Desperate times

Richard North

Just over four years ago I wrote a piece for UKEPRA News, on civil disobedience, quoting the 19th Century political commentator, Walter Bagehot, sometime editor of the Economist. I quoted one of his arguments against the steady incursions of centralised government, summed up in the following passage:

"Our freedom is the result of centuries of resistance, more or less legal, more or less illegal, more or less audacious, or more or less timid, to the executive government. We have accordingly, inherited the traditions of conflict, and preserve them in the fullness of victory. We look on State action, not as our own action, but as alien action; as an imposed tyranny from without, not as a consummated result of our own organized wishes".

At the time, this was in the context of the egg layer slaughter policy, and UKEP's activities to frustrate the pointless destruction of egg producers' livelihoods. In the article, I wrote that there is an honourable and necessary tradition in civil disobedience. Few bad laws, few corrupt administrations have yielded to the polite lobbyist and reasoned argument... The way forward is obvious and inevitable, if only because now, the consequences of yielding to evil are greater than those of opposing it.

In the final analysis, the stance taken by UKEP worked, as indeed it did when egg producers themselves had blockaded ports to stem the flow of imported eggs - the very first farming group to take such action. Now the beef producers are learning the same lesson - that the craven, "softly-softly" approach favoured by the NFU, sucking up to government and accepting any and every insult simply does not work.

My own contacts with farmers this week - and I have had many - have made it very clear to me the enormous depth of frustration and anger which has brought them to the point of abandoning the NFU line, and brought them to the docks. One cattle man told me he could not believe he was doing what he was doing, and the "ringleader" of the Anglesea protest is himself a magistrate, a pillar of his local community, law-abiding to the last.

What government should recognise, therefore, is that when normally law abiding men and women start to take unlawful actions, they must be very desperate indeed. Farmers are no "renta-mob", who can be whipped into action over any and every passing fad, but serious people who think long and hard before taking direct action.

However, almost as a kick in the teeth, shortly after the beef producers had dumpled Irish beefburgers into the sea, the "mad doctor" Cunningham announced he was banning bone-in beef. And, once again I find myself quoting from the same piece I wrote those many years ago, this time United States Judge Louis Brandeis, in 1928, who warned that,

"Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the government's purposes are beneficial. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion to their liberty by evil minded rulers. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding".

I used this in the context of the government prohibiting egg producers from sending egg from infected flocks to pasteurisation, an insane and entirely unwarranted ban. Now we find something equally insane and unwarranted. But there is a difference. Led by the public response, the media has been taking a robust line, coming to the view that people should be allowed to make their own decisions as to risk. Government should not be making laws which tell people what they can and cannot eat.

In this, there is something of a new mood. It is not only the farmers who are demonstrating, but the public - and demonstrating in the most effective way, by going out and buying ribs of beef, T-bone steaks and oxtail in massive quanities, offering the nanny Cunningham the consumers' equivalent of two fingers.

But the government response has also been interesting, and instructive. Rather than take note of public sentiment, and abandon its plans for this ridiculous ban, it has brought it forward from the New Year to the 16th December, rushing it in as fast as the administrative process will allow. Similarly, with the farmers, it has instructed the police to take a hard line, to the extent that blockading farmers were even threatened with having police dogs set on them. No such action was taken with the live export demonstrators.

What we seem to have, therefore, is the first elements of a government at war with its people, entirely intolerant of dissent. Gone is any pretence of a listening government, one which is the servant of the people, one which is responsive to its wishes. This New Labour is beginning to show its colours, naked in tooth and claw - doctrinaire, violent, dogmatic and uncaring, and quite nasty with it.

And so it comes to pass that we have elected a government which is going to wipe out British agriculture as we know it, driving thousands of farmers into bankruptcy, and which is going to make it a criminal offence - punishable by an unlimited fine and/or two years in prison - for a butcher or restauranteur to sell a member of the public a T-bone steak. Could we have ever thought this was possible? These are indeed desperate times.