Britain: On The Campaign Trail

Andy Duncan lives in one of the more picturesque parts of rural England. But the views from his Dartmoor hotel haven't been that good lately. "They were burning animals within 40 or 50 yards of us, says Duncan. "You could feel the heat inside the farmhouse and the smell, this sticky smell of hair and kerosene and dead animals."

Dartmoor, a spot favored by visitors for the moors and open spaces of its national park, now has a more dubious distinction: as a center of foot-and-mouth disease. Hiking trails are closed; visitors are staying away and fields are unsettlingly vacant as farmers are forced to shoot potentially infected herds of cattle and sheep before consigning them to huge funeral pyres. The implications for Britain's tourist industry are obvious. Less clear, however, is how the country's struggles to contain the virus afflicting its livestock will impact upon its upcoming general election.

The final outcome of the vote, which will probably take place on June 7, is hardly in doubt. Polls show the Labour government has an 18-point lead over the opposition Conservative Party, and Prime Minister Tony Blair is expected to see his party win comfortably. In the English countryside, though, there is growing resentment over how the government has handled the foot-and-mouth crisis and over what is often seen as an unfair government focus on urban issues. "We've lost 99 percent of foreign visitors this year," says Duncan. "The Americans aren't coming, the Europeans aren't coming. Some [of us] are definitely going to go bust unless we get proper support from the government."

That's a sensitive issue. Blair has tried to show solidarity with the country's hard-hit farmers through measures ranging from visits by government ministers to aid packages that have reached almost $1 billion so far. But the focus on the farming community has annoyed those in tourist-related industries, who feel they also deserve more help.

While the Blair government has promised $40 million to help small rural businesses, owners complain this is a paltry amount given that tourism generates about $90 billion a year-some 6 percent of the country's gross domestic product. The agricultural sector, by contrast, is worth about 1.5 percent of the GDP.

"Farmers will get a pot of gold if they get foot-and-mouth disease, but no government has concessions for public houses," complains Mick Cartwright, a pub owner in the Welsh village of Talybont-on-Usk. "Farmers have caused all the grief but they're the ones who get the subsidies. At the end of the day, I'll be bankrupt."

Cartwright says his overhead is more than $22,000 dollars a year and business is so slow that he won't survive the season. "My place is on the market, and it's a race against time," he says. Surveying his empty restaurant and bar at what should have been a busy weekend lunchtime, he adds: "The government says they've opened the country, but that's rubbish. When the national parks are closed, the country's not open. It's lies. People are going abroad and everyone knows it."

Other businesses are suffering too. At Okehampton, in Devon, the main street is empty except for a few local children. The tea shop hasn't had a customer all day, and the local museum attracts only a fraction of its usual number of visitors.

Nick Harvey, Member of Parliament for North Devon, says many small firms in his constituency will never recover from the effects of foot and mouth. "Everyone's put off by the TV pictures of burning pyres," says Gill Giles, who bought a bed-and-breakfast on a north Devon hilltop last year to escape the stresses of life in the London commuter belt. "May and June [occupancy rates] are looking really bad, down to half on last year."

Anger at the government among nonurban voters won't have much of an effect on the size of the Labour Party's expected majority. Only a small proportion of the 418 parliamentary seats won by Labour in its landslide victory of 1997 were from deep rural areas. Even a catastrophic countryside loss, say party organizers, won't be enough to deprive it of a majority in the 659-seat House of Commons. In addition, few voters are suggesting that William Hague's Conservative Party could have handled the foot-and-mouth crisis any better than the Blair government.

Nonetheless, rural sentiments underscore a continuing and generalized British disenchantment with politics and politicians-of all parties. "The government was slow to sort out foot and mouth but it won't make any difference," says Welsh carpenter Andrew Bream. "They'll easily win." Bream, who is spending his Saturday afternoon at the local rugby club near Swansea, says that despite living in a Labour stronghold he sees little difference between the country's two main parties. "They're much of a muchness," says Bream. "The Tories [Conservatives] have relaxed to the middle of the road, and Labour are less left. Whoever saves me a hundred pounds on my mortgage, I'll vote for them."

Gail Owen, the postmistress at nearby Cwmavon, is worried that recent post-office closures will cost her her job. Although she's also from a traditional Labour area, she's planning to vote for the Welsh National Party. "Around here, if they put a chimpanzee up as a Labour candidate, everyone would vote for it," Owen says. "I'll definitely be voting Plaid. At the beginning [of Labour's term in office], I thought Blair was good, but he's only interested in major business."

Some voters, like beef farmer Huw Jones, feel the government should have acted faster against foot and mouth. "They should have hit it hard at the beginning," he says. "Now they're ruining everything. I know we're just a small piece of the economy, but we're the backbone."

Others are more sympathetic about what they see as a natural disaster that was beyond the government's control. "I think the frustration is that we're all helpless," says Julie Davis, manager of the Brecon Tourist Information Center, where visitor figures for March were down by two thirds compared to last year. "It's out of everybody's control, including the government's."

"Foot and mouth wasn't [Blair's] fault," says Neil Jenkins, a Royal Mail manager. "The parties are pretty much the same, but out of the leaders, well, Hague's terrible. Nothing he says is constructive. Blair's a bit stronger and he was brave to delay [the elections] by a month." It's hardly a ringing endorsement, but for any politician even faint praise is better than none.

Britain: On The Campaign Trail | News