Foot and Mouth

The British government’s immediate response to the foot and mouth outbreak was entirely in character.

It was to close down footpaths, slaughter animals, prohibit movement, fine transgressors, and require farmers to sign the Official Secrets Act. A form of control relying on prohibition and punishment which seems to be the favoured style of ‘New Labour’. (This is a government that are proposing to lock people in prison before they have committed an offence, if they are deemed to be suffering from a ‘personality disorder’).

At the same time there was the usual bureaucratic bungling – leaving things too late, lack of cooperation between departments, inability to learn from previous experience (by consulting the report of an earlier outbreak some 30 years ago).

Although I wrote a note about this congruence as soon as these measures were announced, I felt unable to comment further because, after all, I know nothing about foot and mouth disease and perhaps the government response was the correct one. As time went on the absurdity and cruelty became evident. Roads running by fields of animals could be walked along, while footpaths in the woods leading away from the animals were closed. Sheep were not allowed to be taken inside for lambing, so that thousands of animals died from hypothermia, or drowned at birth in pools of water in the muddy fields. Perfectly healthy animals were slaughtered, while carcasses of animals with the disease were sometimes trucked into uninfected areas in order to be buried.

Each day there were more and more stories of the confrontation between farmers and the bureaucrats of MAFF (the Ministry for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) – a farmer arguing that his prize cattle were not in the zone for culling while the officials refuse to look at his evidence; the woman who locked her healthy pet sheep in her house in a futile attempt to stop them being killed by the ministry vets. What was singularly lacking in the response was any sense of flexibility or compassion. The predilection for control – and control of a particular form – rode roughshod over commonsense and common human feeling. Control meant an excersise of force, prohibition, restriction and punishment.

Psychoanalysis points to a different attitude. Evidence of this can be found in changes in childrearing practices during the last fifty years. In cultures influenced by the ideas of psychoanalysis, the emphasis has shifted from controlling and moulding children, using the ‘prohibition – punishment’ model, to nurturing and facilitating their development within safe boundaries.

The boundaries are still there of course, and most psychoanalysts would not subscribe to the extreme liberal position in vogue in the 60s, which allows a child ‘complete freedom’. It is assumed that a child needs support and a feeling of safety within some recognition of (negotiable, flexible) rules, and that complete freedom is tantamount to abandonment. Donald Winnicott’s phrase “the facilitating environment” is a telling example of the change. Forcing children into prescribed patterns of behaviour and belief though prohibitions and punishment is now seen as a vestige of an earlier age.

Something of this attitude could surely have been incorporated in the handling of the foot and mouth outbreak. At the very least, the farmers themselves would have felt less helpless in the face of the implacable forces of officialdom, and more able to contribute to the solution of the problem. And by relinquishing the mania for control, decisions could have been made with a more nuanced understanding, rather than slavishly following a dictate laid down in advance, such as the decision to leave lambs to die in muddy fields.

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