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OPINION: Anthony Gibson speaks of how the new top team at the NFU will signal a change in style, but the same message

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: March 05, 2014

OPINION: Anthony Gibson speaks of how the new top team at the NFU will signal a change in style, but the same message

Meurig Raymond at the Bath and West Show. He has now taken over as the NFU president.

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So, the Kendall era at the NFU is over; the Raymond era has just begun. What sort of change might we expect? On the face of it, not much, given that Meurig Raymond has been the most loyal of deputies to Peter Kendall throughout the past eight years and has never really differed from him on any major policy issue.

But that assumption takes no account of the two newcomers to the NFU’s top table, Minette Batters from Wiltshire as Deputy President and Guy Smith from Essex as Vice. They are both strong characters, with decided views, and they won’t be over-shadowed by the towering figure of an all-powerful President in the same way as Meurig and co have been. They will, I predict, bring a very different style of leadership to the NFU, with potentially very interesting results.

Minette’s influence could be particularly telling. She is, of course, the first woman to be elected as a national office-holder of the NFU; she is the first Westcountry farmer to rise so high, since Gloucestershire’s Chris Righton, who was Deputy President in the early 1980s; and, like the unfortunate Adam Quinney, whom she defeated, she is a beef producer.

Her very presence at NFU office-holder meetings will change the chemistry. In the years when I worked at the Stoneleigh head office, the atmosphere in the Presidential suite was masculine, verging on the macho. Peter Kendall, Richard Macdonald (Director General) and Martin Haworth (Director of Policy) had all been highly competitive rugby players in their younger days, and there is no more passionate supporter of the Welsh national side than Meurig Raymond. You could almost smell the testosterone in the air as these alpha males gathered on a Monday evening to plan the month ahead.

All of that will change now (or at least I hope it will). Not that Minette isn’t tough. She certainly is, but she will bring a broader focus, if not necessarily a softer one, and will expect to be involved in genuine discussions on the finer points of policy not just presented with a series of Presidential decrees.

As indeed will Guy Smith, who shares with Minette both an enthusiasm and a high level of skill in shaping and presenting what we might call the ‘farming message’. Guy will be the grit in the NFU’s oyster – distinctly abrasive at times, but more than capable of producing the odd pearl or two. We can expect to hear some more overtly populist messages, and also a greater combativeness in challenging farmer-bashing by the conservation bodies and their academic and political allies (not that Peter Kendall was much inclined to hang back on that score!).

Add in Meurig Raymond’s experience, affability, willingness to take a brief and vast range of contacts and you have a strong and balanced team, in terms of aptitude and personality, as well as commodity interest. It looks to me as if the NFU is in good hands.

Two things remain to be said about last week’s happenings in Birmingham. The first is that, judging by George Eustice’s performance, the Government still hasn’t ‘got it’ on the need for a complete re-think on flood defence policy, involving much more spending in total, as well as a higher priority for farmland.

The second is that, if you ever get a chance to go to the NFU Annual Conference, take it. The venue is ideal, the organisation superb, the speakers top-class, most of the audience are real farmers and the whole event is, by a country mile, the very best of its type. Oxford, eat your heart out!

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