Saturday, 8 December 2012

Owen Paterson: We want our country back from Europe

Mythical slayer of badgers, poster boy of the Tory Right – now Owen Paterson, the new man at Defra, is laying into wind farms and the EU .

For the record, Owen Paterson has never drowned a badger. This is not to suggest he has never killed anything. When we ask him what is the largest mammal he has accounted for, he stays quiet and a slight smile plays across his face. Elephant? Grizzly? Fourteen point stag? He won’t say.

The suggestion he offered to show his civil servants how to dispatch Mr Brock with a bucket of water is one of several irresistible stories that have done the rounds since this countryman with firm views about man and nature was put in charge of the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Another is that on arrival, his officials urged him to correct malicious reports that he does not believe the science on global warming, only to be told: “Actually, I don’t.” Both stories are untrue – “frankly ridiculous”, he says – yet hint at the minister’s reputation for plain talk and swift action. It is hard to think of another serving politician who causes such nervous fascination in Westminster.

Mr Paterson is not in the public eye. He hasn’t pursued a media profile, and for the first half of this Parliament he served as Northern Ireland Secretary, where his discreet success secured him the promotion that sent him to Defra in the autumn reshuffle. Now he is in the spotlight not only as the minister in charge of dossiers including the badger cull and ash disease, but as a poster boy for the Tory Right, which can’t get enough of his robust views on Europe, gay marriage and energy policy. Which is how he finds himself talking to The Daily Telegraph for his first major interview since taking on his new role.

In fact, he knows a lot about badgers. He is probably the only MP to have had two of them as pets as a child. He certainly has more experience of the creatures than most of those campaigning against the proposed badger cull. Mr Paterson is knowledgeable about bovine TB, and an advocate of the case for tackling the disease by reducing the badger population, which spreads TB to cattle with terrible effects on the livelihoods of dairy farmers.

Defra tried to start the cull this autumn, only to postpone it until next year when the NFU pointed out that the badgers were going into hibernation. The programme has suffered delays from legal challenges and a shortage of policemen to protect farmers taking part in the cull from animal rights saboteurs. The delay is disappointing but “if its going to be done it’s got to be done properly,” he says. Suggestions that the Government might waver in the face of a sustained public campaign are “unfair”: he has campaigned on it for years and “I’m in charge”.

From the moment he took over at Defra, Europe has dominated his in-tray. It helps that he speaks fluent French and German, and has mastered the impenetrable jargon. Having written a landmark study in Opposition on the Common Fisheries Policy he is particularly scathing about this “disaster” that is depleting our waters and driving British fishermen out of business. If the Tories were in power alone, he would be arguing for withdrawal from the CFP. That said, he says, the Coalition appears to be on course to secure a ban on discards by which “perfectly good fish” are dumped dead overboard because they don’t count towards the quota.

On Britain and the EU, he points out his views are well known. Certainly, he is counted among those around the Cabinet table who would opt for the exit. His position is in fact more nuanced. Yes, “we’d do a lot better if we made a lot more laws locally in our own Parliament”.

But he points to what is going on as a result of the euro crisis: the EU is forging ahead with integration as a way of saving the single currency and the European project. Far from Britain leaving the EU, it will be the EU leaving Britain. “If in order to resolve the Euro crisis there has to be this new arrangement that’s effectively creating a new country … from which we’re excluded, [then] we want to get our country back which means making our laws in our own Parliament.”

That “we want our country back” is a phrase that will echo loudly with all those who have been clamouring for David Cameron to give the British people a chance to do just that in an “in-out” referendum. The Prime Minister is due to set out his thinking in a major speech in the next few weeks. To Mr Paterson’s mind, the British public feel dangerously isolated from the European process: “it doesn’t matter how you vote, you’ll still have whatever directive you don’t like imposed upon you.”

But his experience at Defra tells him that we can’t just tear it all up. In his department alone there are 40,000 pages of environmental regulations that originate somehow in Europe. “You can’t just chainsaw them,” he says. You would still need laws to regulate the health of farms and the safety of abattoirs.

“Everyone talks about Europe, but this isn’t Europe at all, this is our day-to-day government, this is how we run things. I get fed up with the E-word. This is not about Europe. This is about how we run our country on a day-to-day basis.”

He looks beyond the EU and sees prospects for trade with the anglo-sphere, and with the giants of China and India. The world is evolving fast, and so is the EU. Britain’s relationship with the EU will evolve too. “They are going to leave us… [the Commission] has come up with a very clear plan for what is effectively a new country.”

He has entered the debate about wind farms and shale gas with an enthusiasm that has delighted Tory MPs and terrified environmental campaigners in equal measure.

Given that wind energy is central to the Coalition’s energy policy, his contempt is striking. “These turbines are being built because of subsidy and it is causing huge public consternation. They are inappropriate technology which matured in the Middle Ages, they are inappropriate for many areas of inland Britain and they are doing real damage.” He speaks of those who have had their lives blighted, and says residents should have the power to veto proposed wind farms.

Likewise, he is evangelical about the potential of shale gas, demonstrated in the United States. Mr Paterson believes Britain’s reserves of shale gas could have a similar positive effect here, if only we would let the private sector get on with exploration and extraction.

Mr Paterson argues that the investment in shale gas would revive struggling rural communities. “It could be absolute huge,” he says. “It is totally unlike windfarms. It depends on no public subsidy. It runs in tune with the economy, and it provides an energy source which is reliable.” To encourage development he has set up an office in Defra to speed up the licensing application process.

He is relaxed about speaking up for Tory principles in Coalition. He feels comfortable saying he will vote against gay marriage when it comes up. And he is bullish about the Tories’ prospects.

“People understand the difficulties we have trying to reduce the deficit and ultimately have an impact on the debt. We have got the public sympathy on that. Brown, Blair, Miliband and Balls, they are like the Gang of Four, they should be sent to the paddy fields for re-education for a very long time for the disgraceful damage they did to our country. They inherited the fastest growing economy in western Europe in 1997 and blew it.”

The reference to show trial of Mao’s followers stems in part from his experience touring China after the cultural revolution. “Seeing a totalitarian state, seeing a guy chased down a street by a policeman with a fixed bayonet does make you think.”

He is scathing about criticism by the television gardener Alan Tichmarsh that the Government does not understand the countryside. “He’s a complete muppet, missed completely everything we’re doing.” For Mr Paterson, who was brought up in Shropshire and is now one of the county’s MPs, who is one of the few MPs directly affected by the hunting ban, who rode a horse across Turkmenistan, such criticism is an obvious frustration. Scrapping the fuel duty rise, lowering corporation tax and increasing capital allowances will all help rural businesses, he points out. It may be that putting someone who is so plainly at home in wellies in the job is key to recovering lost ground.

For the moment his work is dominated by the race to identify a genetic strain of disease-resistant ash. Unlike some ministers, he speaks highly of his civil servants. Years of working in Northern Ireland, he says, have made him “immune to abuse”. But he is certainly not a badger killer. “Ridiculous.”

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