Much More Than Just A “Peasants’ Revolt”

13 mins. to read
Much More Than Just A “Peasants’ Revolt”
Jakob Berg /

Tractor Turmoil

During the last week of January and the first week of February, farmers travelled from all corners of the EU to make their presence felt in the heart of Brussels, the seat of the European Commission. The disturbances in Brussels were mirrored across the bloc. In France, farmers blocked the main highways into Paris with tractors, threatening to deprive the French capital of food supplies. Similar but less dramatic farmers’ protests occurred across France, Germany Italy, Spain, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Belgium and the Netherlands. Chestnuts and apples were dumped on the streets of Thessaloniki.

In the Netherlands, a farmers’ protest party is on the threshold of power. In the Dutch regional elections of March last year, the Farmers-Citizen Movement (BBB) won a landslide victory to become the largest political party in all 12 Dutch provinces. Farmers – and voters – were incensed by the then government of Mark Rutte’s plans to close down farms in order to hit climate targets. As a direct consequence, Mr Rutte’s coalition government collapsed last July. That precipitated a general election in December last year in which Geert Wilders’ “right-wing” Party for Freedom (PVV) emerged triumphant.

The outcome of the Dutch general election is still in process, but it seems that Wilders – a man who was banned from entering the UK under the government of Gordon Brown because of his “extremist” views – will emerge as a key player in the new government. And the BBB is likely to be a pillar of any Wilders-led coalition. For this reason, many left-inclined political commentators have drawn a connecting line between “populist” political parties which focus on immigration, climate sceptics and farmers. This is further alienating farmers from the political mainstream.

The reason why the farmers’ revolt originally started in the Netherlands – way back in 2019 when 2,000 tractors descended on the Hague to protest against plans to restrict nitrogen emissions and to cut livestock numbers – is that the country, despite being geographically smaller than its neighbours, is one of the biggest exporters of agricultural products in Europe. The Dutch pioneered growing vegetables under glass and then hydroponics. They have been at the forefront of land reclamation and drainage technology for centuries. Food production is central to the Dutch economy.

In France, President Emmanuel Macron has ordered his new Prime Minister, Gabriel Attal, to forestall a potential jacquerie (peasants’ revolt). President Macron understands that the French farmers’ protests, which have already claimed two lives, could be even more destabilising that the revolt of the gilets jaunes in 2018-19. For his part, Monsieur Attal declared that “We shall put agriculture above everything else” – this in a country where farmers are widely thought to have been historically favoured by Paris.

In Italy, an organisation called the Committee of Betrayed Farmers promised a state of “national mobilisation”. In Spain, the Union of Unions which represents the country’s disparate farming organisations, has promised new protests across 15 cities for 21 February. Vox, Spain’s third largest party which is sometimes labelled “far right”, has vowed that, given power, it would repeal Spain’s legal pledge to get to net zero carbon. Isabel Diaz Ayuso, the president of the Madrid region, has called the net zero agenda “a scam impoverishing more and more citizens”.

In Germany, Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s plan to cut tax breaks for farmers, in particular on diesel, ignited an explosion of protest. Thousands of tractors descended on Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate. Piles of animal dung were left outside the offices of the parties participating in Germany’s Red-Yellow-Green “Traffic Lights” coalition government. In Greece, farmers are angry that the government has not honoured a promise to compensate them for the devastating forest fires of last summer.

Championed by EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, the EU has set itself the target of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050 (as has the UK). Von der Leyen’s Green Deal seeks to slash the use of pesticides and fertilisers by 20 percent. It also plans to render about one quarter of Europe’s farmland “organic” and a large swathe of it fallow in an attempt to increase biodiversity. These measures greatly reduce the output that farmers can achieve and consequently their incomes.

This programme is now likely to be an issue in the elections for the European Parliament which will play out over 06-09 June this year. Eurosceptic parties are quite likely to win those elections in Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and Slovakia.

The farmers’ rebellion overlays a European political landscape fraught with Angst. Europe has an immigration crisis. Several countries – most significantly Spain – are embroiled in permanent political crisis; Germany is in recession. The “populist” right is on the march. And now the countryside is up in arms against the city.

And it’s not just Europe. On Wednesday (14 February) thousands of farmers marched towards New Delhi to demand better prices for their crops. State police attempted to keep them out of the capital, firing tear gas and arresting protestors. This rural unrest comes just months before the general election in which Prime Minister Narendra Modi is predicted to win a third term. In India about 60 percent of the national population works in agriculture which contributes about 18 percent of gross domestic product.

Underlying Causes

Why are Europe’s farmers so angry? Essentially, there are three reasons.

First, new EU-imposed environmental regulations are making farmers’ lives more difficult. French farmers resent the bureaucratisation of farming and the imposition of new taxes on diesel fuel. They think that new EU environmental regulations, over which the French government has no direct control, are being enforced too rigorously. In France, farms are being scanned by drones sent from the ministry of agriculture to identify breaches of regulations. Hedgerows may not be trimmed without permission. They are subject to water restrictions. In any case, many of the EU’s environmental initiatives are controversial. Fields left fallow for years do not automatically emerge as pristine flower meadows. Rather, they can become weed beds which require management.

Second, oligopolistic food retailers – the giant supermarket chains – act as price-makers and often buy produce from European farmers at less than or just equal to the cost of production. It seems that, further to the pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war, the cost of agricultural inputs (normally summarised as the “three fs” – fertiliser, fuel and feedstock) has risen faster than the prices supermarkets are prepared to pay for outputs. That means farmers’ margins have been squeezed. In France, a farmer commits suicide every few days. More are selling up and moving on. When farmers retire, their children are often reluctant to take on the family farm.

Third, European – and indeed, British – farmers bitterly resent the mass importation of cheap foreign foodstuffs such as Brazilian chicken. Less well understood in the UK is how much Eastern European arable farmers resent the import of cheap Ukrainian grain and sugar beet. Given that Russia has stymied the export of Ukrainian grain to Africa, the EU, in a gesture of support, has allowed it to flow into Europe without tariffs – even though Ukraine does not observe the EU’s strict soil management practices. Before the war, about 16 percent of Ukrainian grain production was exported to Europe; now, it is over 50 percent. It is a similar story with Ukrainian chicken.

Collectively, these factors have caused farmers’ living standards to fall. It is paradoxical that while increasing food prices are, together with energy prices, the main driver of the cost-living-crisis experienced by the population at large, farmers have had to endure downward pressure on their living standards. Further, the quality of life that they enjoy has been eroded by ever-increasing paperwork and compliance issues which keep them at their desks rather than in the fields.

I suspect that there are also cultural reasons in play which are not always obvious to economists. Farmers everywhere see themselves as custodians of the land and have historically enjoyed high social status. That is no longer the case.

Farmers are also quite reasonably concerned about food security in a more geopolitically dangerous world. If the world is really divided into citizens of somewhere and citizens of nowhere, farmers are deeply rooted somewheres. Many farmers see themselves as engaged in a bitter conflict with impersonal globalist forces beyond their control. Although many farmers are part of the land-owning elite, they are acting as bulwarks against the perceived threat of a capitalist global elite which does not understand their way of life. They want to preserve a traditional way of life in the face of those who do not value the countryside, and who often wish to pave it over.

Meanwhile, Back In Blighty…

Britain is no longer a member state of the EU – but it was only a matter of time before our own disgruntled farmers decided to join in the agitation, albeit on a smaller scale. Last week, about 40 Kentish farmers driving tractors attempted to blockade the port of Dover by parking their machines on the A2 Jubilee Way. Their spokesman interviewed on BBC Radio 4 claimed that they were protesting against “cheap imported food” – although he was short on detail. British farmers are also perturbed by the government’s Sustainable Farming Incentive Scheme which pays farmers not in accordance with how much food they produce but in line with how much their farms “give back to the environment”. As if farmers were supposed to run nature reserves rather than grow food.

The resentment of cheap foreign imports of foodstuffs is ubiquitous, though the French protest more vociferously. French farmers abhor the import of cheap Spanish tomatoes – mostly produced in massive greenhouse complexes outside Algeciras – but then the Spanish bitterly oppose the import of even cheaper tomatoes from Morocco. Imports of Spanish wine are also much resented in France – hence the hijacking of trucks coming from Spain laden with wine that most British citizens would regard as perfectly quaffable. Spain has both the climatic advantage – and the minimum wage is lower. Near Carcassonne two weeks ago, a tractor upended lorries bringing Lithuanian vegetables – so it’s not just an anti-Spanish thing. I’m even told that many French farmers now consider our national treasure Jeremy Clarkson as a role model.

The irony of the Dover protest is that Kent was a Brexit stronghold. Yet now these Kentish farmers argue that the bilateral trade deals which, post-Brexit, the Conservative government has struck with numerous partners, are inimical to their interests. In particular, the trade deal with our Australian friends threatens to permit the import of cheap beef. The trade deal with New Zealand negotiated by Liz Truss when she was trade minister under Boris Johnson has been criticized as being a much better deal for their farmers than for ours. A parallel deal touted with Canada has now run into the sand over Canadian intransigence over the import of British cheese, which (we are told) our Canadian cousins love. (The trade deal with India seems to be in jeopardy too).

This debate is central to what has gone wrong since Britain left the European Union. There was a protectionist element within the Brexit campaign which believed that, once outside Europe, Britain could nurture its own industries. And then there were the globalist Brexiteers who believed we could just let international competition rip. Under Johnson and Truss, the globalist tendency predominated – much to the detriment of our farmers, many of whom now believe that we would have been better off staying in the EU. What they will all tell you is that, since Brexit, it is easier to import foodstuffs from the world at large – and much more difficult to export them.

There are parallels across the Channel. In Europe, there is controversy about the EU’s attempt to reach a trade deal with the Mercosur trade bloc, made up of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. This would facilitate the import of cheap meat, poultry and sugar which would undercut European producers. It now seems that the new French government has stopped these talks. The EU Commission has also promised to suspend until 2025 the law that would require up to seven percent of farmland to be left fallow.

This week Lincolnshire sheep farmer, Jade Bett, set alight the fleeces sheared from her flock because she was being offered, quite literally, a few pence per fleece. This at a time when we are concerned about the impact of synthetic fibres on the environment and are supposed to be promoting natural fabrics. Market failure, anybody?

The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) president Minette Batters said recently that years of “unsustainably high production costs and crop losses because of extreme weather”, together with cheap supermarket prices, had put British farmers under extreme pressure. All of this has a political fallout. The Tories were traditionally the party of the English shires but could well lose many of their rural seats in the imminent general election.

Under current tax rules, landowners in England benefit from Agricultural Property Relief (APR) which provides exemption from inheritance tax (IHT) on land used to grow crops or rear livestock. That ensures that farms can be passed down the generations intact. However, if that land is given over to rewilding or used for forestry, it becomes subject to IHT at the standard rate of 40 percent. This is at variance with the government’s expressed intention of encouraging farmers to be conservators of nature under the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS). Thus, the Conservative Environment Network (CEN) is urging the Chancellor to overhaul the IHT regime in next month’s Spring Budget. The rules around the imposition of Stamp Duty Land Tax (SDLT) on the purchase of agricultural land are also opaque.

What might Labour do? If Labour is going to impose VAT on school fees, why not on agricultural land too? Or indeed they might slap a wealth tax on people who own nominal assets of, say, £3 million. That would hit all non-tenant farmers who might well then decide to sell up to housebuilders. Maybe that’s what they want – and then we can forget the countryside and just import all our food. (Until supply lines break down in wartime – and we starve).

On the plus side, British agronomists are buzzing with new ideas. Farmer-writers like Jamie Blackett, James Rebanks and Jake Fiennes are talking about regenerative farming, rotational grazing, the use of cover crops to avoid tilling, replanting hedgerows, repairing soil and increasing the biodiversity of insects and birds. They think we can cut down on the use of pesticides and fertilisers without necessarily slashing crop yields. They call it “stewardship”.

We have excellent agriculturalists in this country: the question is whether our politicians will heed them.


In modern England the word “peasant” is used as a term of abuse, even though it has a rich history. In a recent ceremony in which I was conferred the Freedom of the City of London at the Guildhall by the Deputy Clerk (acting on behalf of the Lord Mayor) I was reminded that Freemen, who are gentleman, should not refer to fellow Londoners as peasants. And yet, in French, the word paysan has no such derogatory meaning; in fact, it simply evokes someone who lives within the paysage (countryside or landscape). I have met self-respecting Frenchman in rural France who identify as paysans. In most European countries there are museums of peasant life which celebrate rural culture and its rich traditions.

When exactly was the peasantry written out of English history? Ronald Blythe’s Akenfield (1969) is the last memoir of semi-lettered men with long memories and a deep empathy with the soil, flora and fauna of the land on which they spent their lives, and who harboured ancient, even pre-Christian, superstitions. They spoke with local accents then which have now been almost entirely displaced. Since moving to Norfolk some years ago, I have met just one elderly lady in the village of Southery who still speaks with a traditional Norfolk accent. But the young there, as elsewhere in the countryside today, speak as if they are auditioning for Eastenders.

England’s noble peasantry – the farm hands who fought at Agincourt, the women who ran the dairies for centuries – goes almost completely unremembered, its history erased.

Comments (4)

  • Richard Green says:

    “the country, (Holland) despite being geographically smaller than its neighbours, is one of the biggest exporters of agricultural products in Europe. ”
    The biggest in Europe and only second to the US in the world.

    “These measures greatly reduce the output that farmers can achieve and consequently their incomes.”
    To take a broard view of this other than a personal economic one, it will also reduce the amount of food available to the population and will consequently increase prices as happens when a commodity becomes scarce.
    Wasn’t one of the reasons that the EU was established is to ensure security of food supply?
    A famine or two will no doubt enable the projected UN 2100 world population target to be met.

  • Rob says:

    Another great article.
    We don’t celebrate our pre-Christian history enough.
    Are farmers today the miners of the 1980s ? Both sectors required government subsidies.

  • Cliff Morris says:

    Here endeth the first lesson……… Sir, that was, all things considered, to me an enjoyable and very informative read.
    Many thanks

  • John Davis says:

    Couple of things you overlooked: “Germany is in recession” – so are we. “Europe has an immigration crisis” – so do we.

    As for Dover, if the comments in online local papers are anything to go by, there is bitter regret that they voted to leave the EU and very little appetite indeed to be seen to be in support of Brexit now. Reality wins in the end, but the damage lingers on.

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