Animal welfare is a political open goal — and Brexit is a one-off chance to establish better standards in the UK
I was standing behind a 40-foot long banner in Parliament Square one day last September, waving at passing motorists to draw their attention to the fact that thousands of live farm animals leave our shores every year crammed into multi-level trucks, doomed to suffer days of thirst, hunger, pain and injury before being tipped out, exhausted, like so much trash, to be slaughtered far beyond the reach of Defra or RSPCA standards. The rally was organised by Compassion in World Farming, and I learned that numbers are particularly high at the end of Ramadan when the demand for sacrificial sheep goes up, thanks to the Islamic festival of Eid. (In my part of London, our Muslim neighbours seem perfectly content to celebrate Eid with fireworks.)
A few days later one of the animal welfare activists I follow on Twitter tweeted a picture of the rally, claiming that no Tory MPs had been there. In fact, the only MPs who addressed the rally were the Tories Craig Mackinlay and Theresa Villiers, Caroline Lucas from the Greens, and a Lib Dem. It was Labour, not the Conservatives, who were conspicuously absent.
I tweeted the correct facts to the activist and asked him to take down his claim. He ignored me for about a week before finally acknowledging his mistake, if mistake it was. But by then his many followers had seen the tweet and believed it, because, let’s face it, it was believable. Lazy political thinking assumes that concern for animals is a special monopoly of Labour.
There is no ideological reason why a Conservative voter should not want a better deal for animals. Animal welfare is a political open goal, and ever since he became Environment Secretary Michael Gove has lost no time scoring point after point: enforcing CCTV to discourage slaughterhouse workers from abusing animals, cracking down on puppy farms and attempting to establish the principle that animals will still be regarded as sentient beings in the UK after Brexit.
Labour are clearly rattled, and responded with policy proposals which look like a lame catch-up game. Banning the sale of foie gras, for example, was being discussed in Tory environmental circles for some months, before Labour announced plans for a ban. What is intriguing is that parties are for the first time competing for the animal vote.
The British care about animals. From Beatrix Potter to Peppa Pig, our children grow up believing in animal sentience, then traditionally lose the plot while eating bacon. But adults’ awareness of animal welfare is changing thanks to social media sharing of shocking photographs of livestock conditions and a whole genre of documentary films such as Blackfish, Cowspiracy and Carnage. Vegans are increasing in number, and in a generation will be mainstream. British farming is a business and would do well to adapt to changing demand rather than issue easily shot-down warnings that vegans miss out on the iodine in cows’ milk. (The only reason iodine is in cows’ milk is because intensively farmed cows are desperately stressed, often get sick and therefore have to have their udders washed in iodine regularly.)
Most interesting of all, Gove has spotted the gap between what are supposed to be EU animal welfare standards and what actually happens to farm animals in most EU countries. This gap tells us that the EU says one thing but does another. Gove knows that Brexit is a one-off chance to establish better standards in the UK.
We’ve been used to the image of sophisticated Europeans enjoying their world-beating cuisine. But the more one learns about factory farming in France, Spain or Italy, the less appetising their food becomes. Seen through Gove’s Brexit eyes, we no longer see elegant Eurocrats picking at dainty morsels, but greedy carnivores guzzling the carcasses of animals who have been kept for their whole lives in crammed, concrete sheds surrounded by the dead and dying — or, in the case of foie gras, actually subjected to weeks of an agonising death by torture of which Caligula would have been proud. This unedifying picture makes it rather easier to say goodbye.