A black and white issue

The culling of badgers is irrelevant, malicious and ineffective.

I'm not a fully-signed up fan of "evidence-based politics", which you might find odd, since I'm a statistician. It's because it's often used to mean "I've found a small sociological study which supports the belief I had anyway, and I'm now going to call that study proof that I am right, and label anyone irrational if they don't agree with me about the science." Applying the definite article in front of the word "science" is the fastest way to make me suspect you're trying to shut down a debate.

Sometimes, though, the evidence comes from a more reputable source: a properly designed scientific experiment. Such is the case with the evidence about the impact of culling badgers on the incidence of bovine TB. I'm a little shocked to find, via googling, that I first wrote about this in 2008, more than three years ago. After all that time to review the scientific literature, DEFRA is now suggesting that farmers should be allowed to shoot badgers more or less at random, if anything a worse proposal than a total cull. With apologies, this is a black-and-white issue.

The Independent Study Group on Cattle TB (ISG) presented its final report (to David Miliband: remember him?) in December 2007. To say that the statisticians who took part in the work of the ISG are eminent is like saying David Beckham is quite a well known footballer. Christl Donnelly, George Gettinby, and especially Sir David Cox FRS, are statistical royalty. They were core members of the ISG and assisted with the design, analysis and interpretation of the studies the group commissioned into whether or not badger culling would have a positive impact on bovine TB.

You can read the full report here. It's worth reading this paragraph from John Bourne, ISG Chairman, in his overview to the Environment Secretary:

'The ISG's work - most of which has already been published in peer-reviewed scientificjournals - has reached two key conclusions. First, while badgers are clearly a source of cattle TB, careful evaluation of our own and others' data indicates that badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain. Indeed, some policies under consideration are likely to make matters worse rather than better. Second, weaknesses in cattle testing regimes mean that cattle themselves contribute significantly to the persistence and spread of disease in all areas where TB occurs, and in some parts of Britain are likely to be the main source of infection. Scientific findings indicate that the rising incidence of disease can be reversed, and geographical spread contained, by the rigid application of cattle-based control measures alone.'

I don't really think it's worth trying to rephrase that, as the statement and the evidence which supports it are as clear as day. But let me try: The culling of badgers is a psychological displacement activity, which will needlessly increase the amount of suffering on the planet. That's bad enough. But it won't keep cattle free from TB either.

I can't remember the last time a policy managed to be irrelevant, malicious and ineffective, all at the same time. Sometimes - I was going to write "politicians", but that's unfair, we all do this - sometimes we wish for something so much that we refuse to notice that the actions we're taking will actually prevent our desire from coming into effect. Something like that is happening here, I think.

Caroline Spelman - it was quite hard to convince people that selling off forests made sense (you did convince me). If you permit random culling of badgers to go ahead, you'll look back at the forest sell-off U-turn with fondness, I think. Please make use of the world-class, first-rate, independent scientific work that has been carefully done on this subject, and ask both DEFRA and the NFU to think again.

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Leader: Theresa May and the resurgence of the state

More than any of her recent predecessors, the Prime Minister seems willing to challenge the economic and political orthodoxies of the past 35 years.

Theresa May entered office in more tumultuous circumstances than any other prime minister since 1945. The UK’s vote to leave the European Union was a remarkable rebuke to the political and business establishment and an outcome for which few had prepared. Mrs May recognised that the result was more than a revolt against Brussels. It reflected a deeper alienation and discontent. Britain’s inequalities of wealth and opportunity, its regional imbalances and its distrusted political class all contributed to the Remain campaign’s ­defeat. As she said in her speech in Birmingham on 11 July: “Make no mistake, the referendum was a vote to leave the European Union, but it was also a vote for serious change.”

When the financial crisis struck in 2007-2008, David Cameron, then leader of the opposition, was caught out. His optimistic, liberal Conservative vision, predicated on permanent economic growth, was ill-suited to recession and his embrace of austerity tainted his “modernising” project. From that moment, the purpose of his premiership was never clear. At times, austerity was presented as an act of pragmatic bookkeeping; at others, as a quest to shrink the state permanently.

By contrast, although Mrs May cautiously supported Remain, the Leave vote reinforced, rather than contradicted, her world-view. As long ago as March 2013, in the speech that signalled her leadership ambitions, she spoke of the need to confront “vested interests in the private sector” and embrace “a more strategic role” for the state. Mrs May has long insisted on the need to limit free movement of people within the ­European Union, and anticipated the causes of the Leave vote. The referendum result made the national reckoning that she had desired inevitable.

More than any of her recent predecessors, the Prime Minister seems willing to challenge the economic and political orthodoxies of the past 35 years. She has promised worker representation on company boards, binding shareholder votes on executive pay, improved corporate governance and stricter controls on foreign takeovers.

The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has set the ­Labour Party on a similar course, stating in his conference speech that the “winds of globalisation” are “blowing against the belief in the free market and in favour of intervention”. He pointedly criticised governments which did not try to save their domestic steel industries as China dumped cheap steel on to global markets.

We welcome this new mood in politics. As John Gray wrote in our “New Times” special issue last week, by reasserting the role of the state as the final guarantor of social ­cohesion, Mrs May “has broken with the neoliberal model that has ruled British politics since the 1980s”.

The Prime Minister has avoided the hyperactive style of many new leaders, but she has deviated from David Cameron’s agenda in several crucial respects. The target of a national Budget surplus by 2020 was rightly jettisoned (although Mrs May has emphasised her commitment to “living within our means”). Chancellor Philip Hammond’s Autumn Statement on 23 November will be the first test of the government’s ­fiscal boldness. Historically low borrowing costs have strengthened the pre-existing case for infrastructure investment to support growth and spread prosperity.

The greatest political ­challenge facing Mrs May is to manage the divisions within her party. She and her government must maintain adequate access to the European single market, while also gaining meaningful control of immigration. Her statist economic leanings are already being resisted by the free-market fundamentalists on her benches. Like all prime ministers, Mrs May must balance the desire for clarity with the need for unity.

“Brexit means Brexit,” she has repeatedly stated, underlining her commitment to end the UK’s 43-year European
affair. If Mrs May is to be a successful and even transformative prime minister, she must also prove that “serious change” means serious change and a determination to create a society that does not only benefit the fortunate few. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories