Henry Dimbleby

During the Brexit referendum, it was Michael Gove who remarked the British people had “had enough of experts”. So I imagine he allowed himself a wry smile when he appointed Henry Dimbleby to conduct a review of the nation’s food policy.

It’s difficult to think of anyone who more fits the profile of the sort of expert Michael had in mind. Son of a famous family, successful entrepreneur and fully paid-up member – actually probably a vice-chair – of the metropolitan elite. Plus, he had played a key part in the school food review when Gove was education secretary. He was straight out of central casting.

This week, Dimbleby announced he was standing down from that role, which had mysteriously morphed intro being the government’s food tsar somewhere over the past five years.

While anyone who allows themselves to be described as a government tsar should examine their personal relationship with the self-importance fairy, it is most certainly worth spending some time asking what Dimbleby achieved and what might be his legacy.

Before offering my assessment, and for full transparency, I should be clear that Dimbleby and I have had some differences over the last few years. He has me in mind when he complains the major food trade associations have tried to obstruct the progress of his recommendations.

He will tell you his conversations with food company CEOs are constructive and progressive, but the representative organisations don’t reflect that sentiment. He’s right. Most CEOs of major food companies are pretty liberal in their personal outlook – they have much empathy with that metropolitan elite. They might even be card-carrying members.

Unfortunately, their parent businesses don’t always share that sentiment. They have to make a profit in an extremely competitive environment in which most of their major customers are called Tesco or Sainsbury’s. So whatever their personal views, they require their business representative organisations to be exceptionally hard-headed. If I have a principal criticism of Dimbleby’s work, it’s that he never appeared to acknowledge that central truth.

But those of us who are his critics must in turn recognise that he is brave and principled, and his work was wide-ranging, thoughtful and comprehensive. Though his review was disrupted badly by the pandemic, he produced two volumes of what is certainly the most comprehensive contemporary study of the food and drink industry for decades.

The research by his team offers fascinating and important insights into the way the UK’s most important industry works. That, in itself, is a major contribution to policymakers.

As to his observations and recommendations, you pays your money and you takes your choice. In my view, what Dimbleby offered was a classic example of middle-class people telling working-class people what to do. That is exactly how we ended up with Brexit.

The Cameron-Clegg government was hugely successful at extracting the UK from the economic mire into which it had slipped. But it was government by posh boys, and a majority of people found it condescending and took their revenge. My fear is that Dimbleby’s recommendations take us down the same path.

But what I think doesn’t matter. The point is that the Dimbleby review is the most authoritative extant view of the UK food and drink industry available to those in government. Whoever is prime minister after the next election – Sunak or Starmer – Dimbleby will be the go-to source for policy formulation. At least some of his recommendations will be the only game in town – particularly as neither party seems likely to have done other policy work at anything near the same scale.

So, rather like Don Curry in the past, Henry Dimbleby will be the godfather of our food and drink policy for the 2020s. It’s not an ignoble legacy, even if it’s not quite what he intended. And if the industry doesn’t like it, we should get a wiggle on to provide an alternative.