It was, of course, true that some trifling number of the rural
poor - a few hundred thousand at most - lost, in the course of
the enclosures, the ability to feed themselves. But this petty
inconvenience was more than offset by the unrivalled
opportunities with which they were now presented. Many were, for
example, able to enjoy the redeeming virtues of hard work through
the opportunities provided by the landlords. Others were able to
move to the cities, where they could render service to their
country by labouring, in conditions of noble self-sacrifice, for
up to eighteen hours a day in the factories, while receiving a
wage which barely ensured their survival.
For reasons best known to themselves, however, the dispossessed
commoners failed to demonstrate the full measure of their
gratitude for these new opportunities. Far from thanking their
benefactors, they rioted repeatedly, setting fire to hayricks,
damaging the landlords' houses and destroying the new hedges.
Fortunately, justices of the peace were conveniently placed to
deal with this insurrection, for most of them were landowners.
With the help of the yeomanry, they brought the full impartiality
of the law to bear on these impertinent wretches - hundreds were
hanged, transported, or imprisoned for life. Our representatives'
concern for the moral welfare of the people was such that they
begrudged no amount of patient effort in dealing with even the
most inconsequential of these matters. The new capital offences
they introduced allowed rogues who broke windows, pulled down
fences or knocked landlords' hats off their heads to be hanged
for their insolence.
Perhaps the agricultural labourers who remained so strangely
ungrateful for the new prosperity introduced to the countryside
failed to understand that the high price the landowners continued
to receive for their grain was good for the agricultural economy,
as was the reduction of the workers' negligible wages. Indeed,
thousands of those who starved to death utterly failed to
comprehend how beneficial these arrangements were.
To ensure that they persisted, the representatives who had
forgone the selfish pursuit of petty politics in deference to the
King of Brobdingnag's wishes, passed, from 1815 onwards, a new
series of far-sighted Acts. The Corn Laws ensured that landowners
would always find a good price for their grain, as they forbade
the importation of foreign wheat until domestic prices had fallen
below a certain level - in other words, grain could only be
imported when it was least needed.
Having thus secured the viability of the agricultural sector, our
reformed politicians then concentrated on stimulating the economy
still further by selflessly squandering their money. While the
peasants starved for want of enterprise, the landlords sought to
demonstrate to them what the fruits of hard labour could deliver,
by means of balls and banquets, fine clothes and follies, brandy,
hunting and whoring.
When the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, so short-sightedly
sought to restrain the enterprise economy by repealing the Corn
Laws, the honourable members demonstrated their disgust at this
blatant attempt to mix politics with the imperative of food
production, by opposing him as best as they were able. At length
however, his revolutionary tendencies, so cunningly concealed
earlier in his career, prevailed. Thanks to his reckless
measures, both the stick of starvation and the carrot of opulence
became less compelling incentives to the improving discipline of
unstinting labour. To ensure, however, that politics and food
production remained wholly separate affairs, agricultural
labourers were denied the vote until 1884.
Over the next one hundred years, land holding in England was
gradually rationalised. Today, with one of the highest
concentrations of ownership in the world, our landlords are a
source of enduring pride to the nation. Their approach to
agriculture combines the best of modern technology and
traditional values. Sensibly, they have no truck with such
ephemeral conceits as democratic accountability, landscape
protection or market mechanisms, but plough on irrespective of
such fads. Our politicians, meanwhile, have remained
patriotically committed to sustaining the triumphant pace of
After the Second World War, the British government decided that
our vulnerable nation should never again be dependent on imports
of basic foods for its sustenance. So, to free us from he
necessity of buying foreign grain, it subsidised the purchase of
machinery, pesticides and fertiliser, and the resulting
transformation of the industry. Fortunately for international
trade, nearly all of our tractors and chemicals are imported.
Though we would swiftly starve in the unfortunate event of war,
the degree of technological innovation on our farms should be a
source of admiration. Britain is now such an advanced nation that
she employs fewer people in farming as a proportion of her
population than does the city state of Hong Kong.
In introducing these changes, we have dispensed with many
cumbersome and unnecessary obstacles, not the least of which is
soil. For centuries, farmers laboured under the misapprehension
that they needed soil in order to grow crops. Thanks to
felicitous introduction of deep ploughing, and the accompanying
relocation of much of this vexatious dirt into the sea, we are
able to demonstrate that such antediluvian practices need have no
place in modern agriculture. Crops can be grown on little more
than shingle, with sufficient applications of fertiliser.
We have disposed too of many of the unsightly lumps and ridges
which one disfigured our agricultural landscape. The barrows,
hill forts, field systems and ancient lanes which mired us in the
past and intruded on our views of the wholesome earth, have
already been erased from many parts of England, and farmers are
seeking to complete the task as rapidly as possible. Modern
agriculture has successfully eliminated such irritations as
skylarks, song-thrushes and nightingales from many parts of their
ranges, immersing the country side in a deep and lasting peace.
It has relieved us of the burden of insect life, and the
distraction of wild flowers.
But no measure of success in modern agriculture is as uplifting
as the tremendous boost to food production these new techniques
have precipitated. Indeed, so well stocked are our granaries that
hundreds of millions are spent each year in storing and
destroying surplus food. In raising output so markedly, we not
only maintain our landowners in the noble style to which they are
accustomed, but also guarantee our pre-eminence in the global
marketplace, by averting the possibility of self-reliance in the
In Britain, such foresight costs the taxpayer a mere ú2 billion a
year - a competitive price for such selfless service to
humankind. Yet we refuse to rest on our laurels. So determined
are we to grow three, four, even ten ears of corn or its
equivalent where but one grew before, that we are now trying to
introduce parts of bacteria into plants, scorpions into
caterpillars and humans into pigs. As humble citizens of a
trifling land, our only regret must surely be that the King of
Brobdingnag cannot be present to marvel at how assiduously we
have followed his advice. "
Landwirtschaftl. Untersuchungs- u. Forschungsanstalt (LUFA)
(Governm. Inst. for Agricult. & Environm. Res.)
67346 Speyer, Obere Langgasse 40 (GERMANY)
Dept. of Seed Sci., Microscop. Analysis & Plant Pathol.
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