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Allergic to freedom

Why is Europe taking up arms against herbal remedies?

12 March 2011

12:00 AM

12 March 2011

12:00 AM

To what problem is the statutory regulation of herbalists a solution? Are the tiny bits of bark and sap and leaf peddled by contemporary wisewomen deleterious to human health? Are we at risk of being sterilised by St John’s wort, paralysed by pau d’arco, maddened by meadowsweet? Hardly. Herbal remedies might be inert placebos or they might, as my wife maintains, be better for you than antibiotics. My wife is often right; and in any case, as the author of Proverbs tells us, ‘better a dinner of herbs where love is than a stalled ox and hatred therewith’ (rarely could the bit about the herbs have applied so aptly).

In a sense, though, it doesn’t matter whether complementary medicine lives up to its billing. This isn’t about science; it’s about freedom. Our starting assumption ought surely to be that herbal practitioners have no interest in killing their customers. Their wares tend to be milder than the pharmaceutical alternatives, and have often been prescribed for centuries. If they were toxic, I think we’d have noticed by now. Six million people in Britain have visited a herbalist at some point in the past two years, and two million regularly use alternative treatments as a first resort, yet herbal remedies account for just 0.4 per cent of reported adverse reactions.

When pushed on this point, defenders of the new rules — which come into force on 1 May — sometimes point half-heartedly to a death involving Chinese medicine; yet that case involved the adulteration of the advertised substance. It was, in other words, a violation of the existing trading standards laws.

No, the real reason that the government is obliging all herbal practitioners to sell only approved products is that it is carrying out instructions from Brussels. The ban was voted through the European Parliament seven years ago but, as so often, Eurocrats built in a delay, knowing that national ministers were far more likely to agree to an unpopular measure that would blow up in the laps of their successors.

To be fair, Conservative ministers are now doing their best to mitigate a proposal which, in opposition, they rejected. Under the government’s scheme, herbalists would be invited to register with a professional association which could then license their merchandise collectively, instead of obliging each individual practitioner to spend tens of thousands of pounds on product approval. Some herbalists’ organisations have now accepted this settlement — which, until very recently, they angrily opposed. But smaller practitioners fear that they will be put out of business. The herbalist who concocts calendula cream from her own marigolds will, they insist, be breaking the law.


Britain’s abjectness before Brussels is nothing new. Why, though, is the EU criminalising an activity peaceably pursued by at least 20 million of its citizens? Why is it making itself even more unpopular? Three reasons.

First, the desire to regulate is encoded deep in the Eurocrat’s DNA. To his mind, ‘unlicensed’ is synonymous with ‘illegal’. He faintly resents the idea that a trade might have grown up organically, without state approval. His instinct is to rationalise, to regularise, to standardise.

Second, the EU has fallen for that epochal idiocy, first adumbrated by the German Green movement, known as ‘the precautionary principle’, which holds that, because something might be dangerous, we shouldn’t permit it until it has been shown to be safe. This sounds reasonable enough until you think about what it means in practice. It puts producers in the impossible position of having to prove a negative.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, for example, it was widely believed that the noise of a passing train would cause pregnant women to miscarry. Had we applied the precautionary principle, we would never have laid an inch of track: the rail operators of the day couldn’t prove that they wouldn’t cause miscarriages, any more than today’s health stores can prove that their wares are not toxic.

The third reason for the ban is, however, the most powerful. Whenever an apparently absurd law of this kind emanates from the EU, ask yourself cui bono — whose interest does it serve? In this case, there is no mystery: the directive was openly lobbied for by large pharmaceutical companies, which saw an opportunity to put their smaller rivals out of business. Not for the first time, big corporations have used the EU to push through rules which national assemblies would never have countenanced. MPs were left in no doubt about how their constituents viewed the proposal. But Brussels fonctionnaires are invulnerable to the ballot box: the EU was designed, in the aftermath of the second world war, precisely to shield them from public opinion.

What, though, has any of this has to do with the single market? Most herbalists, after all, operate only within a radius of a few miles. Once again, we are reminded that the EU does not confine itself to cross-border issues. Brussels tells us how to open bank accounts, how to strap our children into car seats, how to sell our houses, how to hold ladders against walls.

Last month, David Cameron discovered that his flagship policy — funding Big Society schemes with £100 million recovered from disused bank accounts — could not be pursued without special permission from the European Commission. Two weeks later, women learned that they could no longer benefit from cheaper car insurance.

Most British voters vaguely dislike the EU, but don’t regard it as an especially pressing nuisance. We tend to think of it as a racket that happens across the Channel: expensive, undemocratic and doubtless corrupt, but hardly immediate.

Those who take herbal remedies will soon know better: they are being treated as fishermen and slaughtermen, art dealers and fund managers, cheesemakers and female drivers have been treated before them. See how Brussels curls its tendrils into every cranny of national life, blocking the light, strangling the native growth.


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