Britain - From the BSE crisis to the "beef war": nationalist demagogy and the contradictions of Europe

Jul/Aug 1996

It is now nearly three months since, on March 20th, the government broke the news of an increasingly likely link between BSE, the "mad-cow disease", and CJD, Creutzfeld- Jacob disease in humans.

All of a sudden the criminal irresponsibility of politicians and food companies was exposed. For years, they had known about the scientists' warnings that BSE was spread via ruminant-proteins used in cattle feed. They had known about the possibility that BSE might be transmitted to humans, causing a particular form of CJD. And yet, despite all scientific evidence and warnings, ministers had chosen, knowingly, to allow the BSE epidemic to spread in Britain and to the rest of Europe.

This revealed a damning catalogue of negligence. Protective measures had been taken months, and in some cases years, too late to prevent the disease from spreading. Once these measures were taken, nothing was done to enforce them. Years after the first ban in June 1988, the same contaminated cattle feed was still being used by farmers and it was still being sold by processing companies and even exported to the continent. No actual measures were taken to force slaughtering and rendering operations to change their methods of work in order to minimise the risk of contagion. There was still no attempt at preventive detection of the presence of BSE in herds. The herds which were contaminated were not even isolated from other cattle. Sick animals were still being sold freely. And far from redoubling scientific efforts in order to diagnose the disease and to prevent it from spreading, the scientific budget devoted to research on BSE was reduced.

A host of corrupt practices affecting every level of the industry's and government's machineries came to light as well. It turned out that the habit of looking the other way was common among the staff in charge of enforcing hygiene regulations in the industry - both in the agencies which acted as subcontractors and among officials of the state veterinary service (22 of them are currently under investigation). It was also revealed that in order to bypass the screening for BSE of exported British animals when they arrived on the Continent, an illegal operation had been organised to export large numbers of animals via the Republic of Ireland where they were given forged Irish certificates. This operation was so large that it had to be almost open. Many officials, including some of very high rank, must have been in the know. Yet not one minister lifted a finger to stop this racket.

Prominent connections between the beef farming and industrial establishment and government spheres came to light as well. There was, for instance, the fact that a former Tory minister of agriculture "happened" to be a wealthy beef farmer as well, or, as the Food Magazine revealed, the fact that five senior civil servants in the ministry of agriculture also "happened" to sit on the boards of various companies with interests in food and agriculture, including Dalgety, the animal feed producer. And of course, the bottom line of this scandal, was that the main concern of government officials and politicians had been to preserve at any cost the profits of the handful of very big companies and proprietors operating in the beef industry.

All this should have been enough to trigger a scandal of national and international dimensions. In any food factory, an employee suspected of allowing an infective agent into a batch of products out of negligence would be sacked on the spot and probably investigated by the police. But the host of ministers, government officials, company and farm managers, etc., who had knowingly contributed to spreading BSE, resulting in the death of over 160,000 cows in Britain alone, and possibly risking a number of future human deaths which is still impossible to evaluate, retained their comfortable jobs and salaries without their role in this criminal disaster being even questioned seriously!

If there had ever been a scandal which exposed the danger of trusting the running of society to representatives of the capitalist class, thereby allowing the search for private profit to drive society, this was it!

But instead of the profiteers and their agents in governments being brought to account for once, three months later the "BSE crisis" has grown into a complete farce, featuring Major's personal "beef war" against the European Union, an outbreak of factional war in the Tory party and of ultra-chauvinism in the media and some politicians' circles.

Major's counter-attack

Attacking is the best means of defence - and by launching his "beef war" against Europe, Major took this old principle of military strategy to new, farcical heights. Being unable to provide the shadow of a credible justification for the criminal negligence of the past and present Tory administrations over the BSE affair, Major went on the war path against Europe - the trick is as old as politicians.

Of course, this policy of non-cooperation in European Union business is no more than posturing. Major knows very well that the more noises and spectacular gestures he and his ministers make against Europe, the less likely it is that the European governments will ease their ban on the export of British beef and its derivatives.

After all, these governments also have to take into account their own public opinion and the fear generated by the BSE crisis. Moreover they all have good reasons to feel uncomfortable about the whole affair. Didn't they turn a blind eye, for instance, to British exports of contaminated animal feed after its use for cattle was eventually officially banned in Britain in June 1988? Didn't they allow, in addition, tens of thousands of potentially sick British calves to be sold in Southern Europe? They too are keen to divert the attention of the public.

Besides, Europe's single market is one thing and the preoccupations of the European governments are another. Over the six years up to 1995, consumption of beef and veal fell by 6% across Europe - in part at least this would seem to be the result of the rise of unemployment and the fall of the working population's standard of living. As a result, however, most European governments are under pressure from their national cattle-owning farmers who are whining over their lost profits. Obviously, the ban on British beef is a splendid opportunity for the European governments to get their own farmers off their backs - and it does not cost them a penny!

That is to say, that since, for once, the European governments are able to claim the moral high ground by shifting the blame onto Major, and with some justification too, they are not likely to weaken their position by conceding to his gesticulations.

But then what does Major really care about this? On the contrary, his failure to get the European ban lifted may even work to his advantage by allowing him to pose as a victim of Europe's hostility, who tried to stand up against adversity, with the hope that this will make people forget that it is the British government which bears most of the damning responsibility for spreading BSE across Europe in the first place.

Beef becomes a patriotic cause

Many commentators have speculated that in launching the "beef war", Major was seeking to recreate something like the so-called "Falkland's factor" which gave Thatcher a sweeping victory in the 1983 general election. And it is true that not even the wildest speculation along those lines can be dismissed. For instance, the deliberately spectacular way in which the March 20th announcement itself was made may appear, in hindsight, so provocative (or suicidal) that one could even try to read some convoluted political calculation into it. Maybe so. But if this was the aim of Major's game, all that can be said today is that it hasn't worked, at least certainly not in the way the jingoistic wave generated through the Falklands war worked in Thatcher's favour. If the opinion polls are anything to go by, the "beef war" has not boosted Major's standing nor weakened that of the Labour party.

On the other hand, the Tories are probably not stupid enough to believe that a gimmick like this could be enough to reverse the long-standing trend generated against them in the electorate by the wear and tear due to so many years in office.

What is more likely is that Major has been seeking to limit the damages of the BSE crisis among the section of his party's electorate which is traditionally most loyal (and reactionary) - the only votes he has any chance of retaining in next year's general election and on whose loyalty hangs the future parliamentary profile of the Conservatives. By doing so, of course, he is not just fighting for the general interest of his party, but also for his own future as party leader - his popularity among the Tory electorate will be decisive if and when his leadership is contested by his rivals.

Major's problems is that in the context of an election which Labour is almost certain to win, even these voters cannot be taken for granted. They could be tempted by tactical voting or even choose to express their dissatisfaction with the Tory leadership by voting for a marginal candidate, such as the candidates of the Referendum Party, the new anti-European party set up by millionaire James Goldsmith. Hence the need for Major to avoid generating dissatisfaction among those voters.

In this respect, the difficulty with beef and BSE is that it affects burgers and fillet steaks in the same way. Unlike many other scandals in which the Tories have been involved, like the running down of the Health Service or the cuts in welfare provisions for the poorest, this one affects equally all social layers in society, and even to an extent it affects more those better-off layers who eat meat twice a day. Major had reason to fear, therefore, that the hard-core Tory faithful would not take his negligence too kindly.

And what is the language that this electorate is likely to respond to, if not that of nationalism? It is a milieu which still nurtures a nostalgia for the Empire, which has still to digest the stark fact that, in industrial terms, Britain is now far behind some of its former lesser competitors such as Germany, France or even Italy. Above all it is a milieu which is, and has always been deeply hostile to Europe, out of an entrenched xenophobia for some, and for others out of an irrational fear that Europe will force terrible diktats on Britain, such as for instance a comprehensive labour legislation, complete with a minimum wage and a weekly maximum for working hours (which would undoubtedly spell disaster for some small-time businessmen among the Tory faithful). In such a milieu, turning the support for British beef (and the denial of the BSE scare) into a patriotic duty against the threat of Europe was a crude but certainly effective trick, particularly well-adapted to these prejudices.

In this respect, it is worth noting in passing that the USA, Canada, New Zealand and Australia all banned imports of British beef long ago, without Major making any retaliatory gestures against them. Of course, these countries are in some way part of the fictional British Empire still alive in the dreams of the Tory faithful.

The Euro-sceptics jump on the bandwagon

Of course none of this was happening in a vacuum. The background to the BSE crisis was the on-going factional battle within the Tory party, which are becoming all the more vicious and frantic as Major's likely electoral defeat draws closer - the aftermath of a party's ousting from power is always the best time to put in a bid for the leadership and there is no shortage of aspiring leaders today.

But this factional war is not just confined to the party itself. The existence and the future of the factions depends also on the attitude of the Tory electorate - a faction without MPs would cease to exist in the Tory party. The fact that, for some time already, the Euro-sceptic factions have appeared to be the most dynamic and the only ones to be gaining ground, only reflects the efforts of the most ambitious Tory politicians to adapt to what remains of the party electorate. This is not a new phenomenon. It is worth remembering that the same Thatcher who likes to appear today as the mother of all Euro-sceptics, used to bash the heads of rebel anti-Europeans who opposed the Tory party's campaign to keep Britain in Europe, back in 1975! But then, of course, in those days the world economic crisis was still in the making, the party's electorate was somewhat different and the Tories were on an upward course.

The Euro-sceptic factions of the Tory party were bound to jump on the opportunity offered by the European ban of British beef exports. All the more so as they did not want to be overtaken on their right by Major's anti-European "beef war" and to find themselves on the same side as Major - quite embarrassing for their ambitions! Hence the nationalist and even jingoistic overbidding in Parliament, with Tony Marlow proposing to send " a gunboat" against Europe and Neil Hamilton making the sickest remark on record, accusing Bonn of proposing "a final solution" for the BSE problem in the "unnecessary slaughter of British cattle".

Meanwhile Bill Cash, a Tory backbencher and arch-anti-European, grabbed the opportunity to put forward a bill for a Referendum over "whether Britain should retain its power of government within Europe", which got no less than 74 Tory and 14 Labour votes, despite the blatant nonsense of the wording proposed. This in turn has led since to a rising tide of rhetoric about the need for Britain to withdraw totally from Europe, to the point of forcing Major to distance himself from these unruly allies.

In the meantime, all this overbidding was being duly relayed by the tabloids. The Sun hailed "a showdown on a scale rarely seen since the Battle of Britain" and launched a "Buy British Beef" stickers campaign, while the Daily Express came up with a "Major goes to war at last" headline. Only this time, these glorious statements were made by Major's cheering crowd, not by Euro-sceptic loonies.

Beyond the farce

Not all of Major's traditional supporters are taking his current posturing kindly. For instance, a journal came out on 25 May with a front page showing Major's portrait adorned with a pair of very credible bovine horns, under the headline "Mad, bad and dangerous for Britain". This was neither Private Eye nor some obscure opposition rag, but the very respectable business magazine The Economist, usually the mouthpiece of many of the City's heavyweights.

And this paper's editorial went on attacking the government's "often-thuggish supporters in the press", thundering against a government who, "just as a small group of football hooligans has done lasting damage to Britain's image abroad" to conclude that "as a way to sell newspapers, such things are merely risible. As a way to lead a country, however, they are more serious. For the danger is that other countries will take them seriously."

There were similar reactions coming from various business organisations and leading lights, including the CBI, accusing the Tory Euro-sceptics, but also Major of playing with fire and undermining British interests in Europe.

This puts in a nutshell the capitalists' own point of view. What bothers The Economist or the CBI, is not the responsibility of the Tories in the BSE crisis, but the way they handled it. In particular, they all criticise, just as the other European governments do, by the way, the public announcement made on March 20th, arguing that the whole affair could have been kept to reasonable dimensions by being dealt with behind closed doors. As to Major's "beef war" and non- cooperation policy, no-one is under any illusion today that Major's posturing may put the European Union at risk, nor that Major has any real intention to take a tougher anti-European stance. What The Economist objects to, is the trend initiated by Major of allowing domestic politics to interfere in such a crude way with the European Union's operation. If this became a habit and resulted in a multiplication of flare-ups in top EU bodies, it could very easily clog up the system.

Beyond the farcical aspects of Major's nationalistic "beef war" and the jingoistic accents of his Euro-sceptic rivals, lies the reality of the European Union, its fundamental contradictory nature and its fragility. On the one hand it is an attempt by the European capitalist classes to overcome the restrictions put on the development of the economy by obsolete national borders. On the other hand, these same capitalist classes remain deeply dependent for their profits on the subsidies of their national states which they keep using as their rear-base while they fight one another in the permanent worldwide economic war. Every time something goes wrong, therefore, they are bound to seek more protection from these states - at the expense of others and at the expense of the EU as a whole.

The stakes behind the beef crisis are small compared to the size of the economy of each European country. And this is why it is not likely, on is own, to lead to a real European crisis, regardless of Major's posturing. But it shows how such a crisis could develop in a more serious context, if the economic stakes and the rivalries were on a different scale. Then any nationalist language, any argument in favour of isolation as opposed to participation in Europe, could become the vehicle for large rival economic interests, whole industries for instance, which would be seeking a pretext to reinforce their national positions at the expense of their competitors, but also by the same token, at the cost of reinforcing national borders and at the risk of creating tensions between the states.

This is why the working class should have nothing to do with the anti-European factions and their nationalist language, from whatever part of the political spectrum.

Some out-and-out reactionaries such as Bill Cash are quite open about their aims. It is to isolate Britain from the rest of the world, harking back to a past when the country was "self- sufficient", in other words when it lived at the expense of the rest of the world without making any concessions in return. At least with people such as this, it is easy to know where they stand, and it is certainly not on the side of working class.

Others are more ambiguous, because they pretend to speak in the name of the interests of working people. For instance so-called "left" Labour gurus such as Tony Benn and Ken Livingstone who had no qualms about mixing their votes in with those of Bill Cash's reactionary supporters in the Commons over the organisation of a referendum over Europe. Or the GMB union leadership who got its recent conference to adopt a motion against a single European currency (as if the working class had anything to gain in the survival of the "Pound Sterling"). Not to mention some activists and groups who claim to base themselves on a revolutionary programme and, at the same time, set themselves the aim to fight for the withdrawal of Britain from Europe.

The European Union is a capitalist institution and as such it is first of all geared to allow the capitalist classes to exploit the working class. In that sense, it certainly has nothing to do with what would be a Europe, or rather a World, unified by the proletarian revolution in a common effort to build a society free of exploitation. That is our starting point. But our starting point must also be that the European Union exists and that any attempt to break it up, in other words to turn the clock back, or even to oppose new steps towards economic or political integration, would only result in reinforcing national borders and divisions. As if national borders - or any kind of national institutions for that matter - had ever been in themselves a protection against capitalist exploitation! This would only mean a step backward for the British working class.

Unknowingly, Major is today giving a graphic illustration of what nationalist demagogy in general, and anti-European demagogy in particular, is really about - a Trojan horse for rivalries between politicians or capitalists. In such rivalries, the working class has no side to choose.