Brexit

Once and for all the Conservatives prove they are not the party for animal lovers

If you’re anything like me then you would have been shocked to learn that a motion to recognise animals as sentient beings – capable of feeling pain and emotion – was rejected from the EU Withdrawal Bill during a commons vote last week. The amendment, submitted by Green Party leader Caroline Lucas was narrowly defeated in parliament by just 18 votes, after every single member of the Conservative Party and their bedfellows the DUP voted against it. Despite every remaining member of parliament voting to transfer the animal sentience clause into UK law post-Brexit, the government was able to use its fragile majority to defeat them.

What is perhaps most disheartening, yet somehow unsurprising, is the complete and blatant u-turn by Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Michael Gove. Earlier this year Michael Gove was questioned in the House of Commons about his intentions regarding the environmental implications and animal welfare standards of Brexit. During this debate Gove was asked by Henry Smith, Conservative MP for Crawley: “Can my right hon. Friend confirm that article 13 of the Lisbon treaty, which categorises animals as sentient beings, will be part of the repeal Bill?” to which Gove confidently responded: “Absolutely. Before we entered the European Union, we recognised in our own legislation that animals were sentient beings. I am an animal; we are all animals, and therefore I care—[Interruption.] I am predominantly herbivorous, I should add. It is an absolutely vital commitment that we have to ensure that all creation is maintained, enhanced and protected.” However, it seems that this promise – supposedly based upon beliefs close to Gove’s heart – was conveniently forgotten about when the time came for him to cast his shameful vote (along with the rest of his party – even Henry Smith himself).

The question we all have to ask – and definitely should be asking – is why the entire Conservative party voted the way they did, and what sinister policy is lurking around the corner? This is not only a party that seems to have nothing more than a superficial grasp of animal welfare issues, but also a party with the responsibility of navigating the turbulent waters of Brexit. There have already been fear-laden reports that Brexit might spell bad news for animals, but never has this been more plausible a concern than following this vote. With the legal standing and even the very basic nature of animals being re-written in law during our withdrawal from the EU, we are now on the edge of a very dangerous precipice. What will this mean for farm animals in a post-Brexit Britain?

The Animal Welfare Act 2006 currently protects companion animals such as cats and dogs, but makes no mention of sentience and does nothing to protect the animals most often subjected to abuse such as farm animals, wildlife and laboratory animals. It seems we could be about to take several steps backwards and see the most vulnerable animals in this country stripped of what few rights they did have, and subjected to much lower standards of welfare. Perhaps farm animals – no longer considered sentient beings – will be able to be reared, housed and slaughtered with even less regard for welfare than they are now; or perhaps we will even see the end of historically crucial wildlife protections as we watch our remaining areas of green-belt land swallowed up in a sea of concrete.

Of course, this is not the first time the Conservatives have demonstrated a complete lack of compassion and understanding when it comes to animal welfare issues. The reason the parliamentary vote on fox hunting was scrapped from the final Tory manifesto was not because Theresa and her chums had a change of heart, but simply because of their humiliating performance in this year’s election. Had Mrs May got the majority she so confidently predicted, the countryside would no doubt have already reverted back to being a playground for the bloodthirsty.

Then of course there’s the badger culling, a scientifically flawed and economically disastrous time-wasting exercise that has done nothing but prove that badgers don’t spread bovine TB and that this government has an irrational hatred of badgers. In fact, it seems that every time there is a discussion on animal welfare issues, the Conservative party show a complete lack of connection with the wider public and push ahead with policies that the majority of the country find abhorrent. Surely this in itself demonstrates that not only are the Tories not the party for animal lovers, they’re not the party of the people at all.

In a world that is now spiralling towards the increasingly uncertain future created by global warming, deforestation, mass-farming and other devastating symptoms of an over-consumptive society, the time is now upon us to start choosing our leaders more wisely. Protecting our environment and the animals (human or otherwise) that inhabit it should be at the top of the agenda for any government. Recognising our fellow non-human Earthlings as sentient beings is an important part of any society that wishes to strive for a more ethical and environmentally secure future. The Conservative party have shown us before that they do not care about animals, but now we have it in writing. It’s time for us to take action.

What Can I Do?

If you live in a constituency with a Conservative MP then please contact them to let them know you do not agree with their vote. You can find out the name and party of your MP, as well as how to contact them by clicking here.

Alternatively you can ask your MP to tell Michael Gove: “Animals are sentient beings” by clicking here.

You can also sign this petition which will be delivered to Michael Gove.

Finally, please keep the pressure upon the government to reverse this decision. Please share this article, and others like it, and remember this decision next time you are asked to vote for a new government.

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Orwell, Freedom of Speech and the Meaning of Liberty

In these turbulent political times, what can we learn from the man widely regarded as one of the most important voices of his generation?

Politics feels particularly tribal these days with little room for balance or nuance around today’s main discussion topics. In Britain this polarisation has become glaringly apparent in the aftermath of the last year’s EU referendum and the recent general election.

In the United States, the political earthquake that was Donald Trump’s election to the White House, shortly followed by the “alternative facts” debacle, led to an increased interest in the work of George Orwell. We were living, it seemed, in a post-truth era and Orwell was the man who could offer the literary antidote.

After all, this most prescient of authors had written of this almost seventy years earlier in his dystopian classic 1984. Sales of this book, incidentally, soared in the wake of the alternative facts revelations.

It is tempting to theorise what Orwell would have made of the current political scene, but such an analysis would likely require more than one article.

There is, however, one area in which it is not hard to hypothesise about Orwell’s views and that is the current trend for No Platforming – that is, the banning of those with supposedly ‘unsayable’ views from expressing them in public.

Whilst this always dubious practice has historically been used to suppress those with violent, fascist tendencies, this is no longer always the case. Nowadays, it takes much less to get no platformed, as people like Julie Bindel, Peter Tatchell and even Richard Dawkins can attest. The no platforming of Tatchell, a prominent gay rights activist for many decades, is particularly absurd. An indication of the direction this policy has taken. People are now being made into pariahs for misjudged or ill-advised comments that fall foul of the prevailing liberal orthodoxy.

Another incident, not quite no platforming but along the same lines, came when Katie Hopkins, the notorious shock-jock, was subject to a mass walkout when speaking at Brunel University in 2015. It is necessary to insert a caveat here. Katie Hopkins’ ‘views’ are deeply unpleasant and purposely provocative. But then, isn’t this the point? Would it not be more effective to demonstrate these facts within a debate? Any competent debater could comfortably dismantle and discredit Hopkins’ arguments within a few minutes. No platforming such people validates their views in a way they do not deserve. It gives them the opportunity to accuse opponents of being afraid to debate them.

Take the example of former BNP leader Nick Griffin’s appearance on Question Time in 2009. Given a platform by the BBC, Griffin proceeded to deliver a flustered and unconvincing performance which prompted criticism from all sides, including his own supporters. Surely this proves that, rather than ignoring such individuals, giving them the opportunity to discredit themselves is preferable? After all, when you’ve just beaten yourself in a debate, who else can you blame?

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Freedom of speech is an essential part of any civilised democracy and no platforming in its current incarnation is becoming a threat to this. Britain’s universities shouldn’t be places where students are shielded from views which might upset them. Instead they should be places in which they are free to rebut, repudiate and counter their opponents. You cannot win a debate by muzzling your adversary.

All of this brings the conversation back to Orwell. What would he have made of the current state of debate in the UK? In attempting to answer this question, perhaps we should turn to one of his best-known utterances, namely: “if liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” The beauty of this quote is that it works both ways. People should have the right to tell us what we don’t want to hear, because their right to do so guarantees our right to do the same. This is the foundation of freedom of speech.

If we want to build and live in a fully inclusive society we must be willing to be exposed to views with which we disagree, sometimes even vehemently oppose. Provided people’s opinions do not incite hatred or violence then they must be guaranteed the right to express them. Failure to assure this right is not conducive to inclusive discourse and will inevitably foster resentment, tension and a generation of people who crumble when confronted with views which do not mirror their own: an echo chamber generation. To quote Orwell again: “threats to freedom of speech, writing and action, though often trivial in isolation, are cumulative in effect and, unless checked, lead to a general disrespect for the rights of the citizen.”

As Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, one of the most divisive political figures in recent years, said during Labour’s recent general election campaign: “everybody we meet knows something we don’t and everybody can teach us something.” Politicians, journalists and everybody else should not be afraid to be proved wrong, to learn and to improve. Admitting we are mistaken is not a demonstration of weakness, but of strength. After all, failure to concede we have been proven wrong does not hide the fact that we have.

Orwell was a fierce opponent of totalitarianism in all its forms and it stands to reason that he would oppose any attempt to shut down debate. He believed in “the power of facing unpleasant facts.” In other words, he wasn’t inhibited by political tribalism and could see things for what they were. If something was wrong, he would say so, regardless of who was responsible. This was a man accustomed to overcoming ingrained prejudice, having spent much time ‘unlearning’ some of the views his upbringing had instilled in him in relation to, among other things, the working class.

We can take much from his example. As the United Kingdom faces up to the reality of Brexit, arguably its biggest challenge since the time of Orwell, a political climate which is as inclusive as possible can only be beneficial. Party rivalry will rightly always exist and we can’t all be friends, but the right to air these differences in a civilised and respectful way must be preserved.

It is interesting and rather apt that over the years both the right and left have made attempts to claim Orwell as one of their own. Regardless of where he would have sat on today’s political spectrum, we can all learn from his honesty and unflinching commitment to democracy and liberty.

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