VERO invites “the greatest man in politics” to speak in Oxford

Former LibDem MP and Home Office minister Norman Baker will be in Oxford on 19 October to speak for VERO on the title Animal Experiments: an Inside View from the Home Office.  The place is to be the Friends’ Meeting House at 43 St Giles, anDSC04759d the    time 7 p.m. The event will be chaired by VERO patron Sir David Madden.

Of course Norman Baker isn’t “in politics” any more, having lost his Lewes seat in the general election. The heading phrase was suggested back in 2007 by Peter Oborne in the Daily Mail (of all newspapers) when Mr Baker’s two-year campaign to make the House of Commons publish MPs’ travelling expenses had at last produced the requested information. As things turned out, that was only the start of the great expenses saga, throughout which Norman Baker continued to take a leading part. Even that was only one aspect of his campaign against secrecy and spin in British politics: a campaign which also led to Peter Mandelson’s second resignation, and to a book about the dishonesties and evasions which led to the death of the weapons expert David Kelly.

As to animals, Norman Baker’s concern for their interests was already there in the early days of his political career. In fact when in 2000 he formally asked MI5, under the Data Protection Act, what information that organisation held about himself, an anonymous letter (the only definite reply he ever got) told him that it was his part in environmental and animal campaigns in the 1980s which had earned him a file there. He says in his political memoirs Against the Grain, “I was uncomfortable with the Christian ethos of humans having dominion over all other living things. The key word for me was respect.”[1]

Accordingly he made sure that a policy of promoting alternatives to animals in scientific research was written into the coalition agreement which prepared the ground for the 2010-15 administration. In due course he was made Minister of State at the Home Office, with responsibilities which included animal experiments. During his short time there (early 2013 to late 2014), he made very clear his conviction that the “scientific and economic arguments to use alternative methods are now as strong as the moral one.”[2] Under his direction, the Home Office issued a substantial document entitled Working to Reduce the Use of Animals in Scientific Research. This was not placatory PR, but an attempt to set a definite course for the future, with required reviews of progress – such as the one that was published in March of this year (under the same title, with sub-title Delivery Report). Both publications can be read on the Home Office web-site. Neither makes thrilling liberationist reading, of course, but to have got this much of what will make a lasting difference, out of a Conservative-ruled Home Office, is a notable achievement.

Also on the Home Office web-site you can see another part of Norman Baker’s legacy: published reports of the investigations conducted by the Animals in Science Regulation Unit into violations of the law. These reports, started during his regime, are anonymized in a style reminiscent of Yes, Minister’s Humphrey Appleby, and are in all sorts of ways unsatisfactory, but they provide the first systematic public viewing of laboratory practice, not as the Act idealizes it but as it actually goes on and goes wrong. It’s a very great pity that the review of Section 24 – the notorious secrecy clause of the 1986 Act – was not completed and acted upon while Norman Baker was still at the Home Office. There’s no doubt what he would have wanted to do with it. (Incidentally, where has that review got to?)

Norman Baker’s last speech in the House, on 3 March 2015, came during a debate which he himself had instigated on another aspect of the animals subject: endangered species. That was also the theme of an EP of his own compositions which he released in the same week: Animal Countdown. If you watch his performance of the title song (it’s on YouTube), you may or may not like the music but you will see that his theme is not just biodiversity, or our grandchildren’s prospects; it’s individual animal suffering. You’ll also notice that he means what he sings, just as he has always meant what he says, and pressed others in politics to do the same.

[1] Biteback Publishing 2015. The quotation is from p.362.

[2] Foreword to the 2013 report of the Animals in Science Regulation Unit

She can’t do that job, she’s “a committed vegan” …

The new Labour leader (Jeremy Corbyn) has selected the only vegan MP in the Commons (Kerry McCarthy) as Shadow Minister for DEFRA (Dept for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs). This is brilliant news for all animal welfare and animal rights groups, and such a decision would have been unthinkable only a few weeks ago.

However, this appointment has infuriated the National Farmers Union (NFU) and every other sector of the meat and dairy industries. It has also generated a lot of negative and unpleasant comments on social media. Most of the controversy seems to revolve around the fact that she is (as described by the presenter of R4’s World at One) “a committed vegan” and this in itself makes her “unsuitable” for the job. Johann Tasker from Farmer’s Weekly (a bastion of enlightened thinking) made these comments: “This is like appointing a pacifist as Shadow Defence Secretary. This isn’t just somebody who’s vegetarian, or against the badger cull, as farmers could work with someone like that. Kerry McCarthy believes that the livestock sector is dirty and cruel, that dairy farming is about forcing cows to give more milk than is natural, and the poultry industry is about getting hens to lay more eggs than is natural.” Bizarrely, the hapless Mr Tasker has actually highlighted specific points that are all true. Livestock production is “dirty and cruel”, dairy farming is obsessed with forcing cows to produce “more milk than is natural”, and the paramount aim of the poultry industry is to maximise the output of chickens which includes laying “more eggs than is natural”.

Crucially, one of McCarthy’s most damning critiques of DEFRA ministers is that they are simply “a spokesperson for the NFU”. Obviously, the NFU isn’t going to welcome anyone who makes this sort of assessment (especially when it happens to be very accurate). Any idea that their long standing cosy relationship with every DEFRA minister for decades could be disrupted will be anathema to them. Paradoxically, instead of being “totally unsuitable”, Kerry McCarthy is the ideal choice for this role. Firstly, she is passionately concerned with the key issues of animal welfare and sustainability. Secondly, she will confront all those appalling vested interests with a detailed knowledge of what really happens within factory farming and all methods of meat and dairy production.

Unsurprisingly, the tabloids have had a field day typified by The Daily Mail which referred to her as a “Militant Vegan MP” and proclaimed: “She has been vegan for 20 years and refuses to wear wool.” In fact, she presents her so-called “militant veganism” in a very reasonable way. On R4’s World at One (16/9/15) she stated: “It’s about sustainability and good welfare standards, and I’m very happy to work with the NFU and the farming community on this. I’m opposed to the move towards ever more intensive industrialised farming and huge dairy and pig farms. Also, I’m not opposed to the badger cull because I’m vegan. I’m opposed to it because very authoritative reports by scientists and experts have said it’s ineffective, and it’s not the way to stop bovine TB.”

Finally, it’s noteworthy that the widespread objections to McCarthy’s appointment echo those made against the new Labour leader. Apparently, it’s unacceptable to employ politicians in senior positions if they have deeply held principles and genuine beliefs. These individuals want to change the world, and make it a better place for everyone (which includes all sentient species across the planet). And personally, I really like the idea of a pacifist Shadow Defence Secretary.

Paul Freestone

To hear Kerry McCarthy speaking on Radio 4’s The Food Programme, about being vegan in the House of Commons, go to Feeding the Commons – Part II: Lunch to Lights Out (Her interview begins after about 7 minutes).

How to be Human

The UK edition of Karen Joy Fowler’s novel We Are All Completely Beside OurselvesDSC04754 [Serpent’s Tail, 2014] starts with two or three pages of quotations from the quite properly rhapsodic press reviews. One of them is from Reader’s Digest, and describes the book as “a full-on exploration of what makes human beings human.” The description (only a fragment, after all) is favourably meant, and it must contain some truth because it’s somewhat true of just about every really ambitious novel, and this novel certainly is not only ambitious but also brilliantly successful. All the same, in this case it’s almost the opposite of true.

The point is that Karen Joy Fowler’s story of a cross-species relationship deliberately subverts that sort of human special-pleading. We get the religious version of it when the narrator of the story, Rosemary, is a little girl and mourning a lost fellow-primate: her grandmother well-meaningly tells her, “You just remember you were the one made in God’s image”. The girl’s distress, physiologically felt and evidenced as it is, simply refutes that claim to a difference in kind. In fact it’s a distress that endures far into adulthood and is still there in nearly the last words of the book: “You’d need to have been in my body to understand that” [my italics here and elsewhere]. This is Darwinism as experienced fact.

But then there’s the more up-to-date scientific way of trying to keep the non-human others in their place. For instance, new research tends to show that, quite contrary to earlier assumptions, “humans are much more imitative than the other apes” – but of course, adds Rosemary, there’s “some reason why, now that it’s our behaviour, being slavishly imitative is superior … I forget exactly what that reason is. You’ll have to read the papers.” She summarises the point later on: “It seems to me that every time we humans announce that here is the thing that makes us unique – our featherless bipedality, our tool-using, our language – some other species comes along to snatch it away.” This would be comical – and the book is at times a hilarious comedy – if only science hadn’t been relying on this slippery idea of human difference to justify its pitiless exploitation of even our closest surviving relatives. As it is, the book is also a tragedy, as any book which looks honestly at our modern relations with other animals has to be.

Some animals recognise themselves in a mirror; it’s one of those species-differentiating tests which help to keep life in its proper ranks. What we really need, says Rosemary’s ALF brother, is a sort of “reverse mirror test”, one that will “identify those species smart enough to see themselves when they look at someone else. Bonus points for how far out the chain you can go. Double bonus for those who get all the way to insects.” Nothing in this book is carelessly written. When Rosemary is discharged from police custody later on (she has quite a lot to do with the police, her brother even more so), she brings an insect out from the interrogation room with her, and lays it in the grass outside. That room, she feels, should be “nobody’s home”. She thinks of her brother when she does this, wishing to please his presiding spirit (he is mostly absent, address unknown). But of course the action has a supra-personal meaning. As the great philosopher Albert Schweitzer said, “If I save an insect from a puddle, life has devoted itself to life, and the division of life against itself is ended.” The book is about one instance of that tragic division, and the attempt to undo it, or at least to come to terms with it.

As for the title: “we’re completely beside ourselves” is the lovely expression that Rosemary’s mother likes to use when family high jinks reach a certain pitch of excitement. Gradually, with the help of that interpolated word “all”, we come to see its larger and more profoundly beautiful Darwinian meaning. This, then, is what being human means: not preening ourselves on our supposed peerlessness, but knowingly and unreservedly joining the animal collective. And we humans ought to bring good with us, for we can, and there are tonic instances of such good in this book. But until we really do make that word “ourselves” mean in practice what the title means by it, it’s certain that we’ll mainly go on bringing what the brother rightly calls “fathomless misery” to the others.

This may all sound very unhappy. Certainly it is that, but the book is also a fascinating story, witty and jaunty in the telling, shrewd and compassionate about humans (and interested in them). It’s also purposeful. Near the end, the author tells a fairy story of two daughters, the elder cast under a spell by a wicked king. The king dies, but the spell persists:

The spell can only be broken by the people. They must come to see how beautiful she is. They must storm the prison and demand her release. The spell will be broken only when the people rise up.

So rise up already.

But to understand this fairy story, you need to read the whole book. It’s well worth doing.