If the mob wants a crucifixion, reason won't prevent it Never underesti mate the public's capacity for unreason

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The Independent Online
AMONG the few MPs who predicted the crisis in the beef industry is Mr Ron Davies. Though still a member of what the French call le cabinet fantome, he is not the favourite legislator of the Labour hierarchy. Another who foresaw the disaster is Sir Richard Body, described as a lunatic not long ago by Mr John Major, even if it was in a European rather than a farming connection. A farmer himself, Sir Richard has for years denounced modern agricultural practice: in books, speeches and articles and, for a time, as "Old Muckspreader" in Private Eye.

Still, the probability is that the crisis would not have occurred under Mr Tony Blair, though not because he would have been any stricter with the abattoirs than the present government. Ms Harriet Harman, or whoever was Minister of Health in a Blair administration, would not have been allowed to make the kind of candid announcement which Mr Stephen Dorrell delivered on 20 March, so inaugurating the period of hysteria only now beginning to abate.

Mr Major is a more open Prime Minister than Mr Blair is likely to prove. Conservative prime ministers commonly are. True, we know more about Labour governments than about Conservative ones. That is largely because of the superiority of Labour diarists - Benn, Castle, Crossman, Dalton - over Conservative autobiographers. Ask yourself: what was the most impressive piece of open government of the last 20 years? It was Lady Thatcher's detailed account of the life and adventures of Anthony Blunt.

"I am told that that distinguished-looking man who comes round to dust the pictures is a notorious homosexual."

"Allow me to calm your fears, Ma'am. He is merely a Russian spy."

Lord Callaghan or Harold Wilson would not have been so frank with the House. They would have taken their instructions from the Foreign Office and the security services. We may be confident that Mr Blair would not be as open as Mr Major. Mr Blair would be right and, alas, Mr Major has been wrong. He and his colleagues have overestimated the human - certainly the British - capacity for reason. As the 19th century French sociologist Gustave le Bon put it in The Crowd: a Study of the Popular Mind:

"In enumerating the factors capable of making an impression on the minds of crowds, all mention of reason might be dispensed with, were it not necessary to point out the negative value of its influence ... Logical minds, accustomed to be convinced by a chain of somewhat close reasoning, cannot avoid having recourse to this mode of persuasion when addressing crowds, and the ineffectiveness of their arguments always surprises them ... The destinies of nations are elaborated at present in the heart of the masses, and no longer in the councils of princes."

The destinies of the beef trade are certainly being determined in this somewhat unsatisfactory manner. The crisis no longer has much to do with health or husbandry. It has become one of presentation, of public relations. That is the issue between Government and Opposition. The confidence of the European Commission must be restored. In Britain public confidence must be restored likewise, even at the cost - we do not yet know the precise cost - of the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of perfectly healthy cows, who have done no harm to anyone. Today is Palm Sunday (in Welsh, "the Sunday of the flowers"), the Sunday before Easter. Our Lord met his fate for the same reason as the poor cows are going to meet theirs. St Mark is the most level-headed of the Gospel writers. He could well have been a reporter for the Independent. His account (xv 13-15) goes:

"And they cried out again, Crucify him. Then Pilate said unto them, Why, what evil hath he done? And they cried out the more exceedingly, Crucify him. And so Pilate, to restore public confidence, released Barabbas unto them, and delivered Jesus, when he had scourged him, to be crucified."

Even into the 18th century, harmless old women were killed with similar cruelty to satisfy the desire of the masses both for vengeance and for reassurance. The lay or ecclesiastical leaders who authorised these executions did not necessarily believe in witchcraft themselves, though some (such as Sir Isaac Newton) did. On the whole they merely wanted a quiet life. We can imagine the conversation in Annie's Alehouse around 1670:

"Young Stephen Dorrell's cow gave birth to a two-headed calf last Michaelmas."

"So she did. Thou speakest the truth, Master Marlow. And 'twas just after he'd had a visit from Old Mother Thatcher."

"Old Mother Thatcher from Belgravia Barn, hard by Denis's Duckpond, thou meanest? She hath the evil eye all right, if thou asketh me. She gave a funny look to farmer Hogg also before his privy was burned to a cinder."

"Aye, she be a witch all right, no question."

There are other Conservatives who believe that, whether she is a witch or not, she would have handled the beef crisis more adroitly than Mr Major. She would certainly have handled it more aggressively, if necessary eating British beef herself on the pavements of Paris, if she had first failed to force-feed the French. This is an understandable view, given Mr Major's predilection for adopting a confident posture to begin with, then retreating from it in fits and starts. It is almost embarrassing to provide examples, ranging as they do from the future of Mr Norman Lamont to the fate of Mr David Mellor.

But it is worth remembering that in every case Mr Major began by taking the decent, honourable and principled course. He was diverted from it, or forced to reverse completely, by his backbenchers, the Tory tabloids or both. In the present crisis he began by behaving with admirable openness. He is now having to trim at the behest not only of press and Parliament but of the National Farmers Union and the commissars of Brussels. It is, however, romanticism to believe that Lady Thatcher would have behaved differently. Once the initial information was out - an important proviso - she would have moved further and faster to restore public confidence or, in other words, to satisfy the mob: that is all. And why speculate on what she would have done when we know what she did do in the salmonella scare of 1988? Mrs Edwina Currie said that most of our egg production was infected with salmonella. She was duly sacked; chickens were slaughtered, farmers generously compensated; and the incidence of salmonella is higher now than it was then.

"You will find it a very good practice always to verify your references, Sir." So advised the 19th century president of Magdalen College, Dr MJ Routh. Yes indeed. Accordingly I have looked up again the Gospel according to St Mark. What he says is that Pilate handed over Jesus not "to restore public confidence" but because he was "willing to content the people". Just so. It is the same thought, expressed in slightly better English.