When Farmers Grumble
Clare Griffiths reflects on the last time a Labour government faced angry farmers fighting for their livelihood.
In 1930, Labour was in office, and British farming was in trouble. The prices of farm produce had collapsed, land was going out of cultivation, the numbers employed in agriculture were declining, and many farmers faced bankruptcy. In this climate of crisis, the two groups in the industry whose interests seemed more usually to be at odds – the farmers and the farm workers – made rare common cause, coming together in a mass meeting to call on the government for emergency action to save agriculture. An estimated 20,000 gathered at Parker’s Piece in Cambridge on March 1st, 1930, in what was reported as the largest meeting of its kind ever held. Their message to the government was uncompromising:
This mass meeting, representing all sections of the agricultural industry, views with the utmost concern the present position in agriculture [and] desires to place before his Majesty’s Government its unanimous opinion that measures should be taken to assure to farmers a remunerative price for cereals ...unless effective steps are at once taken to meet the situation nothing but calamity faces the industry.
As calamity again faces many of Britain’s farmers in the late 1990s, comparisons are often drawn, by farmers and commentators alike, with the experience of the 1930s. During the Thirties themselves, some farmers had found parallels for their plight by looking back to another depression in farming in the final decades of the nineteenth century.
Farmers have long had a reputation for complaining – for always being ‘on the point of ruin’ even when appearances seem to suggest the contrary – but they have often set their complaints within a historical framework, identifying ways of measuring the level of their distress by looking to the past, whilst lighting on memories and myths of more prosperous times in forming their vision of what agriculture could once more become.