In a year which has scarcely covered the Government of the United Kingdom in glory, here is a real lowlight: an official Gov.UK update on the post-mortem test results of Geronimo the alpaca. Apparently, they failed to confirm that the animal had Bovine TB.
To be clear, this does not mean it tested negative for bTB. It tested positive, twice, on reliable measures taken whilst it was alive. But it’s been enough to generate another round of stories for the beast’s former owner, who is apparently ‘fighting for truth’ as she grapples with ‘traumatic loss’.
Who in Defra made the decision to indulge the media circus around this with a public update? Coming so soon after damning evidence from a Foreign Office whistleblower that the Government got the big animal call of 2021 – Pen Farthing’s animal rescue airlift – very badly wrong, why offer needless succour to those opposed to the call it got right?
George Eustice’s line on Geronimo ought to be pretty straightforward: that it ultimately does not matter whether it actually had bTB or not. This country’s disease-prevention regime had afforded it a fair number of tests, and the Government had a responsibility to act to protect the livestock and livelihoods of British farmers.
It is absurd, not to mention rather embarrassing, to see elements of the press and public prepared to treat an alpaca as if it were a four-legged Timothy Evans. A disease-control regime for livestock is not morally equivalent to a capital punishment regime for human beings. The latter demands stringent measures to ensure that irreversible miscarriages of justice are avoided; the former does not.
Ultimately, disease control is about capacity and the balance of probabilities. The state could scarcely offer special treatment to one media-savvy middle-class owner; it would either have had to bog down the entire regime with the new standard or perpetrate an injustice against everyone subject to the normal rules. The Government should have offered no apologies.
Am I saying that George Eustice should mount Geronimo’s skull on the hood of his official car, Mad Max-style? No. But I’m not not saying that.
Because there’s actually an even more fundamental point of contention in the alpaca row than the specific logic of disease prevention, and that’s ‘state capacity’: the ability of the British state to get anything done.
The forces arrayed against Defra over Geronimo put one in mind of Evelyn Waugh: ‘The enemy at last was plain in view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast off. It was the Modern Age in arms.’ A coalition of entitled activists and indulgent journalists, united by mawkish sentiment and a fundamentally unserious attitude towards this country and its future.
It was a distillation, into service of a cartoonishly undeserving cause, of the same forces which combine to block housebuilding, stymie the construction of vital infrastructure, and otherwise thwart progress and economic growth. The people who’ll get a thousand new homes thrown out because there may (or may not) be bats on the site, or demand a multi-million pound tunnel to prevent a railway line felling one mildly famous tree.
Sad as it is, this coalition wins so often that its defeat on that Gloucestershire farm was a cathartic moment, up there with those Twitter accounts that share the dismayed quotes from Nimbys when something gets planning permission. It demonstrated that Whitehall still has the capacity to act decisively (and, to borrow a Boomer phrase, like a grown-up) in the interests of the nation.
Perhaps, with a change of perspective, the fact that Geronimo’s death demonstrated this welcome fact could be some comfort to his fans. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, after all.
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