What are we to make of this extraordinary refusal to face the facts of the animal and human suffering?
Quite why MAFF displays such an uncanny ability to get things wrong, and then to continue reinforcing failure, lies within the realms of psychology. In a study of military incompetence, seeking to understand the reasons why there have been so many spectacular disasters, Norman Dixon, an eminent psychologist, explored the phenomenon of 'cognitive dissonance'.
The term describes a mental state that arises when a person possesses knowledge or beliefs which conflict with a decision he has made. In the context of MAFF and the management of the response to foot and mouth disease, senior officials in the organisation were confronted with the inherent conflict brought about by knowledge that the adopted strategy could not work, and was not working, and their decision to persist with that strategy.
Research indicates that cognitive dissonance has a particularly powerful effect on behaviour when there are strong pressures to justify initial decisions. The less justified those decisions, the greater will be the dissonance. Furthermore, the inability to admit error increases with the degree of seriousness of the error made: the more serious the error, the more bizarre will be attempts to justify the unjustifiable. Thus, given the overweening arrogance of MAFF and its belief that it is always right, it was inevitable that, when its initial slaughter policy showed signs of catastrophic failure, it would resort to further killing.
That its actions were destroying the very fabric of the rural economy was of little importance, compared with its overpowering need to prove itself right. While a rapid, early vaccination programme could have ended the misery within thirty days of the first reported outbreak, not only could MAFF's corporate brain not cope with such a drastic shift in policy, a change of tack would have amounted to an admission of error. This was not an option. Thus, the killing intensified and the 'cure' became worse than the disease. Public policy, once again, descended into mindless barbarity.