Issue 251 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review
Every cloud has a silver lining, and in the case of the current foot and mouth disease epidemic there has been a bonus second silver lining.
Firstly, as a result of the disease, the Countryside Alliance demonstration in London was cancelled. Secondly, that favourite pursuit of Countryside Alliance folk everywhere, fox hunting, has had to be banned for the duration. So the Tory Party at play has had to suspend its activities, and instead demand greater subsidies and further compensation as a largely self inflicted wound spreads.
Needless to say, as the Countryside Alliance supporters cry about their awful plight, they try to focus our minds on the Emmerdale vision of farming, that of the small farmer struggling to make a livelihood and survive. The reality is, though, that their concerns, and indeed the bulk of the compensation, is focused on and directed towards very wealthy large landowners--in other words, the 'gentlemen capitalists' who have great regard for their profits, little for the wellbeing of their livestock and none at all for their workforce.
We should shed few tears for them. In their drive for profits these 'guardians of rural knowledge and tradition' were happy to feed non-carnivorous animals on the ground residue of other animals, supplement that diet with animal shit, and then express wonder that anything had gone wrong.
Happy to poison us, they moaned and wailed about measures taken to protect us (little and late though they were) and exuded xenophobic rage that governments elsewhere in Europe were none too keen on using British beef to poison their own populations. For all their Countryside Alliance solidarity, they were happy to undercut one another in the drive for supermarket contracts, and if this meant abattoirs closing, so be it. If it meant driving past abattoir after abattoir to get the best deal, so be it. If it meant purchasing the cheapest and most dodgy feed, so be it.
They proved to be guardians of nothing bar their own greed. Indeed, one farmer representative recently claimed on radio that if you didn't compensate the farmers then they would hide their herds rather than slaughter them. In other words, they must be given money or they would commit a criminal offence. When this tactic is used on the New York subway--where sometimes people begging can be heard to say that if you don't give they will turn to crime--it is denounced, and can even be seen as criminal intimidation. When British farmers do it they get government money. As the old song goes, it's the rich who get the gravy, it's the poor that get the blame.
Besides, where is the countryside responsibility, and the farmer solidarity, in concealing your own herds while endangering those of your neighbours around you?
Of course, the hapless Nick Brown doesn't stand up to any of this, and in the process makes himself an international laughing stock. In trying to placate the farmers and allay their wrath he calmly announced to the incredulity of almost everyone that the crisis was now under control and would soon be over. This proved to be as wide of the mark as a William Hague speech on Britishness (or on anything else, come to think of it). 'Ah,' said the farmers, 'the government's not doing enough,' so he then launched his culling campaign. As a result we are greeted by scenes on our television screens of sobbing farmers bewailing the death of Daisy the childlike cow or Porky the family pig, both of whose lives had been shortened by at most two years before they headed off to the abattoir.
Again, all very selective stuff. Most of the big farmers do not give their livestock names, and would only recognise one from another by their potential market worth. So Brown mismanages in an attempt to appease, and finds himself and his policies ridiculed by Irish and French government ministers.
Meanwhile the workers of Vauxhall, Ford, Rover or Corus are left to their own devices without any subsidies or compensation to help maintain their jobs and livelihoods. What the farmers take for granted, the rest of us are denied by government economic orthodoxy.
It should be stressed, of course, that farm workers will not receive any compensation. Usually enduring the lowest pay and some of the worst working conditions in Britain, they are frequently blackmailed into not joining unions, and risk losing not just their livelihoods but their accommodation, which is often tied to the job.
They will be the first victims of the crisis, and the last to receive any relief when it is over, yet they are hardly ever mentioned. The Countryside Alliance may try to blackmail and bully them onto its marches, but it has nothing to say about their plight, because it represents those who benefit from the exploitation, crap conditions and job insecurity that the workforce suffers.
Meanwhile every bad practice and self inflicted disaster is blamed on someone else. The EU is responsible, or eastern Europe, or, best of all, housewives for wanting 'cheap food'. Typical urbanites, scratching around for cheap food rather than lavishing all their wages on the very best and most expensive fare. The truth is of course that most people don't find feeding their families a cheap experience, and will find it hard to take seriously being told otherwise by some plummy-accented rich farmer.
There is one other irony in all this. Farmers have been complaining about 'gluts' of certain foodstuffs on the market bringing down prices. It is one thing to be told there is a glut of washing machines, or a glut of cars. The craziness of capitalist production can easily mean overproduction of this or that product. There is, however, something very wicked about hearing that there are food gluts. While Comic Relief shows the tragedy and starvation taking place in places like Rwanda, British farmers wail and moan about gluts. Now that clearly is foot in mouth.