chapter  8
15 Pages

THE DEFENCE OF BRITISH AGRICULTURE

In the second major speech of the tariff campaign proper, Joseph Chamberlain began a tale of economic woe by stating that ‘Agriculture, as the greatest of all trades and industries of this country, has been practically destroyed’.5 For Chamberlain’s contemporaries this was probably one of his least contentious

remarks. Two Royal Commissions and a catalogue of complaints from landowners and farmers had ensured that depression and decline had been the watchwords of almost every discussion of farming in Britain in the late nineteenth century. The tariff campaign continued this story of British agriculture. In 1904, in his book Agriculture and Tariff Reform J.L.Green, the Secretary of the Rural League,6 presented a number of indicators of rural decay. In particular Green noted that the rural population had fallen by 50 per cent in the period 1851-1901, that between 1885-1902 farming had never been lower than fourth in the Board of Trade list of annual bankruptcies by occupation, and that between 1866 and 1903 over five million acres of farmland had passed out of cultivation.7 The accuracy of these figures has been broadly confirmed by historical scholarship, but Green’s conclusion that they showed an industry ‘seriously depressed…for many years’8 has been disputed. The judgement of economic history is that there was no general depression of agriculture, but that there were significant regional variations in the fortunes of British farming.9 To those who voiced concern about the condition of British farming, what was most alarming was agriculture’s decline in terms of the size of the farming sector, its contribution to the national income and the numbers employed on the land.10 Indeed contemporary comment tended to equate depression and decline. In this sense Chamberlain, Green and others in the Conservative ranks who raised the ‘plight’ of agriculture within the framework of the tariff campaign were not concerned simply with current farming income. The issue they raised was in some respects the reverse of the one at stake in the 1840s. The campaign for the repeal of the Corn Laws had in effect asked whether the ‘national interest’ was to be sacrificed to the interests of agriculture. The tariff campaign asked whether it was in the ‘national interest’ to allow a wholesale reduction of the British agricultural sector, and concluded that it was not.