the increase in the number of these attachés was politely welcomed by the NFU, which promised to work closely with them in a better-late-than-never public statement. Interestingly, too, it has dropped ‘drink’ from the government’s title of ‘agri-food-and drink attachés’, probably thinking that this might give the wrong impression of what these officers are in it for.