The Nation’s Business

Has Major caught mad cow disease?

Peter C. Newman June 24 1996
The Nation’s Business

Has Major caught mad cow disease?

Peter C. Newman June 24 1996

Has Major caught mad cow disease?

‘I don’t know whether the PM is on Ecstasy or whether he had oysters, but he certainly made a terrific impact’

The Nation’s Business

Peter C. Newman

A quick visit to Britain suggests that Canada's once proud Mother Country is becoming the Quebec of Europe. Not quite sure whether it wants to be a full-fledged member of the European Union, or bask in the splendid isolation of an island-nation seeking its independent destiny, the Brits are having a nervous breakdown. Mad cow disease has

spread to the politicians.

About the only bright note is the inventiveness of quirky individuals like Harry Good, of Hockney Heath in the Midlands, whose farm abuts the M42 motorway into London. Instead of passively waiting to have his herd slaughtered by government health authorities, Good has converted the animals into walking advertising

boards, charging $600 a week per cow to drape them with plastic jackets carrying advertising slogans.

In late May, when the European Union voted to ban such British beef derivatives as bull semen, gelatin and tallow from the continent, Prime Minister John Major declared war. In the most dramatic break with Europe since Britain joined the Common Market 23 years ago, he threatened to paralyze EU business by the use of his veto and by abstaining in the Brussels-based organization’s many deliberations that require unanimous consent. This he has since done, causing havoc among the Brussels bureaucrats and continental diplomats trying to impose a single European currency by Jan. 1,1999.

The embattled Tory leader grotesquely overreacted by announcing that he was placing his cabinet on a wartime footing, and angrily declaring during an emergency state-

ment in the Commons that the nation was facing a “crisis of confidence”—and that he would never retreat until the Europeans lifted their embargo of British beef products.

Since Major heads a Conservative government hanging on to power with a majority of precisely one seat, the reason for launching his offensive is simple enough. He desperately needs his own version of Margaret Thatcher’s Falklands War to divert the voters’ attention from his shoddy performance in the face of mounting domestic economic and social problems. Just as his predecessor gained a significant popularity boost by taking on the Argentinians, Major’s stand has united his party behind him. “I don’t know whether the Prime Minister is on Ecstasy or whether he had oysters, but he certainly made a terrific impact,” boasted Teresa Gorman, one of his Euro-skeptic backbenchers on the day of the PM’s war declaration.

The Tory press has gone berserk singing his praises. “Cry havoc, and let slip the cows of war,” trumpeted The Daily Telegraph, paraphrasing William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. A columnist in the more earthy Daily Express, noting that “Major goes to war at last,” mockingly pointed out that “our cattle may be wobbly, dying

and brain damaged, but that doesn’t mean we are not within our rights to insist they be shoved down the throats of any Kraut, Argie, Frog or Commie that we like.” The crisis deepens daily. Just last week, The Sun, a leading London tabloid, called for an immediate boycott of German beer and German pornography. Now, that’s serious.

Most voters aren’t fooled by Major’s ploy. The tactic has worked wonders within his caucus, but since the start of the great beef war, Tory party support in the country at large has remained mired at about 27 per cent, while Labour is running at a comfortable 54 per cent. Labour Leader Tony Blair has dumped most of his party’s left-wing policies and is busy forging strong relationships with traditional Tory corporate supporters.

None of these political games touch the ordinary citizen. London remains the world’s most fascinating—and most expensive—city. (It was unseasonably cold when I was there, so to warm up I ducked into a nondescript restaurant off Soho for a cup of soup. It tasted as if it had just been poured out of a Campbell’s can, but the bill came to £3.50— that’s $7.00.) Still, few former seats of Empire offer so much to occupy the eye, the imagination and the memory. Those architects who built London’s magnificent churches, hotels, office buildings and elegant town houses brought a touch of civility and refinement to their craft. Dean Acheson, an anglophile who served with distinction as secretary of state under U.S. president Harry Truman, knew his history when he remarked that he could think of no more delightful place or period to have lived in than in mid-19th-century England, when the country was run by a small group of highly

intelligent and largely disinterested individuals.

The City is still populated by their descendants, and they remain as cool and collected as ever. John le Carré, the master of British spy novels, caught this mood in his astute comment that “your extrovert Englishman or woman can have a Force Twelve nervous breakdown while he stands next to you in a bus queue, and you may be his best friend, but you’ll never be the wiser.”

That approach to life has turned Major’s desperate manoeuvre into farce. Blair will defeat Major in the next election that may come as early as this fall—even if British bull semen becomes respectable again in the stables of Europe.

Meanwhile, most of the talk in London clubs is about the American election campaign, with Bob Dole their strong favorite. The latest Bill Clinton story making the rounds concerns an imaginary National Security Council meeting he calls to be briefed about what’s happening around the globe.

Near the end of the session, an aide pipes up: “What about Rwanda?”

“The lying bitch,” Clinton shoots back. “I never laid a hand on her!”