One of the many truly awful aspects of being a modern politician must be the off-the-cuff remark that is pounced upon and for which you are held to account, when the substance of the matter is, well, what really matters. I suppose that it’s the speed and proliferation of modern media that creates the sound-bite culture which produces this political price to pay. But the Prime Minister should know better than most how to isolate himself from foot-in-mouth disease.
Last week, at a low-profile gathering of Labour Party supporters at Hartpury agricultural college in Gloucestershire he said casually: “We all want cheaper food, but on the other hand the supermarkets have pretty much got an armlock on you people at the moment.”
In the context of foot and mouth disease and its threat to the meat industry, this comment is something of a distraction, but it was seized upon by the supermarket chains as an example of Blair’s arrogance towards their industry. An Asda spokesperson remarked sniffily: “If Mr Blair wants to play politics that is up to him. We were under the impression that it was the Ministry of Agriculture, and not the supermarkets, that sets agri-policy in this country.”
In defence of Blair, this is a silly thing for Asda to say. Playing politics is what politicians do, so the comment is a bit like saying “If Mr Beckham wants to play football that’s up to him.” But, in defence of Asda, I believe that the PM’s remark tells us as much about Labour’s attitude to retail and business in general, as it does about the party’s attitude to farming.
To start with what Asda calls “agri-policy”. Here, Blair is caught in the hunting horns of a dilemma. His metropolitan antipathy towards hunting is well known and, in that, he will have made many an enemy among UK farmers. But foot and mouth is something else entirely when it comes to rural policy and – this is not sarcastic – I suspect that Blair is driven by a genuine compassion for the agricultural industry as it is visited by this latest and possibly terminal blight.
There is another view: it was UK farmers who fed herbivore livestock their own offal and sparked one of the greatest threats to the food chain of our, or possibly any, generation. It was UK farmers who ripped up medieval hedgerows to create economically efficient Canadian-style prairies. It was farmers who disfigured the UK’s countryside with garish oil-seed rape for European grant aid. It was farmers who took European Commission money to “set aside” land to produce nothing. It was farmers who transported livestock with foot and mouth disease to financially attractive abattoirs around the country. And yet it’s farmers who march on London with banners reading “Listen to us”.
But blaming farmers is not an option open to the Government. Doing so would not, in any case, sit well with Blair’s hand-wringing style. The alternative – for government to accept blame for presiding over the kind of disgusting regulation that brought us BSE and a lack of robustness in standing up to unreasonable European competition – is unthinkable for Blair, in election year or any other time. So the supermarket chains represent handy scapegoats.
Blair did not stop at his “armlock” comment. Apparently he went on to suggest that pressure to close small abattoirs had come from the supermarkets, a development that had contributed to a spread of foot and mouth disease. Tesco “sought clarification”, which was a nicely understated alternative to Asda’s sneer, and the Government’s damage-limitation machine coughed into action and told The Guardian: “It is ludicrous to suggest that the Prime Minister was in some way blaming the supermarkets for foot and mouth”.
Oh yeah? “He believes supermarkets are playing an important role during the current outbreak,” continued his spokesman. Well, he must have said that, too, at Hartpury agricultural college and it just didn’t get reported. No, I suspect putting supermarkets in the frame was an easy, cheap shot at whipping up the public antagonism that is bound to appear when meat shortages arrive and prices rise and directing that antagonism at the big, bad retailers and away from politicians.
This won’t do. I’ve laid into the supermarkets here on so many issues that I cannot be accused of being their apologist, but on this occasion not only are the supermarkets not to blame, they are most positively a force for good. It was the retailers who visited abattoirs in the wake of the BSE crisis to insist on new high standards being met or they could kiss goodbye to their business. And it will be the retailers who will have the financial muscle to import meat from New Zealand and Ireland when there’s a shortage. Prices may rise, but I’m afraid that your friendly market butcher wouldn’t be able to find it in the volumes to make it viable.
You can tell from the political pussy-footing around the innocuous Competition Commission report on the industry of last year that the Government doesn’t like the supermarkets, but doesn’t know what to do about them. Here’s a suggestion: learn to like them a little more – they have demonstrated higher standards of food hygiene and supply than either farmers or politicians of late.
George Pitcher is a partner of issue management consultancy Luther Pendragon