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RDN is different from RN

I am not the Dr Richard North who works with Christopher Booker
A note, 5 December 2007

I shouldn’t like it thought that I have a grudge against RN. In fact, I very much admire his battling spirit. We are not very alike, and the contrast is very far from being always or often in my favour.

Quite often people come up to me and congratulate me on some Europhobic expose, or some damning of Whitehall officialdom, and assume that I am the Richard North who works with Christopher Booker in denouncing these scandals.

Readers of the Sunday Telegraph make the mistake very often, because that’s where the pair often write (and just for the record, where I never have). This used to be very galling and in the end I decided to change my name a bit. In 1995 I was reborn as “Richard D North” and whilst some media presenters make a joke of it, as though I was getting above myself, the new arrangement works quite well. The confusion often remains, but I can get past it quicker.

It is odd to have a person who shares one’s name, especially when we have quite often overlapped in our journalistic interests and when sometimes our approaches to the issues we cover look superficially the same.

In particular, we have thought that most of the famous food scares of the 1980s and 1990s were over-egged. Even more superficially, it has looked more recently as though we were similar in being climate change sceptics.

Actually RDN is very different from RN.

In contrast with RN, I had a great deal of sympathy with the mainstream official and political world as it dealt with scares, real or imagined. I think it made chronic mistakes and not all of them were noble. But I think they were very seldom very ignoble. I think most campaigners and the media were far more at fault in scare-mongering than officialdom was in countering it. Come to that, during many of the scares Labour was in opposition and whilst “oppositionalism” makes fools of almost all parties, Labour was especially awful and especially inclined to jump into bed with scaremongers.

Coming to BSE, I was not even furious with the way the EU cut the UK adrift. Why wouldn’t it? One of the problems with the EU is that it brands produce from any of its countries as being alike in bad times as well as good. So the non-BSE countries were bound to seek to get some distance from the British curse. Can we be sure we’d have stood beside, say, France in the midst of a similar crisis? I don’t mind if the UK comes out of the EU, but the European Empire’s not being angelic is not a sufficient reason to hate it.

It’s not clear to me that the UK could have behaved very much better or differently than it did. It was chasing a will of the wisp, but it had to work on the best available assumptions, and did.

As to the BSE crisis in general, I’d say that it was a genuine and awful fright and that there remains some chance that it may yet not have lost its sting. (We seem to have stemmed the flow of fresh infection from animals to man, but there remains a scintilla of anxiety at least that we haven’t seen the last of the human consequences from very old infection.) I could easily imagine that Labour were wrong to ban beef on the bone early in their first term, and that things had at last become really silly. But that may be my prejudice at work. In any case, I can’t see what government could have done before then.

However, I am tempted by the view that the industry would have suffered less if ministers had never tried to defend it. There is something to be said for a scare being allowed to produce an irrational market collapse and a bout of consumer-led (or supermarket-led) reforms to the supply chain. But it’s moot in the BSE case. If we remember that the first, late 80s BSE in cattle scare died down when the animal disease seemed to have produced no human victims. It was only seven years later that there seemed to a human disease consequence and all hell really broke loose. Even then, the public quickly came to the conclusion – and it seems right – that eating 1990s beef had no relation to whatever risk one might suffer from having eaten 1980s beef.

(I make no pretence of understanding what the UK should have done during the Foot and Mouth disaster.)

I am less concerned with the differences between RN and myself on non-food matters because his arguments on matters such as speeding and climate change seem more to be those of a bystander than of a deeply-involved specialist.



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