No longer do builders employ vast labour forces whose greatest attribute is their strength and stamina. Today, skills are the order of the day. The romance has gone from building sites; the characters, the eccentricities, the men who could get things done are long gone. In the late 1950s, I recall McAlpine had a rush job on a site in Piccadilly. Where on earth could we get 250 men was the problem. The solution? Patrick Torpey. The project manager spent Friday evening in the Mother Redcap and other London pubs. At 7am on Saturday morning, 250 strong men had been booked for the Piccadilly site.
It would not be possible to gather a force like this today. Not that it would be necessary. For all its shortcomings, construction has come to terms with the modern world remarkably well.
There is a reason, however, why contractors adapted to the circumstances of the age. If they did not, they went bust. Unlike farming, construction has never received subsidies, nor for that matter has it suffered the whole paraphernalia of government direction, from milk quotas to set-aside. Bureaucratic interference in the construction industry has been, by the standards of our age, minimal.
In a modern world, industries change and adapt to demand – supply or we all suffer. It is hard when we see farmers on our television, distraught with the agony of losing their livestock and the trade that their families have followed for generations. It was hard when we saw miners in the same predicament, and car workers in towns that were there because of car factories.
It is not a matter of thinking about the end of farming. We are actually watching it happen
It all seemed like the most terrible tragedy brought about by a series of heartless governments. Yet today we have an economy that can support the repayment of £5bn of national debt, direct taxation at a lower level than at any time since the Second World War and unemployment lower that it has been for generations. In this context it seems unimaginable to think of an end to the farming industry. It is, however, not a matter of thinking about the end of farming; we are actually watching it happen. Each day as foot and mouth ravages stock in Britain, and now Europe, the industry is being reshaped. How like the miners, steelworkers and carworkers the farmers look as they appear on TV.
How the heartstrings are tugged by the lambs and calves ready for governmental slaughter. That these animals are to be put to death seems terrible, as does the fact that we discuss their fate at lunch or dinner, having just eaten their cousins. Hard, hard, but a terrible situation that in the end can lead to a general good.
For the real tragedy is still waiting in the wings. That tragedy will not manifest itself if those who govern us take advantage of this situation to replan the way we treat our countryside. A countryside that is in fact the lungs of a nation.
Our space to breathe is a place that, properly planned, can greatly improve our lives. No more fertilisers to squeeze out profit. No more poisons and pesticides. No more intensive farming – a terrible pollution that must come to an end. Instead, we must encourage specialist farming that produces high quality and healthy products.
Lord McAlpine is a writer and former treasurer of the Conservative Party.