[13 March 2006]
If you wanted to work at the hub of high profile government activity, which ministry would you choose? The Ministry of Defence, the Home Office, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office? The list could be long, the choice difficult to make. So why not settle for a position that combines the lot: the Ministry of Agriculture. Ever since the beginnings of the first Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) epidemic in Britain 20 years ago, the Minister for Agriculture Fisheries and Food, is someone who has moved on from the boggy fields of the Royal Show where, according to the website, visitors go to see the “prestigious livestock” and experience the “agricultural awards”.
The Baftas and Oscars can eat their hearts out; or rather can eat the hearts out of calves stuffed with ham and cooked in white wine. The acceptance speeches must be something to behold: “I’d like to thank ATTRA for introducing me to solar-powered livestock watering systems because sheep get thirsty too, man. ATTRA, my brother!”
Although the Royal Show is apparently organised for “country minded people”, it is interesting to note that farmers are urged to exhibit there because the 148,000 visitors spend “more than £25m in just four days.” Ah yes, the smell of manure and cash changing hands. Nothing like it. Truly a “unique celebration of British Agriculture”. Or not. But agricultural shows are no longer the ministerial bind they used to be, where the only highlight was a distant glimpse of the Queen as she drove past, standing on the back of a Landrover and waving to the yokels.
Things changed radically when John Selwyn Gummer, the Minister for Agriculture at the height of the BSE crisis, tried to feed a beefburger to his four-year-old daughter Cordelia at a boat show in Suffolk on the 16th May 1990. This ill-judged media stunt came just six months after a ban on bovine offal use had been put into place in England and Wales and was followed by affirmations from the Minister and the then Chief Medical Officer Sir Donald Acheson that British beef was perfectly safe to eat by “both adults and children, including patients in hospital.”
As it turned out, patients in British hospitals would run the far greater risk of dying from the superbug MRSA (Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus - an antibiotic-resistant infection) than the human form of Mad Cow’s Disease, but I’m not sure this is the type of reassurance the government officials were trying to put across. Two weeks after that sunny spring day in Suffolk, France banned all British beef imports. And although beef bans were an on and off affair throughout the 1990s, it took until 1996 for the British Government to acknowledge the link between BSE and new variant, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease.
These events changed the nature of the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food (MAFF) in more ways than one. For a start, it shifted it from the back country to the frontline where, in 2001, the outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease came as yet another hoof in the bullocks of the MAFF. The Wellington boot was truly on the other foot with Blair’s government deciding to transfer the functions of the MAFF to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. This brought an end to the last real Ministry left in existence in the UK (all other ministries including the Ministry of Defence are now officially Departments of State), a ministry that had known its first manifestation back in 1793 as the Society for the Encouragement of Agriculture and Internal Improvement. Yes, that’s right ‘Internal Improvement’.
These past couple of weeks I’ve had an eerie feeling provoked by the French Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries, Dominique Bussereau. Along with the French Prime Minister, Bussereau decided to pay a flying visit to a poultry farm in the department of Ain to the east of the country. The farm is situated close to where the first duck diagnosed with the deadly H5N1 virus was found on French soil. My sources tell me that it’s just under 10 kilometres away as the crow attempts to fly. For those of you only just emerging from the SARS bunker you built three an a half years ago, H5N1 is the virus that causes avian influenza or as the popular press refer to it: KILLER BIRD FLU!
Now as far as I remember, in times of yore, rather than your own offspring food tasters were somewhat dispensable characters in the employ of a particularly dictatorial monarch, or at least a head of state that had something to worry about. They would test the food for poisons, and if they didn’t die before the food went cold then his boss could tuck in (we’ll bypass the obvious flaw concerning slow acting toxins). Dominique de Villepin as PM is Bussereau’s superior, but between the two it was difficult to see who was meant to be playing food taster to whom such was the silver-haired fox’s rush for the limelight. In the glare of flashing cameras, de Villepin happily tucked into a few chicken bits.
Perhaps de Villepin was doing the honourable thing and stepping in as Bussereau’s political food taster. Let’s face it, you don’t want to be the Ag-man when the bird shit hits the fan. You know that no matter how well prepared for the threatening crisis, things are going to go wrong. A potential 2006 Christmas without foie gras may plunge the nation into a gastronomical winter of discontent. But surely with de Villepin having stepped in to ‘do a Gummer’; Bussereau’s back is covered. The question remains, however, why did de Villepin go and do something that in the past has seemingly been so politically suicidal?
Of course, de Villepin is French President Jacques Chirac’s food taster. Prime Ministers in France do have a tendency to be rather expendable. In fact, there have been 17 different PMs since the creation of the Fifth Republic in 1959. That means, on average, a French Premier lasts just over two and half years in office.
This may seem somewhat troublesome from a British political viewpoint; what then ensures political and historical continuity? The United Kingdom may be a country where the Head of State has seen its powers eroded over centuries of democratic volition, but the royal family can still be seen as a way of minimising historical contingencies. After all, how can a democratically elected representative of the people compete with a leader descended from a bloodline directly chosen by God? Well quite, which means that the UK’s Prime Minister is de facto if not (yet) de jure the Head of State allowing for political stability.
It is obvious that having something such as an executive president as Head of State allows for both political and historical continuity to be combined. Indeed, when things go awry all you have to do is get rid of your PM. Such a seemingly radical change can only assuage the people. In fact, shortly after the end of World War II de Gaulle’s 1946 Bayeux speech addressed the question of politcal “effervescence” and the General stated his belief that the President should stand as an arbitrator above the contingencies engendered by party politics. This would secure the French Union through time.
Of course, this also protects the President through his time (and so far it has always been a ‘him’). Currently the French leader cannot be indicted. A president elected by the people but not answerable to the people? It did allow Chirac to claim immunity and thus avoid going to court during his embezzlment scandal in his first term of office. It could have gone pear-shaped for Chirac in 2002, when it was widely expected that Lionel Jospin, the then leader of the Socialists, would win the presidential race. But as luck would have it, the very ‘effervescence’ to which de Gaulle had made reference to 56 years earlier meant that the Front National leader Jean-Marie LePen made it through to the second round, leaving the majority of the French electorate little choice but to re-elect Chirac amid cries of votez pour l’escroc pas le facho, ‘vote for the crook, not the fascist’.
Whether or not we will ever discover if Chirac was guilty of the misappropriation of public funds, one things is for sure: contrary to Gummer, Bussereau and de Villepin, he could happily tuck in to two bits of chicken on the opening day of the Salon de l’Agriculture assured that even if these masticatory acts turn out to be the H5N1 tipping point he will never find himself in a position of no confidence forcing him to resign. The same cannot be said of de Villepin if the country loses an amount of its citizens to the virus.
Just over a year away from the next presidential elections, it might be right to say that the Salon de l’Agriculture, often referred to as France’s biggest farm, is perhaps the communal soap box from which the different presidential campaigns have been launched. Chirac may not be able to run in 2007, but since his visit to the show on 25th February, a plethora of prospective candidates from Nicolas Sarkozy to Ségolène Royale have turned up to brush shoulders with the countryside electorate. This was probably helped by the creation of a satellite channel, Terre d’infos TV, set up to cover the salon and launched by Chirac and de Villepin. Perhaps for next year’s show we could lock in the prospective presidential candidates and watch them undergo a certain number of tests from milking cows to eating offal blindfolded. Week by week, the electorate would slowly vote off their least favourite partcipant until 12 weeks later, a president was finally chosen.
Still, even if de Villepin & Co. do get it all horribly wrong, they can draw courage from the fate of Gummer. As ironic as it may seem he was awarded a Medal of Honour by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. You see, there’s no need to get into a flap.