Geoffrey Lean: Only connect, Prime Minister

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The Independent Online

Dear Tony: Happy Birthday! And is it possible to wish you many happy returns, in this fevered atmosphere, without it being construed as a comment on the election?

Dear Tony:

Happy Birthday! And is it possible to wish you many happy returns, in this fevered atmosphere, without it being construed as a comment on the election?

Whatever, it was good to see you again at the Press Club Awards on Monday. I must admit that, as I walked to the podium, my surprise at winning mingled with curiosity about your reaction. For you were about to present me with a trophy for a story that was part of this newspaper's long campaign against your policies on GM crops.

And you had just devoted much of your speech to an attack on the media's coverage of the foot and mouth crisis, taking a diametrically opposite view to the one we have espoused from the outset. I should have known that you would carry it off well, commenting, with an ironic smile, on how "appropriate" it was that you should be giving me the award.

But as I walked back, reflecting on your speech, a phrase of yours floated into my mind. "Joined-up government" struck a chord before the last election, promising a more considered approach and overriding sectional interests. It occurred to me then ­ and even more forcefully on Thursday at your press conference to announce victory over foot and mouth ­ that it was a failure to deliver this that had so magnified the crisis.

One narrow interest, meat exports, has been allowed to set the policy. And one ministry, which has long promoted agribusiness and the interests of big farmers at the expense of virtually everything else, put it into practice.

Wider national concerns went up in smoke. The tourist industry has suffered immense damage through the unnecessary closure of the countryside. It has lost £5bn, which is nearly 10 times the annual value of the meat export trade. Business as whole, it is estimated, has been hit for £20m. And 1 per cent may be cut from economic growth.

Sure, you may now have the disease on the retreat. No doubt you could even get rid of the common cold if no one was allowed to move, and all sufferers ­ and everyone else within two miles ­ were slaughtered. But at what an immense, avoidable cost.

It seems to me that it was the same story over GM crops and foods. Again, your government's initial drive was to promote the interests of multinationals without considering health, the environment or the hostile reaction of most consumers.

Similarly, you and some of your ministers seem eager to give Sellafield permission to start up a new plant to make nuclear fuel from plutonium, without fully considering the consequences of transporting the raw material for bombs across Britain. President Bush's dangerous "Star Wars" plans, endorsed by Alastair Campbell last week, would be defenceless against the suitcase nuclear bombs that terrorist or rogue states could make with it.

"Everything connects," the environmentalists used to say. It's not a bad slogan for joined-up government. We at The Independent on Sunday will continue to campaign on these broader issues in the hope that your second administration will increasingly integrate them into policy. Then it will be our turn to congratulate you ­ and not just for reaching the grand old age of 48.

Yours, Geoff

Geoffrey Lean was last week awarded the London Press Club's 'Scoop of the Year Award' for exposing secret GM sites.