Restless agri-cultures: paradoxes of populism, nationalism and localism in a post-Brexit UK

Anoushka Zoob Carter*

 

Abstract: The relationship between agriculture and eroding ecosystems has been widely studied, but less understood are the ways that right-wing politics interact with the rural politics of agriculture and ecological issues. Employing the term agri-culture(s), this article explores the dynamic relationship between food and society through an analysis of the discourse surrounding different and conflicting visions for agri-culture in the UK post-Brexit. Despite some political actors depicting a ‘Green Brexit’, this article identifies several paradoxes that exist around the populist campaign to leave the EU in the context of agri-culture. Beneath the veneer of a patriotic ecology and an ecomodernist green nationalism popularised by the Conservative government, the future of agri-culture appears to be geared towards revitalising neoliberal capitalism. Such a path may well further hinder movements for localised food democracies and emancipatory rural politics.

Keywords: Brexit, agri-culture, neoliberalism, ecomodernism, green nationalism

 

Introduction

‘Farmers and food producers are of critical importance to the lifeblood of the nation’, the Farmers Guardian informed its UK followers amid the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 (Briggs, 2020). Despite their assumed importance, a diversity of farmers face uncertain futures within agri-culture now that the UK has left the European Union (EU). The Conservative party’s ongoing campaign to dislocate the UK from the EU is visibilising the struggles over what the future of agri-culture will look like. By employing the term agri-culture(s), this article will highlight the dynamic relations between food and society to demonstrate that seemingly ‘green’ agricultural policy harbours political ideologies of many kinds.

This research illuminates the nuanced and often paradoxical tropes relating to populism, nationalism, and localism as they feature in discussions around the future of UK agri-cultures. Although disputed in its definition and is context-specific, this article will use the term populism to refer to the politics that surrounded the UK Brexit referendum and campaign to leave the EU, where over half of farmers voted to leave (Reynolds, 2020). Such populism resides in rhetoric that speaks and acts in the name of the ‘British people’, reclaiming what it is to ‘be British’, and challenging the ‘elitism’ of the EU which

threatens British sovereignty (Clarke and Newman, 2017; Iakhnis et al., 2018). Despite Brexit providing an opportunity for a systemic shift, this article exhibits a wave of nationalism. Such nationalism instrumentalises green politics in agriculture to revitalise, not dismantle, neoliberal capitalism; the very system that is eroding ecosystems and undermining food democracies for which the EU is blamed (Gordon and Hunt, 2019; Cadieux and Slocum, 2015; Järvensivu et al., 2018).

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