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Christopher Booker's notebook
(Filed: 18/12/2005)
I'm sorry, the BBC hasn't a clue how the country is run
The BBC Today programme's series on "Who runs Britain?" has again brought home the astonishing ignorance of most of our politicians and journalists as to how we are now governed. Only one or two contributors, such as Daniel Hannan MEP, showed any sign of recognising how our system of government has been revolutionised in recent years, so that most of the laws and regulations which rule our lives are now made by a vast, mysterious technocracy in which elected politicians play very little part.
It has long proved beyond the likes of Jim Naughtie and his colleagues to recognise this, however. They appear to think it is enough just to pit against each other people of opposing views, most as ignorant as themselves, inviting them to engage in a few minutes of trivial argument which leaves the audience hopelessly uninformed.
Having spent rather too much time in recent years trying to puzzle out this revolution, I am constantly staggered how poorly served we are in this respect. Last week, for instance, we were bombarded with verbiage about "Blair versus Chirac", the EU budget, the "rebate", the "CAP", the "WTO".
But how many commentators could give an informed explanation of how and why France managed to design the CAP in her own interest, so that 40 years later her farmers still receive nearly a quarter of its total spending? Or why, without the rebate, Britain would receive less from the EU budget per head than any other country? Or why the stranglehold that France has on EU trade policy means that the WTO cannot prevent her farmers inflicting such damage on those of the developing world?
Again, amid the muted response to last week's review of Defence Industry Strategy, how many people bother to ask why we need those two huge aircraft carriers the Royal Navy is supposed to be buying (other than as part of our contribution to the EU's planned "rapid reaction force")? How many ask why we are to spend 300 million just on designing these ships, when, thanks to the increasingly doubtful future of the Joint Strike Fighter project, no one even knows what aircraft will be using them?
Similar questions large and small are thrown up by this peculiar new system by which we are governed (with "Europe" all too often hovering in the wings). But the BBC isn't even remotely interested in doing its homework to provide the necessary background information, then asking the right questions. Much more fun for its smug presenters to stage silly little studio arguments between people as hazily informed as themselves, until it is time to say "I'm sorry, that's all we've got time for".
Paterson finally prods Defra into action on bovine TB
A year ago it would have been unthinkable that Defra would have made the announcement it did last Wednesday about the epidemic of TB now sweeping through Britain's cattle herds. The fact that serious action just might at last be taken to counter by far the most serious animal health crisis since foot and mouth is almost entirely due to a relentless campaign waged by Owen Paterson MP, who stepped down last week after two years as the Tories' junior agriculture spokesman.
It was Mr Paterson who (despite the resistance of Commons officials) put down more than 600 parliamentary questions, forcing Defra eventually to admit that the main cause of the crisis is the epidemic of TB in Britain's expanding badger population. It was he who highlighted Defra's admission that, unless an answer was found, the bill to taxpayers would by 2014 reach a staggering 2 billion, And it was he who inspired the crucial letter, now signed by more than 420 concerned vets and scientists, demanding a cull of diseased badgers on welfare grounds, for the sake not just of the farmers and their cattle (25,000 more slaughtered this year alone) but of the badgers themselves, condemned otherwise to a lingering death.
Now our animal welfare minister, Ben Bradshaw, has all-but caved in, conceding almost every point he and his officials were until recently denying, and promising that, after brief "consultation", a cull may be allowed.
After such a battering, he must be deeply relieved that the tireless Mr Paterson has now been promoted to shadow another department.
Three police cars sent to check on mud in the road
If the police want to know why they are increasingly held in contempt they should read the letter in Friday's Daily Telegraph from Jeremy Hancock, whose family have for generations been tenant farmers at Overy Staithe on the Norfolk coast. When thieves recently stole thousands of pounds-worth of agricultural machinery from Mr Hancock and a neighbour, they contacted the police (their nearest fully-manned station is in Kings Lynn, 25 miles away), who showed neither interest nor concern.
When Mr Hancock was recently lifting sugar beet, however, the police had an anonymous complaint that he was leaving mud on the road. Even though Mr Hancock and his men had put up warning signs (and were cleaning the road at the end of each day), a crowd of policemen quickly arrived in three cars, with flashing lights, and took photographs. Mr Hancock was told he would face criminal charges and could be fined 1,000.
He tells me that, since this kind of incident is so commonplace, he was surprised his letter was published. But he promises to keep me posted when his case comes to court.
Give them an inch and they'll take a metre
The Hemel Hempstead oil fire yet again demonstrated how we have now become two cultures. Shocked participants repeatedly described how they had seen flames rising "hundreds of feet" into the air, heard the explosion "50 miles away", seen shards of glass missing them by "inches", and how the fire service needed "millions of gallons" of foam. Only the ranks of officialdom and reporters schooled by the BBC's metric thought-police solemnly reinterpreted the story in terms of metres, kilometres and litres.
This culture gulf again recalled that famous moment when John Simpson, grandest of all BBC hacks, was so shocked by the near-miss of a bomb in Iraq that he exclaimed it had landed only "10 feet or 12 feet away from where I was standing". This should, of course, have been followed by a stern memo from the metric police to say that, if ever again he wanted to report a bomb falling 10 feet away, this must be described as 3,045 millimetres.
Since this is my last column of the year, may I wish you all a very Happy Christmas, and thank all those kind readers who have kept me so well posted on how we are now governed.