All sense sacrificed to the golden calf

Simon Jenkins (The Times April 2001)

As he gazed into the world’s largest mass slaughter pit at Ash Moor in Devon, the Times reporter put it well.

"Archaeologists," he wrote, "will one day ask what long forgotten gods demanded the sacrifice of so many animals, and why?"

None of the half million beasts to be buried under Tony Blair’s "personal charge" is ill or any’ risk to humans. All are consumable, having been bought at full market price by the Government from those who nurtured them. They are to be buried to maintain the price of meat. In comparison, the sarsens of Stonehenge are rocket science and sacrificing Inca virgins is common sense. Never has a sophisticated society done anything so obscene to appease the god of Mammon.

I hope that when this madness passes the high priests of slaughter, the 300-Cow Club and their acolytes at the National Farmers Union, will dance on Ash Moor and kill an over-fatted calf in honour of St Nick Brown, patron of cow exporters. Twenty billion pounds, they will boast, was the final price they stung from the British economy to maintain market share. Twenty billion pounds, not including compensation. That is the tale the Ash Moor bones will tell. Let the archaeologists marvel at Neobritannic Man, as he reeled demented from his recent loss of empire.

Yesterday the public heard of the first isolated case of human foot-and-mouth in a slaughterman in Cumbria. The media went berserk that the man would experience mild discomfort for a couple of weeks. There was no evidence of infection from one human to another, nor from a human back to an animal. The incident should remind us that, unlike BSE, foot-and-mouth still poses no threat to public health. The ministry’ has tried to generate a public health angle, for instance by needlessly banning cheese-makers from using unpasteurised milk. But the only real public risk from foot-and-mouth is from the efforts being used to counter it, such as burning and burying. Even that risk is extremely small.

This saga is still about money, about making it, winning it from government, losing it, and going bankrupt for the loss of it. In such circumstances, the public expects elected politicians to regulate from in front, not follow timidly behind the most powerful lobbyist, in this case the NFU’s big dairy herd owners. Faced with a clear need for swift action against infected herds, followed by "ring vaccination" if that failed, the Government prevaricated. Ponderous, bureaucratic, terrified of lobbyists, ministers succeeded in damaging a small part (less than 2 per cent) of one industry, livestock farming, at the cost of wrecking a much bigger one, tourism. If ministers were local councillors, they would be vulnerable to a 20 billion surcharge.

I drove at the weekend through the burning pyres of the upper Severn Valley. This is sheep country where money is king and sharp practice its consort. This is where the pub talk was of foot-and-mouth, days before it was declared in Cumbria, and where the only "bed-and-breakfast" income this year will be from nocturnal sheep collecting subsidy.

Few there want vaccination, because it yields no compensation, though none enjoys seeing his ‘sheep slaughtered. Farmers know that their sheep are dying to protect the value of lowland dairy herds, but if slaughter is today’s subsidy, then slaughter it will be. Pay them for vaccination and they will vaccinate. Pay for slaughter and they will slaughter. But they are bemused by every twist ana turn from Whitehall. Why is the Government killing pet yaks, llamas, bison and goats, while deer roam free? Why feed the British Army vaccinated Argentine beef if vaccination "would make British beef unexportable"? What of the farmer who welcomes paying guests to his land but warns them to avoid public rights of way or "Nick Brown will fine you 5,000"?

Tony Blair, Michael Meacher, Chris Smith and others have declared that the British countryside is "open for business". it is not. Their officials should ring round before telling fibs. The New Forest is closed, 60 miles from any outbreak. Snowdonia is closed. The South West ‘moors are closed. The Chilterns behind Mr Blair’s Chequers are closed. The Pennines are closed.

Cars may be allowed along even the most rural roads, but walkers miles from any outbreak are fined 5,000. Only Big Wheel outranks Big Agriculture in Downing Street’s bizarre sense of political priorities.

The novelists are right. Had the Germans invaded Britain, they would have found British civil servants eagerly efficient in obeying orders. When the Agriculture Minister, Nick Brown, ordered the countryside shut as if it were a door, it shut. Notices went up overnight. Red and white ribbons barred every footpath. When a Dutch protester wondered at the weekend why.

Britons were so silent about mass slaughter, I felt like telling her a horrible secret. The British defer to authOrity. Fairs, carnivals, races, events vanished from the calendar. Not since Moses disappeared on Sinai has a nublic so slavishly

worshtpped a golden calL.

Now the Government has ordered the country to reopen and finds it not so easy. Officialdom is better at stopping things than at restarting them. It is a good brake but a bad accelerator. The countryside is not a lightswitch. The only serious cash pouring into the countryside. at present is from MAFFs compensation cheques. The’ Treastiry is refusing

the British Tourism Authority a EZO million rescue package. ‘This is less than a week’s bill for killing healthy animals. If MAFF has such staggering sums to blow on. cow price maintenance, it should give some to the BTA to tackle the collateral damage.

Soon the Outbreak will have passed. Wise heads are already predicting that foot-and-mouth is probably now an endemic virus, to erupt and subside from the wild for no particular reason. One day all Europe will vaccinate, since it is impossible to isolate the continent from a wider world in which foot-and-mouth is endemic and tolerated without Britain’s hysteria. Either way, it is inconceivable that another outbreak will be met with such a massacre of the innocents. The prosperity of the whole rural

economy must be considered alongside that of livestock. Policy must be ‘~joined-up". Foot-and-mouth has been a monumental instance of "producer capture".

Mr Brown has not dissembled his position: his every statement indicates his job is to guard livestock interests at any cost. It is indeed a lucky industry that has its own lobbyist at Cabinet. Last week’s debate about vaccination was entirely about exportability. Mr Brown’S outrageous claim that vaccinated animals "will still have to be culled", dictated by the NFU, went unchallenged by farmers, politicians, the press and even animal rights activists, whose silence during this whole affair has been deafening. The nation’s brain has been washed. Livestock prices apparently transcend all considerations of animal welfare, the rural economy and common sense.

Mr Brown likes ~to equate these prices with the wider health of the economy. How a one-year moratorium on livestock exports following vaccination, outguns a 20 biffion penalty on the entire British service sector defies reason. Burning carcasses may suit a few thousand dairy farmers.’ But the result has devastated Britain’s image abroad, not just as a nice place to visit but as a nation that cares for its animals and is still in possession of its senses.

Legend holds that during the 1979 Winter of Discontent James Callaghan summoned the public sector union leaders to Downing Street and declared "We are prostrate before you". He could hardly have predicted that 22 years later his Labour successor as Prime Minister might as well use the same phrase of a different union, the farmers. Callaghan’s unions were at least powerful. Mr Blair could have called the NFU’s bluff. He could have demanded vaccination on pain of withdrawing compensation. He could even have told farmers that foot-and-mouth was of no concern to the public’s health and a matter between them and their marketplace. He lost his nerve. He followed a lobby rather than led a nation.

How casual are politicians with the public interest, when they are neither paying nor suffering. The Treasury is flush. Labour will win the next election. The Tories will lose. So who cares?

simon.jenkins@thetimes.co.uk