LONDON — The foot-and-mouth outbreak in Britain is not devastating British farm production. It is devastating farming’s relationship with the rest of Britain. Less than 2 percent of Britain’s livestock have been slaughtered either because they have the disease or because, though healthy, they might transmit it. Central England is largely free of the disease, which is concentrated in the border counties of Cumbria in the northwest, Devon in the southwest and Dumfries and Galloway in Scotland.

But though the disease is limited in scope, farming leaders have reacted as though it is an infinite catastrophe, against which no state measures could be too dramatic. At the start of the outbreak, over a month ago, farm leaders wanted to plunge the whole country into a state of emergency. They responded to the spread of the disease with panic and despair.

They demanded that no one from “outside” should step or drive into the countryside lest they spread the disease. The tone of hysteria in their voices did not abate until last week, when the army was given some responsibility for the mass killing and disposal of some animals in some affected areas. Only the sight of men in uniform, who draw their values and knowledge from outside the world of politics, had a calming effect. Only the army fitted the scale of farmers’ fears. These fears, so unbounded, so trembling and despairing, are not a measure of the danger of foot and mouth disease; they are a measure of the insecurity the British farmer feels in the mixed world of global food production, multinational supermarkets and international environmental dangers.

It has taken weeks for those outside farming to recover their own voices. At first, others in the countrywide were inclined to let farmers speak for all: This was a terrible plague against which all had to unite and protect themselves. Then, as the large majority of rural businesses saw their incomes dry up, they began to question this response. For while farming leaders wanted all movement in the countryside stopped, almost as a symbolic mark of their state of siege, the rural economy as a whole depends absolutely on mobility: on tourists. The tourism on which the countryside depends is largely homegrown. While foreign visitors flock to London for the theaters and shops and galleries, the British have a long, robustly defended tradition of countryside walks. Walking, mountaineering, rock climbing, horse riding, camping, painting a landscape, boiling a kettle for a cup of tea under a piece of canvas in the pouring rain, these delights are more familiar, more British, than a glimpse of Big Ben. It is they who sustain the myriad of small bed and breakfast establishments, cafes, pubs and tea shops, souvenir stalls and batteries of picture postcards, on which many a small town depends.

This conflict of interests turned an animal disease into a political crisis. If the owners of pubs and petrol pumps broke ranks with the farmers, then relations within the countryside would be soured for a long time. But if they allied with the farmers’ state of siege, then their businesses would die. The government appointed the environment minister, the placatory Michael Meacher, to head a “rural task force,” in fact to massage the crisis between farming and other rural commerce. But neither he, nor the even more soft-spoken agriculture minister, Nick Brown, could hold the rural conflict in check. Enter the army, and enter Prime Minister Tony Blair, taking personal charge of the crisis.

Once the prime minister stepped in, it became clear that the general election long expected to be held in early May, would have to be postponed. After all, how could the prime minister mastermind a election campaign, mastermind the eradication of foot-and-mouth disease and mastermind the revival of the rural economy all at the same time? Something had to give, and as of this weekend, it looks as though it’s Britain’s political process. With local and national elections put off until better times, and the army in charge of bits of the border country, the political process has given way under the weight of rural panic.

This has not come out of the blue. The withering of political life in many of the G7 countries is now a tired and sorry tale — falling turnout at elections, the shrinking of political parties, a drying up of people willing to stand for local, unpaid political office, a sour tide of cynicism washing away the idealism and enthusiasm on which political life depend. This hostility to politics has erupted with particular force in the foot-and-mouth crisis in Britain because of the series of political hurts and disappointments that preceded it. As long as anyone can remember, Britain outside the cities has been the domain of the country gentry — land owners, fox hunters, local magistrates, pillars of the establishment and backbones of the Conservative Party. In their own eyes, they were Britain, and Britain, especially, England, was theirs.

The election of New Labor in 1997 confirmed what they already knew in their hearts — their day as the solid, conservative, anti-city, anti-intellectual masters of Britain was over. Although New Labor had, and has, no serious radical pretensions, nonetheless it introduced legislation to force landowners to let those ramblers and rock climbers cross their land, and has been engaged in almost daily battle over a proposed ban on fox hunting. The rural opposition to New Labor has taken a distinct populist line, tumbling out invective and scorn against city dwellers and contempt for all politicians. Although the Conservatives have tried earnestly to capitalize on this rural populism they have failed. They have failed because it is anti-political populism, and they have failed because the old Conservative authority of the rural land-owners no longer holds sway. The rural rich are no longer the local gentry, the paternalistic governors of small towns and villages; the rural rich may be commuting stock brokers, or property investors or make their millions out of EU subsidies and stocks in supermarkets.

So farmers and their dependent businesses feel abandoned and besieged; it is this rather than the nature of foot and mouth itself that has turned the disease into such a crisis and had such a devastating effect on relations between farmers and the rest of Britain.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.