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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 concern.

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 that cares'.

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 animals'.

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 the protesters.

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 lecture others.

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 conservatism.

Additional reporting by Alec Turner

Animal love

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 calf.

'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

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