There may be no cure for foot-in-mouth disease

Click to follow
The Independent Online
HAVING observed Mr Stephen Dorrell, Mr Douglas Hogg and Mr John Major last week, I find it difficult to agree with the writer in the Guardian who claimed that "top of the agenda for ... cabinet ministers in their statements to Parliament was how to stop the panic and protect the beef market". If this was indeed the primary object of Mr Major and his colleagues, one can only conclude that they went about it with an ineptitude striking even by the standards of the present administration.

If they had really wanted to stop the panic, they would not have started it in the first place by authorising the announcement Mr Dorrell made on Wednesday. He would have refrained from saying that, while there was no scientific proof that BSE caused its human equivalent, nevertheless it was possible there was a connection. What is that supposed to mean to a layman? I am such myself, though one of the few political columnists, I believe, with A-levels - Higher School Certificate it was called in those days - in Mathematics and Physics.

Most of what I learned then I have forgotten now. But I do know that, if you switch on an electric lamp, it lights through a recognised process of cause and effect, unless there is a fault somewhere. If you smoke 20 cigarettes a day, you are more likely to get lung cancer than if you do not smoke any at all. There is no scientific guarantee, however, that you will suffer that unpleasant fate. My own father smoked that number and died at 86 in good health, except that his heart gave out.

Many "scientific" assertions about death and disease rest on statistical evidence and assessments of probability. If you fall out of an aeroplane, you are virtually certain to die from what doctors dub multiple injuries. But your chances of falling are very small, though not perhaps as small as of winning the National Lottery.

Not only should Mr Dorrell have refrained from making the statement he did in the form he chose. Having decided to make it, he should not have delayed till this weekend before asking his committee to address themselves to whether it was "safe" for children to eat beef. This was the question Mr Tony Blair asked Mr Major on Thursday. Though the embattled Ms Harriet Harman had been in fine fighting form at Mr Dorrell's expense on the previous afternoon, it was Mr Blair's question which showed he intended to politicise, or New Labourise, the beef issue, as he later refused to politicise the Irish elections issue - even though Mr Major is more culpable over the latter, for he knows about elections, whereas he knows nothing about cows and their ailments.

Indeed, of all the prime ministers who have presided over our affairs since Sir Robert Walpole, only Lady Thatcher (who holds two degrees in Chemistry from Oxford and played a part in inventing Mr Whippy ice-cream) could have begun to understand the business. Lord Salisbury used to conduct scientific experiments as a hobby, while Harold Wilson understood statistics and, in the days before the pocket calculator, enjoyed demonstrating his mastery of the slide rule. Winston Churchill would have called in his sinister scientific familiar, FA Lindemann, who would doubtless have come up with some crackpot scheme.

Unfortunately, Lady Thatcher did not interest herself in the matter. Mr Major does not understand it. He could not answer Mr Blair's question. But who could? It is not whether it is safe to feed the brains of diseased sheep to herbivorous cattle, which common sense and humanity alike should have told us it was not. It is rather whether it is safe to feed cattle to carnivorous children. My experience is that children are not natural carnivores, and acquire their taste for beefburgers because they like the accompanying chips and ketchup.

Mr Major expects the reply to his question by tomorrow. But it is not one the committee can answer. It is not a question any committee could answer. You could assemble a committee of the greatest scientists of the century - Crick, Fleming, Gowland Hopkins, Hodgkin, Pauling, Salk, Sherrington and Watson - and they still could not answer it. They might be able to provide an explanation, which no one has done yet, of how BSE is transmitted to humans, if indeed it is. They might provide a probability for the acquisition of the disease. But they could not advise us whether the risk was worth taking.

Nor could any government. Risk can be evaluated by others. But whether it is worth taking is a matter for parents and, when they are competent, for the children themselves. For myself, I do not propose to pay the slightest attention either to the appalling Ms Sheila McKechnie or - what may prove more difficult - to the equally bossy but more powerful European Community.

Far from resembling the picture painted in the Guardian, ministers strike me as completely out of their depth. The one partial exception is Mr Hogg. He seems to understand the ramifications of European law. But then, the law is what he knows about. Undoubtedly there is evidence of negligence and neglect by ministers. Nevertheless, if I were a representative of the People's Party or a leader writer in the Prig Press, I should be disinclined to whoop too loudly.

For what has happened is a consequence of the collectivisation of agriculture. England was ideally suited to this process owing to the enclosures of the 18th century and the prevalence of large estates, protected and sustained by the land law.

Two world wars taught us to believe that we should grow as much food as we could. The inter-war period saw the proliferation of the marketing boards, set up solely with the interests of the producer in mind. The second world war created the War Agricultural Committees, which told farmers what they could and could not do. The post-war Labour government took pride in the amount of taxpayers' money it was disbursing to the farmers and the high regard in which they held its agriculture minister, the Yorkshireman Tom Williams. I am one of the few who remember Stanley ("Featherbed") Evans, who in 1950 was sacked from junior office at the Ministry of Food for saying the farmers were feather-bedded.

So it went on, from Featherbed Evans to Foot-and-Mouth Fred Peart. In the Community the largesse has been even more munificent, though differently distributed, the larger farms the gainers. Farming, as Mr Hamish McRae reminded us in an excellent article in Friday's Independent, is the sole industry exempted from market forces. This is the one happy aspect to the affair. For the first time since 1945, the parties may bring themselves to examine the place of agriculture - in particular, whether it should be protected, subsidised and regulated as it is, as much within the Community today as it used to be before 1973. In this examination, Labour has as many assumptions to question as that traditional friend of the farmers, the Conservative Party.