'Having failed to sort things out itself, the Government has, as
usual, gone fleeing to big business for wisdom'
08 August 2001
One thing must surely be clear about foot-and-mouth disease by now. A
similar situation could never be handled this way again. The Government will
choose its time, rewrite the rule book and embrace a vaccination policy.
Public opinion would not countenance another mass cull. A weak attempt will
be made to rewrite the chaos of the past six months as a success. No one in
town or country, hill or dale, will believe it.
Had the Government been facing any more potent foe than the reedy and
inconsequential Opposition it has so far been privileged to enjoy, New
Labour could have been facing a ruthless electoral cull. Remember the days
when the more lip-smackingly pious Blairites were wont to remark that the
Tories "gave us BSE"?. That was unfair, of course. But it is the kind of
dagger hurled with some gut justification after such serial bungling.
One could equally say that this Government "gave us" foot-and-mouth disease,
in that it has misunderstood and mishandled the disease from the beginning
and seems dead set on continuing that course of action until the last
uninfected beast has been immolated on the last funeral pyre.
Everything has been wrong. Naïve ministers were pushed into a slaughter
policy by representatives of the macro-farming industry who had most to gain
from setting the bells tolling for sheep and cattle. The legendarily
incompetent Ministry of Agriculture and Fishing fulfilled its historical
role in a British farming crisis, namely to prove utterly incapable of
sorting good arguments from bad.
No one inside Government had the faintest idea what the right or the wrong
thing to do might be. I realised quite how badly haywire things had gone
when three months into the cull, the Prime Minister was announced to have
"taken charge" of the crisis. What did that mean, then? "Well, he's been
learning a lot about sheep," said a Number 10 insider. "In fact, he'll
hardly talk about anything else. He's got diagrams and everything." It is a
sign of meltdown when the person at the top of a command structure gets into
such a tizzy that they begin to fancy that the situation can be resolved if
only they bend their phenomenal intellect to the source of the problem - in
this case, the irritating susceptibility of cloven-hoofed animals to
First-year veterinary science was never going to save Mr Blair's hide. He
was right to be sceptical about the advice he was being given. But his
instincts about how to get out of the mess were not so sharp. Let's be fair
to the Prime Minister. He's not a farmer or a vet or an agronomist. He
wasn't born with a prior knowledge about whether a cull or vaccination or a
bit of both for a certain amount of time were the right way to proceed. I
can't see any convincing reason why he should not have jumped the way he did
for the first six weeks or so. Thereafter, he was fooled by the Government's
Chief Scientist, David King, backed up by the Chief Veterinarian, Jim
Scudamore, into believing that the disease was "under control" in April.
Very shortly afterwards, it was clear that this had been wishful thinking.
If I were Mr Blair, I'd be putting two jobs vacancies up on the board,
sharpish. But he should have recalled the two most important questions for
any really significant political decision: what are the consequences of my
actions and what is the worst-case scenario if I am wrong? Instead, he was
blinded to these concerns by an attack of panic prompted by a media which
can be relied upon to turn every crisis into a catastrophe and every drama
into a tragedy.
The inherent fearfulness of the Blair Government caused Mr Blair to jitter
and delay. Terrified of a U-turn headline, he changed nothing about a
failing policy. Until the stories began to filter out of farmers receiving
millions in compensation for their slaughtered stock, there does not seem to
have been the slightest cost-benefit analysis applied to culling. Untold
sums have been spent - the final audit will surely deal a heavy blow to the
Government's reputation for good housekeeping - and still foot-and-mouth is
not destroyed Now I know that the farmers are the new, official national
hate figures, the spat-upon fat cats of the millennial years. But really: if
a man from the ministry pops by offering a generous rate for an animal that
may - or may not - be worth so much at market, we can't really blame them
for jumping at the chance to cash in their cattle. Blame the corrupter, not
Having failed so comprehensively to sort things out itself, the Government
has, as usual, gone fleeing to big business looking for post hoc wisdom.
Lord Haskins, Mr Blair's favourite grocer, has been put in charge of rural
regeneration - as the Government so touchingly calls the battlefield its
bleak policy has left behind.
Lord Haskins, arch-duke of the vast Northern Foods empire, is no hero to the
organic lobby or the small farmers. On one point, though, he is absolutely
right. The handling of foot-and-mouth was made more difficult by the
obstinacy of the National Farmers' Union. What he doesn't add, being a loyal
friend of Mr Blair's, is that the Government was culpably suggestible and
cowardly and that is why the NFU's writ ran unchallenged by any other
How could Mr Blair, the self-proclaimed "what's-right-is-what-works"
managerialist, have got things so haplessly wrong? The answer, quite simply,
is timing. In the wake of the fuel crisis and in the run-up to the election,
the Prime Minister was running scared of any confrontation with a major
interest group claiming to represent the consumer against big government.
Never mind that the export-driven large farmers who dominate the NFU were
disproportionately in favour of a cull, whereas smaller farmers were not.
The NFU is the rural equivalent of the CBI. Both claim to represent the
interests of, respectively, farmers and business. Really, they represent big
farming and big business and their views and interests are often at odds
with those practising on a different scale or with different priorities.
For the first six weeks or so of the outbreak, Mr Blair could not be blamed
for following the consensus view that a cull was the best firebreak. By
Easter, when he called the Chief Vet, the Chief Scientist, Lord Haskins and
other representatives of the food industry to talks in Downing Street, he
was prepared to change course in favour of vaccination, but was dissuaded
from doing so by the intervention of the NFU's Ben Gill who said that the
public would never be persuaded to consume meat from vaccinated herds.
Faced with the threat of a propaganda war with the NFU, Mr Blair caved in.
So the disease has rolled on and the compensation claims roll in, both real
and fraudulent. The Government looks both incompetent and profligate. So to
add grim satire to the tale of woe, a fresh army of officials is sent forth
to work out the exact worth of every animal - before killing it. Death never
came so expensive. The carcasses mount, the countryside bleeds. And it isn't
even over yet
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