Respectable rebellion in Middle
How has animal welfare moved from being a fringe concern to a national
focus for anti-government protest and finally turned into a government policy?
James Heartfield investigates
Joyce D'Silva, the director of Compassion in World Farming stepped up the
fight with Britain's veal trade about a year ago. Thousands of male calves
are surplus to British requirements every year, because Britain prefers
dairy farming, and so are shipped off to the Continent. Sheep too are exported
live, and since the main ports shifted to exclusively human cargoes, animal
exports have shifted to the smaller ports along the south coast.
In other times live animal exports would not have become so pressing an
issue. Yet throughout the New Year animal welfare protests at Shoreham on
the Sussex coast and Brightlingsea in Essex provoked large demonstrations
and sympathy throughout the country. What's more, the government has bent
over backwards to meet the concerns of the protesters, promising to take
the case to the EU. The way in which animal welfare was suddenly transformed
from a fringe issue into a national concern provides a snapshot of the state
of political life in modern Britain.
The animal welfare protests of 1995, like most radical activism today, began
with a small circle of 'respectable' Middle England types. Joyce D'Silva
was once a religious education teacher in Witham, Essex. Her co-workers
in Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) had been a theatre director, a teacher,
and a company director. The campaign used high-profile endorsements by actresses
like Joanna Lumley, Penelope Keith and Julie Christie to publicise their
Advertising for support, CIWF finds readers of the Daily Telegraph are
most responsive. According to Mrs D'Silva, 'our readers are the sort of
people who give to War on Want and Christian Aid. Funnily enough we don't
do so well with the Guardian', putting the CIWF in the same advertising
bracket as silk scarves and retirement homes. The CIWF started protests
in Shoreham, where large exports of livestock were turned back. They were
boosted by the campaigning of Joyce D'Silva's two daughters, who live in
Brightlingsea, the port where the sheep exports were redirected.
Brightlingsea Against Live Exports (BALE) is a studiously respectable campaign.
Its leaflets apologise in advance for the inconvenience to traffic, promising
to keep disruption to a minimum. In Brightlingsea, hundreds joined a multi-denominational
open air service to pray for an end to live animal exports, where they were
told by Baptist minister Ian Reed that they were 'lucky to belong to a community
The big idea
The founder of Compassion in World Farming, Peter Roberts, himself a farmer,
writes in the campaign's bulletin that 'there is nothing more powerful than
an idea whose time has come. Compassion in World Farming is such an idea'.
It is true that the 2000 protesters on the evening of 20 January represent
about a quarter of the population of Brightlingsea, but they were not really
all there because of animal suffering. It might be the case that animal
welfare protests have taken the country by storm; it does not follow that
the people who support them share the motives of the original campaigners.
Protests like those at Brightlingsea have become a focus for an outburst
of frustration at a whole variety of issues quite apart from concern for
sheep. According to John, a middleaged protester, 'we don't want those lorries
through here - they're a danger', while two sixthformers, Alan and Katie,
pointed out that the wharf was rather narrow and the freighters 'played
havoc with our dinghy sailing'. BALE's publicity leads on the issue of health
hazards created by lorries passing front doors. Neil, a forty-something
teacher on the march in January, condemned the 'evil, disgusting trade',
but he could not remember having felt strongly about it before.
Like so many people that support the protests around the country, the marchers
at Brightlingsea are angry about lots of things today. Beyond the closed
circle of activists, the animal protests have become a vehicle through which
a great many people can vent their anger - against the government, over economic
insecurity, or any other contemporary concern. This is why many more people
sympathise with the protesters and their cause without having any substantial
attachment to the rights of animals.
The way that the animal protests' appeal works is in the first place a model
of respectable activism. The real success of the animal protests is that
they represent no vested interest whatsoever. The issue they raise is so
distant from the practical concerns of people in their everyday lives that
it seems to hover above mere interests in the ether of moral righteousness.
What is new is that this kind of respectable politics, normally associated
with the middle aged and middle class, is embraced by a much wider audience
than before. The appeal of the moral high ground extends to young and working
class people as well. It is not difficult to see why. Conventional politics
is mired in corruption and disgrace. All the traditional political ideologies
stand discredited, whether they are left-wing or right-wing.
Any issue will do
The Labour Party, despite its success in the polls, has gone out of its
way to eschew any belief in anything. No political principle is so grand
that Tony Blair will not dump it in the hope of impressing the press. The
Conservatives' political programme is even more empty, consisting of little
else than trying to find the revenue to fund the tax cut they hope will
get them re-elected.
The result of this political impasse between left and right is that hostility
towards the government is immense, but there is no means to express it.
Labour's lead in the polls - fluctuating between 20 and 40 points - shows
how unpopular the government is, but it does not mean anyone feels genuinely
enthusiastic about Tony Blair.
The scale of bitterness people feel towards the government means that anger
at the Tories can blow up over a variety of issues, like the Child Support
Agency, corruption or the privatisation of the railways. It is not quite
that any issue will do, but any question that catches the government out
immediately appeals to the vast numbers who are repulsed by it. These days,
if a prisoner escapes, there are demands that the Home Secretary must go;
and if a live calf is exported, the cry is for ministers with farms to resign.
The ideal focus for this kind of multi-purpose anti-government protest is
a non-threatening issue which does not provoke real conflict in society
and is consistent with the interests of the chattering classes. Opposition
to live animal exports fits the bill. Animal welfare protests stand out
as principled actions that nobody could disagree with.
Not football hooligans
Like the protests over the M11 link road before them, animal welfare protests
range the greedy exporter or developer against the selfless and respectable
campaigner. It is a morality tale that invites everyone to join in the condemnation.
Supporting the protesters has a cathartic effect. Everybody's unvoiced frustrations
combine with the argument.
Throughout the confrontation between the protesters on the one hand and
the exporters, police and government on the other, the powers that be have
given way at every stage. Shoreham convoys have been turned back and then
stopped, the Brightlingsea MP has pleaded with the port authorities to stop.
A government that stood up to the miners, the Soviets and the IRA seems
to have melted away in the face of a few hundred animal-lovers.
Behind the pattern of one concession after another is the underlying fact
that the government is devoid of moral authority, the one commodity that
the protesters have in abundance. Contrary to all experience, it is the
government that stands for sectional interests while the protesters enjoy
the support of the mass of people.
However, while the animal welfare issue might embarrass them, it does no
lasting damage at all to the government or the authorities. The moralism
of the animal welfare protests might be a focus for anti-government sentiment
but it does not challenge reactionary ideas. In fact it can reinforce them.
Perhaps the most remarkable part of the story of the animal welfare protests
then is the ability of the authorities to accommodate their concerns.
Invariably the protesters insist on the respectability of their cause. At
Brightlingsea, demonstrators were outraged at their treatment at the hands
of the police. They were shoved about and filmed on police video cameras,
while police officers hid their faces and numbers. John called them 'mindless
thugs', adding 'we're not poll tax protesters'. According to Joyce, the
police from outside were diabolical - 'do we look like football hooligans?'.
However, while it might have been a new experience to the good people of
Brightlingsea, this was a police operation more restrained than any football
supporter or even a poll tax protester could expect. In a letter to his
constituents, Brightlingsea's MP, Bernard Jenkin, defended their right to
protest and added, 'I very much regret conflict between protesters and police'
(21 January 1995). Hardly the sort of condemnation reserved for a 'rioter'
or a 'hooligan'.
Since then the death of Jill Phipps, crushed under a lorry carrying veal
calves for export at Coventry airport has provoked a national outcry. She
was mourned as a martyr even by the press, and exports from the airport
were suspended immediately. Miners killed trying to stop coal trucks in
the 1984-85 strike were only told that they should not have been there.
Of course, protesters who stoned police in Plymouth the next day were condemned - but
only as outside agitators, in contrast to the respectable protesters.
'Our caring attitude'
The Tories can readily, if not honourably, concede the argument to the protesters
because at the end of the day it does not matter. Characteristic of protests
today, animal welfare is not an issue that will rock the status quo. In
the very nature of its ethereal moral value, banning live animal exports
will do no harm to the Tory government or the vested interests it represents.
In fact animal welfare is so malleable a proposition that it can easily
be reformulated in the terms the Conservatives prefer. In his letter to
Brightlingsea, Bernard Jenkin explains patronisingly that the matter is
complex because it is 'tied to our membership of the European Union'. 'Unfortunately',
he continues, 'few of our European partners share our caring attitude towards
For the protesters the animal welfare issue creates a moral framework that
establishes their self-righteousness. But it can just as easily create a
moral framework for the self-righteousness of the Eurosceptic Tory. In fact
the Conservative Party has been active on the issue longer than many of
Tories like the maverick ex-minister Alan Clark have been promoting animal
rights in much the same spirit as Joyce D'Silva - as a classical Home Counties
prejudice about the superior ways of the English. Preoccupied with its own
dwindling support, the Conservative government has been trying to make animal
welfare into a stick to beat other EU countries with.
The Tories argue that they banned live exports in the seventies, only for
the Labour government to overturn the ban. 'Since then', writes Bernard
Jenkin, 'the single European market, which makes no distinction between
live animals and other produce has opened up'.
Those filthy foreigners, with their disgusting eating habits and cruelty
to animals....This is the prejudice that the Conservatives have introduced
into the animal welfare issue. Not that it was difficult. The whole point
about animal welfare as a cause is that it creates a pulpit from which to
Roberta Hyland spent a night in police cells after intervening to save her
son from a beating at Brightlingsea. Effortlessly she asserts, 'Continentals
are cruel: look at the way they treat their dogs'. It is a petty prejudice
of little consequence, but it is an indication of the way that moral outrage
suits reactionary sentiment.
Roberta Hyland's outlook is not so different from Alan Clark's or even William
Waldegrave's. It is also an example of the way that a protest like the animal
welfare campaign can go full circle. It starts with a thoroughly respectable
issue pursued with apparently radical tactics; then the issue gets taken
up by everyone as an uncontroversial vehicle for protest at the government.
But because the issue never was a big challenge to the status quo anyway,
the cause can even be adopted by the government and given the stamp of British
Additional reporting by Alec Turner
The celebrated British love of animals is one element in the romantic rural
idyll that appeals to an overwhelmingly urban society. The more Britons
live in towns, the more important the countryside has become. Nature and
the countryside provide an emotional refuge to city-dwellers. As the south-east
becomes more congested, the remaining undeveloped pockets take on a mythical
quality that few farm workers would recognise.
Animals especially are a peculiarly British love for the simple reason that
Britain is the country that has been industrialised for the longest, and
where the highest percentage of the population lives in developed urban
areas. It is only when people no longer have to raise animals to live that
they could raise them as pets.
One dairy farmer, Martin Bazeley, expressed his incomprehension at the sheer
illogicality of the animal welfare protests. Is it really worse that male
calves are raised for slaughter than that they are shot at birth, as some
of the protesters suggested, he asked. Of course, to a farmer, for whom
cattle are work to be done and a product to be sold, it was an argument
that made no sense. But Bazeley also understood that it was not a rational
argument on the protesters part, but an emotional empathy with the captive
'People are so anthropomorphic', he complained. Looking at animals as beings
with feelings that can suffer is a thoroughly modern and urban prejudice.
Children have pets to teach them responsibility and how to care for others.
We often carry the fiction that animals are like people into adult life - giving
them names and talking to them.
In reality pets are being used just as much as livestock are - but for emotional
rather than physical needs. Most societies have an injunction against cruelty
towards animals in the same way that they forbid sexual relations with animals.
It is not for the animal's sake, but for the human's. Gratuitous cruelty
to pets is considered degrading, because it reveals disturbed emotions.
But to equate a farmer with a child that tortures the cat is missing the
point. If a man were to keep a calf crated in his garage for fun, he would
be cruel. But if a farmer keeps 100 crated in a barn, he would be a businessman.
Thousands of people all over the country empathise with caged animals. But
at the same time more and more people are being caged. Britain has the highest
prison population in Europe apart from Turkey. These are human beings, locked
up for 23 hours a day and fed slop. Even the most terrible criminal is still
human, but a calf will only ever be a dumb animal.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 77, March 1995