It's just panic, not decisive action

Always question a policy that has near-unanimous support from established opinion: politicians of all parties, civil servants, media pundits, assorted "experts". Such a policy has not been subjected to proper scrutiny; one of the merits of our sometimes tiresomely adversarial political system is that, usually, very little goes without challenge. But the outbreak of foot-and-mouth has caused the normal rules of political and media disputation to be suspended. It concerns subjects - agriculture and veterinary science - of which metropolitan politicians and journalists are almost entirely ignorant. It involves an industry that governments of all parties hold in almost superstitious awe - a ruined agriculture conjures the spectre of an island nation starving in time of war or of a starving populace rioting in the streets; it suggests rampant weeds, ruined barns, silent farmyards, scenes from Thomas Hardy. Above all, it is completely unexpected, leaving nothing to draw on save ancient precedent, which is in any case Whitehall's favoured formula.

And so foot-and-mouth must be dealt with exactly as it was during the last outbreak in 1967. Never mind that the 1967 outbreak could be confined largely to a few counties in Wales and the west of England because most livestock did not then move long distances, while this outbreak began after an animal had moved from Northumberland to Essex. Never mind that, in 1967, Britain's tourist industry was far smaller than it is now and that the whole rural leisure economy of theme parks, National Trust homes and countryside trails was in its infancy. Never mind that, in 1967, it made some sense to cancel sporting events and other large gatherings since people did not, then, move around so much for so many other reasons.

The truth is that, 34 years ago, it was possible to contain the disease, and to do so without significant damage to other parts of the economy. It was cheaper all round to offer generous compensation to farmers for slaughtered animals rather than allow the disease to spread. It is extremely doubtful that that is any longer true. But a policy first developed more than a century ago - to protect the health of the aristocrats' pedigree animals, rather than to help the mass of ordinary farmers - has now been put into operation, with the same blind faith as British generals implemented their battle plans in the First World War. It was launched speedily and decisively - adverbs that are at a premium in modern politics (remember the kudos that Nick Brown, the Minister of Agriculture, received in the first week of the outbreak). It cannot now be reversed without admitting error and losing face, things that all politicians dread. So, Canute-like, ministers must continue to insist that the tide can be turned and that, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, a combination of slaughtering animals and closing the countryside will work.

The alternative policy is the mass vaccination of livestock herds. This would be expensive and not 100 per cent effective. It would be an admission, since vaccinated animals may still carry the virus, that the disease is endemic. This in turn would damage, but not destroy, exports. It is just possible that, when all these points are considered, there are compelling objections to vaccination, that what seems to suit the US, Canada, Australia and Argentina, and at least eight European countries until a decade ago, would not now suit Britain and other EU members. But nobody, least of all the Ministry of Agriculture, can state this with certainty. What is utterly clear is that vaccination was not considered at the beginning of the present outbreak because it had been ruled out in the distant past. It is also clear that compensation for farmers is always ruled in - and much of British agriculture is in such a depressed state that many may regard the slaughter of their herds, if it comes with a lump sum, as a blessed relief. An entire government department exists for no purpose other than to attend to farmers' interests. No equivalent department is devoted to tourism, which is already losing £100m a week, even though it employs more than four times as many people. (It seems to be the responsibility of Chris Smith's Department of Media, Culture and Sport, but the absence of any hint of it in the title says everything.) Therefore, there is no equivalent bureaucracy to deliver compensation for ruined hoteliers and publicans.

What does all this say about British politics and government? Stupidity, it must be said, is not confined to this country. The Irish government cancels rugby internationals, apparently in the belief that nobody travels from London to Dublin for any other reason. When it comes to food and agriculture, all governments take leave of their senses. But two observations should be made. First, somebody in government - perhaps a minister for the future, as proposed by Beth Egan on page 34 - should always be preparing for the unexpected. Second, the incessant demands on modern governments that "something must be done" should, as often as not, be ignored. As in the case of foot-and-mouth, what is hailed as decisive action is often merely institutional panic, which will lead, in the end, to an even bigger crisis.

What Yeats said about Feltz

Satire, it has been said, is now impossible because it is overtaken by reality. The same may be true of metaphor. On page 27, Ziauddin Sardar compares how we gaze at celebrities to how we gaze at zoo animals. In effect, we place them in human cages. Yet even as Sardar wrote, celebrities were being, not exactly caged, but incarcerated in an east London house. The result transcends the metaphor. A caged lion tells us little about the true lion in the wild. But Celebrity Big Brother, we think, shows the true celebrity in a natural human habitat. We learn (or think we learn) that Anthea Turner has hair trouble and that Vanessa Feltz is insecure. Dr Raj Persaud gravely asserts that the inmates should have "access to a therapist" (of course, they're celebrities). Marshall McLuhan's clever theories about media and messages cannot do justice to all this. We need Yeats to furnish a metaphor that may last: "O body swayed to music, O brightening glance/How can we know the dancer from the dance?"

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Trapped in the human zoo