Boris Johnson wants to beef up animal rights. The new rules will include a ban on importing stuffed heads as hunting trophies, and possibly on fur as well; a mandatory microchip for every cat in the kingdom; no more exports of live animals for slaughter; a ban on keeping primates as pets; and, most bizarre of all, a law requiring government to accept that animals are sentient and feel pain and angst like the rest of us.
This looks odd. There was no extensive pressure except from a small fringe for any of these measures. To most traditional conservatives, animal rights conjure up unattractive visions of young men in dirty anoraks smashing laboratory windows to rescue supposed vivisection victims.
In fact, however, one suspects Boris — whether or not at Carrie Symonds’s prompting — acted absolutely rationally in adding these proposals to the Queen’s Speech this week.
Why? The answer is that the 2019 election and last week’s flurry of voting were good news for the Tories because the demographics came right. Workers and housewives in the West Midlands and the erstwhile red wall had finally severed their atavistic attachment to vanished smokestacks and a Labour party associated with them, which means their votes are up for grabs. Meanwhile, Labour’s intellectual and bourgeois support stayed largely concentrated in areas where votes are already piled up so ultimately did them no good. Significantly, however, where such people had colonised previously solid Tory territory, for example in the Cotswolds, the results were more disquieting: witness the previously unthinkable loss of Witney and Chipping Norton councils to Labour.
Both these factors necessitated a rethink on animals. Ex-metropolitan rural colonists are deeply interested in countryside matters. But this is countryside Chris Packham-style rather than on the model of Robert Surtees. Labour has hitherto attracted these people partly because they see the party as animal-friendly, in contrast to stone-hearted Tories attached to hunting and shooting. Stealing some of Labour’s humanitarian clothes may well be a far-sighted measure for Boris in these newly-bourgeois rural seats of southern England.
And so too, for a different reason, with the new-style Tory voters who helped demolish the red wall. Anyone who has ever stood for parliament and tried to persuade such electors (a class including me) will caution that animal rights are an electoral elephant trap. Feelings run high, normally in favour of the animal; questions are invariably asked; and a candidate without a policy to enhance animal protection is all too often left with no choice but to dissemble or to leave a voter mortally offended.
So Boris’s conversion to animal rights is a shrewd strategic move. Proposals to increase sentences for animal cruelty can expect support across the board. Moreover, several of the other projects are eye-catching but not very significant in practice. Trophy hunting and fur imports do not loom large in the trade figures; nor, one suspects, is there an enormous number of keepers of marmosets as pets. The overwhelming majority of beasts raised for meat in the UK are slaughtered here. Discounting poultry, the export trade in live sheep, pigs, and cattle is already under £20 million a year.
Nevertheless, as a matter of tactics Boris should think again about two of his proposals, and perhaps take steps to kick them gently into the long grass.
One is the idea of microchipping every cat. This has no obvious connection with animal welfare and seems to be aimed at dealing with a rise in theft by making it easier to reunite stolen cats with their owners. But the decision whether to protect one’s cat from theft should, one would have thought, lie with the owner. Even the British Veterinary Association, whose members would doubtless profit mightily from such a scheme, has its doubts. One also suspects that new Tory voters, many of whom are not comfortably off, would see this not so much as helping cats but instead as burdening their owners with an unnecessary cost (working out at £20 or £30 per animal) with no good reason apart from bureaucratic tidiness. This isn’t the way to win voters or occupy even a specious moral high ground.
The other is the proposed animal sentience law. To most of us (and probably to Boris) this initially looks innocent enough. True, it is ultimately quixotic: animals either feel distress or they don’t, and what the law says about it makes no difference whatever. But a number of other European countries such as Germany and Switzerland, not to mention the EU (which loves legislative political declarations), have already engaged in similar exercises in legal virtue-signalling; and if so, why not get a bit of harmless political kudos by imitating them?
The answer is that such a law would not be nearly as innocuous as it looks. Animal pressure groups are well-funded, argumentative, and litigious. Whatever form any legislation took — and the details are still unclear — it is a racing certainty that they would take full advantage of it to exert maximum pressure on the government to conform to their demands.
Whenever there were regulatory changes in any area at all affecting animal welfare — think immediately badger-culling, shooting, bird conservation, wetlands management or control of slaughterhouses: the list goes on — any decisions would have to be taken against a background of legal threats from activists alleging failure to take proper account of the new law. Such threats are time-consuming and expensive to fight, and faced with them the best-intentioned governments may often decide to compromise, even at the cost of skewing their policy to accommodate the demands of unelected activists.
This government is rightly committed to confining the ambit of judicial review and cutting its scope for making mischief by judicialising political decisions. It would be ironic if it inadvertently ended up increasing it through a piece of legislation it regarded as harmless window-dressing. Far better to limit government efforts at animal protection to those that are genuinely harmless, will attract the voters and might even do some good.