The Ministry and the Malady: Paul Brassley Puts MAFF's Policy towards Foot and Mouth Disease into Historical Perspective. (Cross Current)

By Brassley, Paul | History Today, November 2001 | Go to article overview

The Ministry and the Malady: Paul Brassley Puts MAFF's Policy towards Foot and Mouth Disease into Historical Perspective. (Cross Current)


Brassley, Paul, History Today


WHO WAS THE LAST minister in the Cabinet? It is bound to be a quiz question sooner or later, and the answer will be Nick Brown. The explanation, of course, is that heads of government departments serving in the cabinet are usually secretaries of state, and only their juniors are called ministers. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF), which disappeared after the election in June 2001, was in fact the only remaining department of state with a minister in charge, and its replacement, the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (to be known for short as DEFRA), is headed by a Secretary of State like all the other departments.

We shall presumably have to wait thirty years for the release of the necessary official papers before we really know whether Foot and Mouth Disease was as fatal to MAFF as it was to millions of animals. Food scares and attitudes to the environment have also been suggested as reasons for its demise. But if it was, there would be a certain neat circularity in the whole story, for animal disease was one of the reasons for the foundation of MAFF's predecessor, and the ministry was closely connected with the emergence of a slaughter policy for Foot and Mouthand other animal diseases.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was established by an Order in Council in April 1955 which brought together the Ministry of Food, established in 1939 to ensure the adequate nutrition of the country in wartime, and the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. In the light of recent comments on MAFF, it is interesting to note that Clement Attlee, Leader of the Opposition at the time, claimed that it was an `amalgamation rather like that of the young lady and the tiger', and The Times agreed with him that it was `asking too much of any Minister to hold the balance fairly between the interests of the consumer and the powerful agricultural interest'.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries was established by an Act in 1919, and took over the powers of the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries. A Board of Agriculture had first been established in 1793, with Sir John Sinclair as President and the well-known agricultural journalist Arthur Young as Secretary, but it was dissolved in 1822. Then in 1866 the Cattle Diseases Prevention Act was passed to combat the outbreak of cattle plague or rinderpest which was then sweeping through the country, and the Cattle Plague Department was set up in the Home Office to administer it. This became the Veterinary Department of the Privy Council the following year, and in 1883, when it acquired responsibility for the publication of the annual agricultural statistics from the Board of Trade, it became the Agriculture Department of the Privy Council. Finally, in 1889, the Land Commissioners (responsible to the Home Office for enclosure, copyhold and tithes) were combined with the Agriculture Department to form a new Board of Agriculture, with a Veterinary Department as one of its constituent parts.

If in the second half of the twentieth century MAFF was seen as the farmers' voice in government, it was not necessarily so in the late nineteenth century. The Board of Agriculture had legal, statistical and veterinary responsibilities, but there were none of the specific farm income support measures that came later. Arable farming in particular existed in a free market: cheap grain from overseas competed successfully in British markets, grain prices fell, farmers complained, workers left the land -- and government felt no need to intervene. Indeed in 1902 Sir Thomas Elliott, Permanent Secretary to the Board of Agriculture, told Sir Daniel Hall, a prominent agricultural scientist who was trying to raise funds for research, that British agriculture was dead and the Board's business was to bury it decently. The main exception to this policy trend was in veterinary legislation, which John Fisher, the historian who has investigated the topic in more detail than anyone else, describes as the one major political achievement of the British agricultural interest in the late nineteenth century. …

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