Issue 247 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review


Peculiarly British Disasters

From BSE to a railway in chaos, the role of the market has worsened many aspects of life in Britain, argues Peter Morgan

The future's bright for Railtrack

  • Profits for 2001-02 will be £400 million
  • This is expected to rise to £1.2 billion by 2005-06, more than £3 million a day
  • Railtrack also expects future dividends from their £100 million plus property portfolio
  • Caught in the flooding
    Caught in the flooding

    There was a time last month when the country's infrastructure was on the verge of collapse and the whole country seemed to be grinding to a halt. The train network virtually ceased to function, large areas of the country were flooded, the BSE report brought back fears about food safety, and the government warned of a pending winter crisis in the NHS. Nothing seemed to work. Everything was going wrong.

    It is easy to conclude that this is just the way that Britain is--that every once in a while we face these 'natural' disasters. Indeed, this was New Labour's response to the flooding, as government ministers sought to play up the international dimension caused by global warming and the effects this has on our climate, while at the same time playing down or even denying any responsibility the government has for doing anything about it.

    Yet there is nothing 'natural' or 'inevitable' about these disasters. Rather, they are a result of policies pursued by successive Tory and now Labour governments which have put profit and the market first. It is for this reason that warnings are ignored, advice is not followed, public services deteriorate and people suffer. The lack of investment in infrastructure means that there are now drastic and serious problems in sewage and water, rail and the London tube, flood defences, schools and hospitals.

    Take, for example, the state of Britain's flood defences. A study commissioned earlier this year by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) warned the government of the consequences of not raising flood defence spending: 'Failure to do so will inevitably lead to an increase in economic damages year by year, ie when a significant event occurs, such as in 1953 or 1998, the extent of area affected and the resulting losses/damage could potentially be catastrophic unless other action is taken.' The report goes on, 'Continuing to invest at present levels of approximately £0.2 billion a year will result in increasing annual average damage eventually reaching some £1.8 billion a year.'

    We have been warned. With the greenhouse effect and global warming increasing the possibility of heavy rain, further flooding is likely unless the government acts now. There is a rational solution to this problem, but when the government is completely at the mercy of the market the priorities of profit take precedence.

    Nowhere was this more clearly revealed than with the BSE crisis. The 16 volumes and thousands of pages that comprised the Phillips report fail to explain why BSE became such an epidemic through the 1980s and 1990s. So Phillips says, 'The practice in the UK of recycling animal protein as an ingredient of animal feed dates back to at least 1926... No rendering process has yet been devised that will guarantee to inactivate BSE.' Maybe so, but the production of ground-up cattle remains for animal feed (called MBM) grew enormously during the 1980s because of the huge financial incentives involved. This was a direct result of Tory government policy which exacerbated the problem of infected feed entering the food chain. No other reason can explain the fact that, as the report says, 'BSE has been a peculiarly British disaster. Almost all the victims have been in the United Kingdom... Over 170,000 cattle have been diagnosed with BSE here compared with fewer than 1,500 abroad, mostly it would appear traceable to British animals or infected feed at the beginning of the British epidemic.'

    Not only did the market dictate that infected feed continued to enter the food chain, but those scientists who were critical of the meat industry and warned of the dangers of beef were either attacked, had their research funding cut or were described by government officials as 'the enemy'. One such person was Professor Richard Lacey. In his submission to the BSE inquiry on 4 March 1998 Lacey records the many articles and interviews he gave which warned of an impending disaster. Yet how seriously did the government at the time take Lacey? He states, 'In November 1994 my book Mad Cow Disease: The History of BSE in Britain was published. Following immediate hostile comments by the ministry veterinarians in the Times, no bookshop stocked it.'

    Malcolm Tibbert holds a copy of the Phillips report and a picture of his wife, Margaret, who died from the human form of BSE
    Malcolm Tibbert holds a copy of the Phillips report and a picture of his wife, Margaret, who died from the human form of BSE

    Whipping up a scare

    Another scientist attacked, although vindicated by the Phillips report, was Stephen Dealler. He gave evidence to the Philips inquiry of a meeting he and Richard Lacey had with Maff officials in 1993: 'This meeting took place at the Maff pavilion at Stoneleigh National Agricultural Showground... It seemed initially that Professor Lacey and I were being treated as people who simply did not understand the subject. It was as if anything that we put forward was treated as invalid if it did not agree with their point of view... We were asked how we could pretend that there was a risk to humans from bovine products when it had been shown that BSE was not present in the tissues in the list that they had produced... Professor Lacey was determined that inadequate research was being carried out to find the level of infectivity in the tissues and until this was available we must not make statements indicating that beef was safe... Professor Lacey and I were accused of whipping up an anti-beef scare... The impression that I got from the meeting was that Dr Tyrrell [chair of the government's BSE advisory committee] was accepting Maff's position on BSE as fact and as such it would be very difficult to get information assessed independently in the UK.'

    When referring to the extreme difficulty that he had in getting his research into BSE published, Stephen Dealler said, 'My worry all the way through this was the SEAC [BSE advisory committee]/Maff had the ear of the government, the ear of the editors, the ear of the research funders, the ear of the meeting organisers. There appeared to be a "there is only one idea on the subject that is worthwhile for publication" and that is the SEAC's feeling.' He concluded, 'I would like to emphasise my earnest wish that if another similar crisis occurs, it will be handled differently... Advisers to the government seemed to be provided with limited information and did not make calculations which would have provided answers on the way forward. The tendency was not to find out "bad news".'

    The fact that over 80 people have now died as a result of BSE is not some accident, but a consequence of the policy of the government of the day. What then of the new 'independent' Foods Standards Agency (FSA) that has been established by New Labour in the light of the BSE disaster? This supposedly takes the interests of consumers away from those of the producers, but it is questionable how independent the 15 individuals who have been chosen to head the FSA are. They include Michael Gibson, the board member for Scotland, who is a partner in Evindale Farms, which breeds and fattens cattle, has a 20 percent shareholding in Cantray Estates, a private limited company whose main activity is the operation of a butchers' business trading as Macbeth's, and is a director of Highlanders Ltd, a company responsible for promoting commercial aspects of Highland cattle. He also does consultancy work for the meat and farming trades, and is a member of the National Farmers Union and the Scottish Countryside Alliance.

    The FSA also includes Karol Bailey, who runs Holly Tree Farm. Close family members have shareholdings in Allied Domecq, Bass, Express Dairies, Granada and Northern Foods. Another FSA board member is Vernon Sankey. He is a non-executive director or chairman of four different companies, some of which are involved in the food industry. He frequents Listeners--a private dinner club visited by those involved in the food industry--and the Thirty Club of London, a private media club attended by those involved in the media and advertising, some of whom work for the food industry. Some of these people, appointed by New Labour, have interests at odds with those it claims to protect.

    The same is true on the railways. Amid all the talk of new investment and a new culture of safety on the rail, one fundamental question that seems to be overlooked is that the body responsible for safety on the rail is run by those who own it. So the Rail Safety and Standards Directorate is headed by Rod Muttram, who worked for Railtrack. He is also a member of the Institute of Directors and the Institute of Management, plus he is a director of Railway Safety, a subsidiary company of Railtrack set up this year.

    Yet the problem of safety on the rail is not just one of a conflict of interest but, much more fundamentally, the poor levels of investment over many years. Prior to privatisation the rail network was starved of investment which led to a very rapid and significant deterioration in safety levels--hence the Southall, Paddington and now Hatfield rail crashes. Following Paddington John Prescott promised the railways would be made safe whatever the cost. Yet the train operators still refuse, on the basis of cost, to introduce the ATP safety system which stops trains that pass a red light. Of the £14.9 billion of 'new' investment that was announced following the Hatfield derailment, £10 billion of this would normally have been spent to keep the system running. While the other £4.9 billion will lead to improvements, many experts predict that this still falls far short of what is required to make the rail network safe.

    Moreover, the amount of government subsidy being pumped into the rail network would have been enough to take it back into public control. As the Economist said, '£4.7 billion is roughly equivalent to the stock market value of the company last week. If the government had taken an issue of new shares in return for its injection of funds, it would have owned almost half the company and, in effect, carried out its threats made while in opposition to renationalise the company.' To have done so, however, would have meant admitting that the market is not the best way to run our public services. It would have brought into question the privatisation of air traffic control and New Labour's plans for the London tube.

    What, then, are the prospects for reversing Britain's decline and so improving our services? This would require a programme of huge investment and public spending by the government, something which New Labour is against. In fact, it is determined to ensure that all new investment is undertaken by private capital--hence the proliferation of PFI projects in health and education. To challenge this means challenging the spending priorities of the government.

    Renationalisation of rail and stronger controls are an essential step, but they cannot alter the fundamental structures of society which lead to these crises. The state itself represents the concentrated and organised force of the capitalist class, which uses many devices to ensure that it acts in its interests. Hence the resources it spends on private lobbying groups, the use of patronage, bribes and favours to win influence, the promotion of individuals to positions of power and, ultimately, the use of force. Whilst governments introduce regulations or watchdogs to try and ensure the state has a degree of accountability, they are far less powerful than the interests to which they are opposed.

    Managing the system

    Labour governments have always had to choose between increasing democracy for workers and protecting the interests of those who own the wealth, and they have always come down in favour of the latter.

    The economics of the market and the political order of the state are partial and mutually dependent aspects of capitalism. Their combined effect is to perpetuate a state of affairs which condemns workers to poverty, low wages and insecurity. Any challenge to this state of affairs--whether through campaigning against those responsible for the BSE disaster, or calling for those who are to blame for the lack of investment in the railways to resign--strikes a blow against those at the top. It also changes the balance of forces in favour of working people, so that we have a system that is fairer, more accountable and more democratic. And it gives those who want to fight for their own demands--such as better pay, union rights or conditions at work--the confidence to do so.

    Ultimately, we must recognise the limits of what can be achieved under capitalism. To achieve real change, working people will have to establish a society which they truly control, where they democratically determine where resources should go and what should be spent. Only when this is achieved can we have a society in which the needs of the many are put before the profits of the few. While we continue to live under the constraints of the market, the aspects of life which we took for granted can only worsen.

    The recent carnage at Hatfield in which four people lost their lives
    The recent carnage at Hatfield in which four people lost their lives

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