Lib Dems' tax plans would deliver another KO punch
Anyone who has been struggling to cope with the after-shocks of the banking collapse and the economic crisis it sparked would have been heartened by the Chancellor's message to the Conservative conference.
George Osborne's "steady as she goes" speech put me in mind of Churchill's observation after the Battle of Britain: that it was not the beginning of the end but quite possibly the end of the beginning.
There is some room for optimism – he didn't mention the phrase "green shoots", which has come to stand for "false dawn" after John Major over-employed it. And while some of his more ambitious targets may seem very distant indeed at the moment, there is plenty of evidence from the economy that the country is getting back on its feet after having suffered a knockout punch.
The same, I am happy to say, goes for farming. I detect a definitely cheerier mood than I did a year ago. But the industry is still in a fragile state. Beef prices have risen and are remaining firm, but only in many cases because of shortness of supply. Lamb is holding up well, with signs that consumers' slightly improved spending power is enabling them to find a little extra to pay for a product they now realise is vastly superior to anything arriving from New Zealand.
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Cereal growers will have made up much, if not all, of the ground they lost to the weather last year and while they may not be contemplating record yields, they can certainly relax a little. And the same goes for fruit and vegetable growers, right down to the cider sector.
We still have to sort out the problem of TB, but the Government has proved it is determined to start putting right the effects of 13 years of neglect by Labour and is attacking the issue head-on.
But perhaps it's this picture of the sun starting to shine more brightly on British agriculture that has prompted the Lib Dems to call for agricultural land and buildings and forestry land to be taxed. It's an old "tax the wealthy" measure straight out of the socialist handbook. But it's a policy that could only be advanced by a party whose knowledge of the countryside and rural issues is almost as limited as Labour's.
The Lib Dems, from their position of near-ignorance, seem to think that farms run themselves. Thanks to Gregg Wallace's excellent Harvest television series, millions more Britons now recognise the reality: that being a farmer is no sinecure. It is all about skill, knowledge, dedication and sheer hard graft – and occasionally heartbreak.
Fortunately, the other half of the coalition realises that and acknowledges that farms are the backbone of the rural economy. We are the driver that keeps the cogs turning, feeds money into thousands of small businesses, provides employment, keeps the place looking smart for tourists so they come and spend their money.
Perhaps it's the single payment that the Lib Dems object to. Perhaps they view it as money for old rope. What they cannot grasp is that without it many, many farmers' balance sheets would be written in an even deeper shade of red than they are now because of the supermarkets' desire to persuade shoppers that food can still be produced cheaply.
I remember some misguided NFU official who had never picked up a shovel in his life suggesting when the single farm payment arrived that farmers should not include it in their balance sheets but set it aside in some kind of rainy day fund. Supermarkets, he said, would soon realise that with the abolition of direct food subsidies farmers would need to get more for their produce and prices would automatically rise. I and the rest of the industry are still waiting for this wonderful philosophy to become reality.
Farming is already carrying enough of a financial burden. The costs of running a farm are enormous.
Tax the cash cow of the rural economy and the whole of the countryside would be thrown out of kilter. Jobs would go, enterprises would be downsized, farmers who have never made much of a profit would simply walk away from the industry at the thought of being forced into the red.
The industry would be knocked to the canvas again. And this time there would be no guarantee it would ever manage to get up.