Wednesday, September 06, 2006

A reversal of roles

British fishing boats being scrapped under the CFP fleet reduction programmeFor all that so many people talk glibly about the "power of big business", the more normal experience when it comes to political issues is how cravenly neutral businesses often are. Many a time, on quite contentious issues, we have looked to them for leadership and support, only to find that they go for the easy, safe option and support the status quo – for fear of offending some of their customers.

It is quite remarkable, therefore, that yesterday, the Adsa supermarket chain came out with a press release calling for Britain's withdrawal from the EU's Common Fisheries Policy – which has destroyed our fisheries and wrecked the fishing fleet.

In US equivalent terms, this is something rather like Wal-Mart (which just happens to own Asda) calling for the abolition of hand guns. Getting directly involved in politics like this is something supermarkets simply do not do.

Anyhow, says Gordon Maddan, regulatory affairs manager at ASDA: "We want all the fish we sell to be sustainable. It's very clear however that the Common Fisheries Policy has failed to deliver this so we are now supporting calls for a radical change in approach."

As for Maddan's recipe, you need not waste your time on it – he provides the classic illustration of why shopkeepers should stick to selling their goods and not meddle in things they do not understand. But his heart is in the right place – he and his employer recognise that the CFP is fundamentally flawed and that we should withdraw from it.

But, if we are now seeing a supermarket chain taking an overtly political line, we are also seeing politicians taking an overtly non-political line – a complete reversal of the normal scheme of things. Enter Struan Stevenson MEP, formerly chairman of the EU parliament's fisheries committee and currently Conservative European spokesman on fisheries policy.

Asked by BBC Today programme's Sarah Montague why this was no longer Conservative Party policy, he simply blustered, saying: "It's not the easiest thing in the world to withdraw from the CFP". When Montague persisted as to what the current policy line was, Stevenson responded that, "If the CFP is not reformed substantially, then we retain the possibility of withdrawal".

It says something for quite how fatuous this response was that even Sarah Montague noted that reform "isn't going to happen…", leaving Stevenson stranded, high and dry.

Yet, since the Conservatives produced their green paper of fisheries in December last, written by then shadow fisheries minister Owen Paterson. this is as near to the first definitive statement on fisheries that we have had from the Cameron camp.

This is from a man who has never had the guts to stand up and declare openly that he has abandoned the withdrawal policy agreed by all three of his predecessors. Instead, we are going to seek "reform" – something even the BBC recognises is not going to happen.

Nevertheless, the two-faced Stevenson is going along with the fiction. This is the man who tells the BBC that the CFP is "a treaty obligation… something you can't simply unravel overnight."

Yet when he was asked – pre-Cameron - to respond to the Owen Paterson's green paper on withdrawal from the CFP, he wrote: "It is brilliant. My smile got broader and broader as I read through it! You've done a startling piece of work which will be widely applauded by the fishing communities in the UK and beyond."

It said of politicians that some are born great while others have greatness thrust upon them. Others, it would seem, are born shits and remain that way all their lives.

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