Did you vote for food shortages?

Although this site is primarily focused on pastoral and doctrinal issues, I often seek to engage with wider issues too including aspects of politics.  This is because I believe we are here part of the world around us and meant to play our part in society. This means first of all that Christians should be able to engage in public debate in a way that models grace and truthfulness. It means we should have a healthy interest in these things and it means that whilst there may not be a right or wrong party political position for Christians on something there is a Christian perspective/approach. I think that this often boils down to simply being willing to engage factually and truthfully even when that involves recognising that issues are complex.

Brexit remains a good example of this, even 5 years after the vote and coming up for two years after the UK’s departure from the EU.  Right from the start, the debate was polarised. Anyone who supported Brexit was denounced as racist, nationalist and naively willing to believe lies plastered on the side of buses. Meanwhile those who voted remain were treated to accusations of being traitors.  This often ignored the complexities underpinning the debate.

It is worth just highlighting two examples of where we’ve seen that failure. I’m quoting examples from a “leave” perspective here but that doesn’t mean it was all one sided.  The first is that Brexit has been portrayed as some grievous self-inflicted wound and that it is a terrible thing to support a form of national independence that brings with it questions about borders.  The suggestion is that economics are all that matters. Yet, those points are conveniently ignored by the same people when they announce their passionate support for Scottish independence that would potentially put a hard border right across the British mainland.

Secondly, Brexit supporters are accused of believing lies because of the infamous £350 million NHS slogan on the side of a bus. The slogan was wrong and misleading. Whilst the total figure going to the EU may have been around £350 million per week that ignored the point that the UK had rebates and received support back. Whether or not people believed they were voting for £350 million to suddenly be freed up for the NHS is another matter, noting that it wouldn’t have been from a referendum campaign team to decide such policies. However, politicians like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove were far too happy to allow the lie to stand rather than correcting it. They’d learnt from Nigel Farage that when you make an outrageous claim it leads to attention on a subject so you can get your point across. That might be good politics but its bad ethics.

However, whilst it did not appear on the side of a bus, the story was spread persistently that UK membership of the EU and retention of an open, soft border with the Republic of Ireland was crucial to our responsibilities under the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement (GFA). It wasn’t/isn’t. The Agreement has nothing to say about hard or soft borders on the island of Ireland and in fact is clear that for as long as it is the will of the Northern Irish people, the province remains firmly a legitimate part of the UK. It has far more to say explicitly about the European Convention of Human Rights. Ironically, David Cameron’s attempts to repeal legislation in this area would indeed have gone against the GFA.

What has happened here is that people have formed presumptions about the Agreement and a reading back into history. The presumption is that it was the existence of EU membership and a single market meaning that the border was a “non-issue” which enabled Republicans to come to the table. Well perhaps this was in their mind but we are rather second guessing the state of mind of key players and more importantly the communities that ratified the GFA at this point. Furthermore, this interpretation of history is problematic on three counts.

  1. For most, the issue at the border would have been free movement of people. There was in fact an agreement, separate to and pre-existing the EU forming a common travel area. The visible issue was the presence of counter-terrorist military checkpoints.
  2. The implication of this suggestion is quite concerning. It implies that technical sovereignty issues no longer mattered so much for the Republicans because they had de-facto achieved their aims for a united Ireland through the removal of hard borders.
  3. I think we see here one of the significant problems that tThe British Establishment and politicians such as John Major, David Cameron and Tony Blair have had when engaging on constitutional issues including Northern Ireland, Brexit and devolution. They tend to engage on these issues through a narrow economic prism and therefore I would suggest misunderstand what motivates and drives republicans, nationalists and leavers, not to mention both Northern Irish and Scottish Unionists.

Now, over the past couple of months a new issue has arisen, the matter of food shortages and supply chain shortages.  A few weeks back there were headlines about us running out of milkshakes, processed chicken, blood sample bottles and Carlsberg.  A debate has resulted about what has caused this. Was it Brexit or was it the pandemic?  I want to suggest here that there are a couple of examples of ways that we can fail to engage on this issue in a Christian way.

First of all, it is wrong to exaggerate an issue for the purpose of causing alarm and fear in order to win a debate. I’ve seen people talking about super markets being empty and the UK being in a similar position to cold war Eastern Europe.  That’s nonsensical of course.  We are going about our normal lives and able to buy most things. 

Secondly, the opposite danger is to deny or to trivialise the matter. We can joke about Carlsberg and milkshakes but the issue with medical supplies is serious. Further, to simply pretend that there haven’t been problems at all would be wrong.  There have been various issues throughout the last 18 months leading to some intriguing substitutions of items on Asda deliveries.

Thirdly, if we claim it is all down to Brexit or that it is nothing to do with Brexit then we are also failing to deal fully and openly with all the facts and to acknowledge the complexity and nuance of the situation.

So, what do we know?  Well, we know that there are certain items that we seem to have shortages of in the UK at certain times. However, we also know that this hasn’t been the case all the time and for everything. That should encourage us to probe deeper into the potential causes. It is also worth observing that whilst other countries in Europe may not have experienced the same shortages, that they have experienced shortages in other areas.[1]  So, for example this article describes some of the supply chain issues that are affecting German manufacturing. 

We know that there have been wider supply chain issues around the world. Lockdowns and restrictions on movement have led to shortages of various materials that has resulted in prices going up.  Secondly, we know that across Europe there has been a shortage of HGV drivers (150,000 across Europe, 52000 in the UK and 45000 in Germany).  Those factors alone are likely to cause problems in the supply chain.  These are also not necessarily due to COVID and cannot be attributed to Brexit because the problem’s routes probably predate both. However, both may be exacerbating things in the UK.

Here in the UK, we have the additional factor to consider that the problems are not just affecting road haulage but also workers for food picking and food processing. This is where there does seem to be an EU factor to consider.  A lot of those jobs were filled by workers from EU, particularly Eastern European countries.

However, there are two further factors to consider. The first is that we seem to have experienced some specific shortages through the summer. This was something that we were warned about back in July when we had the so-called ping-demic from our contact tracing system leading to many people self-isolating. Combine that with holiday season and perhaps an additional reluctance on the part of students to fill the traditional summer casual labour jobs and you see some factors affecting  labour shortage. We recently ate at our local Beefeater and our waiter told us that it was just two of them on duty that evening.  Having eaten there for many years, I suspect the waiter shortage had little to do with EU membership or otherwise.

Finally, we may have to consider that if pressure on supply chains is happening then the model of supply and demand within a country will make it more or less vulnerable to supply issues.  There are three things I’d want to look at here. The first would be reliance on road haulage v rail. The second would be about how and where things are delivered.  Specifically, the UK has become increasingly dependent on online order and home delivery shopping, second in the world behind South Korea tied with Japan. This will mean two things. First of all, it will mean that supermarkets will prioritise keeping stock in warehouses to keep their delivery runs going over getting it out to the stores and on display. Secondly, the UK will be even more dependent on delivery drivers than other countries. The third thing I want to throw out there is that I suspect the UK has a greater leaning towards processed foods than other parts of Europe and therefore likely to be hit harder by problems in that specific supply chain.

What this means is that there are a variety of factors affecting supply chain issues at the moment. Some will be with us long term, others may self-correct as we come through COVID and others may call for policy changes. For example, a shortage of migrant workers and HGV drivers may not require us to re-join the EU but it may cause us to rethink the terms of some of our trade agreements re customs checks and to revisit immigration policy. It may also encourage companies to re-consider wage agreements with workers and whether or not they have relied too heavily on a migrant labour force to undercut pay at the expense of local workers. We may need to recognise that we’ve benefited from very cheap food and goods because the retail sector has driven down costs often at the expense of suppliers. The balance of economic power may well have shifted significantly from demand to supply and there may be a trade-off between price and availability.

None of this means that Brexit was right or wrong. No, those who voted for Brexit did not vote to self-inflict a wound on them. This does not mean their decisions were right or wrong, it just means that the accusation isn’t relevant to the debate. Christians can contribute to a better debate by being respectful of others, not presuming motives or intelligence and being willing recognise and run with complexity and nuance.

[1] Further, not every European country is inside the EU and those countries have not necessarily experienced the same shortages either.

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