History / Politics

The battle of the bulls’ semen

The following is extracted from Alwyn Turner’s A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s, and deals with a sticky situation involving John Major, BSE and the European Union.


The issue dated back to the Thatcher years, when – following an intensification of farming methods – there had been an outbreak amongst British cattle of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), commonly known as mad cow disease. This might, some suggested, be causally linked to variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), a fatal brain condition in humans.

The reality of that connection had never been conclusively demonstrated, and the then agriculture minister, John Selwyn Gummer, had shown his scorn for such concerns in a famous photo-opportunity where his daughter took a bite out of a British beefburger (though it later transpired that she hadn’t actually eaten it). Even so, the existence of BSE itself was sufficient to have prompted a slaughter of infected animals and the banning in 1989 of the use of sheep and cattle carcasses in cattle feed, this having been determined to be the likely cause of the epidemic. The sale of cows’ brains for human consumption was also banned.

In March 1996 the nightmare resurfaced when the government was advised for the first time of scientific concern that BSE might indeed be linked to vCJD, several cases of which had now appeared. The data were still inconclusive at this stage, but quite properly the information that did exist was passed on to Parliament. Predictably the Labour Party, which had no great stake in the votes of farmers, saw the issue as simply another weapon with which to assault the government; Harriet Harman, the party’s health spokesperson, led the charge with her denunciation of ‘the government’s reckless disregard for public health’.

Even more predictably the media – seldom noted for their capacity to understand the concept of scientific risk – responded with panic reporting and horror stories about an impending apocalypse. ‘We’ve already eaten 1,000,000 mad cows: “borrowed time” fear’ ran the Daily Mirror headline, echoed by the Sun’s ‘Mad cow alert over kids’, while the Daily Mail, having clearly given the matter some considerable thought, ran the front-page headline: ‘Could it be worse than AIDS?’

The result was an immediate crisis of public confidence and a further blow to the beef industry, which had anyway been in decline since 1980, well before the BSE scare. McDonald’s and Burger King announced they wouldn’t be using British beef, education authorities withdrew the meat from school menus, and sales fell by 90 per cent. There was a similar consumer boycott abroad, and the European Commission swiftly imposed a ban on British beef exports not just to other countries within the EU, but to the whole world.

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This move by Europe took the debate into uncertain legal territory. The EU’s actions plainly had nothing to do with genuine health concerns, for if the well-being of consumers had been the motivation, then presumably the sale of British beef would also have been banned in Britain itself. Indeed Franz Fischler, the EU’s agriculture commissioner who was partially responsible for the ban, was quite clear that this was not a safety issue. ‘I would not hesitate to eat beef in England,’ he commented. ‘I know no medical reason not to.’ Instead the decision to stop all exports of British beef was an attempt to contain the political – rather than the actual – contamination, an operation designed to protect farmers elsewhere in Europe from being dragged into the mess.

It was hard to see it as anything more than the adoption as policy of those tabloid scare stories, by a European Commission that turned out to have supra-parliamentary power over a key British industry. And, not unexpectedly, it aroused the fury of Eurosceptics. ‘Why the hell should the foreigners in Brussels forbid Britain from exporting beef to countries outside Europe?’ demanded Norman Tebbit, while even the pro-European Michael Heseltine sounded shaken: ‘For those who believe Britain’s best interests are served at the heart of Europe, this has been a testing experience.’

Behind the political arguments, BSE presented a genuine problem. By the summer of 1996 two hundred new cases a week were being reported, and the first deaths from vCJD had been recorded, though by the end of the crisis these turned out to be numbered in the dozens, rather than the tens of thousands that had been threatened in some quarters. ‘I have never been so worried about anything since I first came into the House,’ John Major told Paddy Ashdown, as the saga started. ‘I think we could be presiding over the collapse of a £20 billion industry, with incalculable consequences for jobs.’ He added, somewhat plaintively: ‘I’m scared stiff. I simply don’t know what to do.’

The government’s response was drastic but politically necessary. At an estimated cost of over £4 billion, some three and a half million cattle were slaughtered and their corpses burnt. It was a true holocaust in the purest sense of the word, as the journalist Boris Johnson took pleasure in pointing out, and it raised enormous logistical problems. Around the country there built up huge piles of carcasses awaiting incineration, some of which, it was revealed, were being secretly dumped at landfill sites in an attempt to clear the backlog.

Discussions opened with the power industry to see if it was worth converting generating stations to run on dead animals, though this was not pursued, perhaps because the idea of cattle replacing coal as a primary fuel would be the mother of all PR disasters for a government already perceived to have lost its way. Public confidence was hardly helped by press stories like the Daily Mirror’s ‘Mad cow germs may be in our air’, which warned that not even fire might be sufficient to destroy the infection and that ‘deadly germs’ could escape: ‘The bugs come from burning carcasses and could be breathed in or absorbed through the eye.’

But even without coverage couched in the language of a poor 1950s science fiction movie, the crisis would have had serious political implications. To the public, the government simply looked incompetent. No allowance would be made for the enormity of the undertaking, and every stumble on the way was greeted with a combination of fury and ridicule. Much of the latter was directed at the hapless agriculture secretary, Douglas Hogg, whose habit of wearing a broad-brimmed fedora made him a distinctively absurd figure on television news bulletins.

The sale of beef on the bone was banned, to the annoyance of those who relished T-bone steaks and oxtail soup, and the only option for the meat industry itself seemed to be grim fatalism and black humour. ‘Buy our burgers,’ read a sign in one Essex butcher’s. ‘You will not get better.’ Meanwhile, on the EU front, the issue descended to a level of surrealistic bathos with the battle of the bulls’ semen.

In April 1996 Britain asked for a partial relaxation of the export ban in relation to three beef-related products: gelatine, tallow and bulls’ semen. The EU turned down the request and Major lost his temper, telling the Commons that Britain would veto all European proposals until the issue had been resolved: ‘We cannot continue business as usual within Europe when we are faced with this clear disregard by some of our partners of reason, common sense and Britain’s national interests.’

This was precisely the kind of attitude that Eurosceptics wanted to see and the Sun leapt into the fray, helpfully running a list of ‘twenty things to steer clear of’ if we wanted ‘to hit back at the nations that voted against us’. Amongst the suggestions were port wine, Hugo Boss suits, Mercedes cars, shares in Luxembourgish banks and – possibly a more plausible target for Sun readers – German pornography. ‘All the sickest videos come straight out of Germany,’ the paper noted, which must have given a boost to sales of such material.

Major’s campaign of non-cooperation, paralysing Europe in the name of British bulls’ semen, was not very long-lived. In June 1996 he announced he was calling it off, having been given assurances about a schedule for lifting the beef ban, though even the block on exporting meat from grass-fed cattle in Northern Ireland was relaxed only in September 1997, and it was August 1999 before it all finally ended. Even then, Germany said it wasn’t yet ready to accept British imports, France decided unilaterally to maintain the ban, and at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet later in the year, the French ambassador pointedly refused to eat beef (though his wife did).

Meanwhile the British farming industry had taken another beating from what it saw as centralising, standardising, politically motivated bureaucrats, whose knowledge of agriculture was regarded with little respect. If a Conservative government was unable to stand up for the interests of farmers, it suggested that the relationship between town and country was far from healthy. There was a growing dissatisfaction in rural areas with the behaviour of officialdom and the declining profitability of farming. The comedian Bob Monkhouse used to tell a story about interviewing a cattle farmer who’d won £7 million. When asked what he’d do with the money, he replied: ‘I reckon I’ll just keep on farming till it’s gone.’


This is extracted from Alwyn Turner’s A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s (Aurum Press, 2013).

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