United Kingdom

Bleating Hearts

The foot-and-mouth epidemic—with its powerful scenes of farm animals burning on huge pyres and bull-dozed in burial pits larger than football fields—undoubtedly forced Prime Minister Tony Blair to abandon his preferred May date for a general election. But no one doubts that New Labor will maintain a parliamentary majority when the poll is held on June 7, as now expected.

Although opinion polls indicated that people favored a “delay” and that Blair’s popularity rose after the announcement, most newspapers opposed changing the date of the nationwide election.

Rupert Murdoch’s mass-circulation tabloid Sun of London vehemently backs winners regardless of politics and fervently favored the May date. But given the exclusive scoop that the May election was not to be, the paper responded (April 2) in a Pavlovian manner: “The Sun ...would certainly agree that this decision was bold and brave.” But London’s liberal and usually pro-Labor tabloid Daily Mirror was less impressed: “Not for the first time, Tony Blair has rolled over.”

Columnist Francis Wheen in London’s liberal Guardian (March 28) wrote, “Foreigners may well be frightened by our epidemic, but do the eccentricities of our electoral system influence their holiday plans?”

Meanwhile, the rural predicament has dominated the news since the first outbreaks of foot-and-mouth virus were reported in February. Although largely restricted to a few counties in England, Wales, and Scotland, it has been covered with the breathlessness of war reporting. Something like the Stockholm Syndrome seems to have affected many reporters in the field. Their uncritical sympathy with farmers has caused a good deal of sentimental coverage.

W.F. Deedes captured the tone in London’s conservative Daily Telegraph (March 5), foreseeing a hastening shift toward urban life: This matters because the small farmer “has for so long formed part of our national character.”

Some have expressed skepticism about the scale of the epidemic. In economic terms, the real disaster is the more-profitable tourism industry.

“Why We Shouldn’t Feel Sorry for These Bleating Farmers” was the headline over Iain MacWhirter’s weekly column in the centrist Herald of Glasgow (March 25). “It’s only the farmers who get buckets of cash thrown over them whenever something goes wrong.”

But uncertainty over the spread of the virus has meant that the epidemic is declared “under control” one day and expanding the next. Not important, declared The Guardian’s Hugo Young “Labor will handsomely win,” he stated (April 3). “When the campaign begins in earnest, we may be certain of one further thing. It will have nothing to say about the event that caused it to be delayed. The issue at the heart of the present discontent will be brazenly ignored.”