Anti-Vivisection Forty Years On: a Conversation with Mel Broughton

Last Thursday there was a demonstration with banners and leaflets outside Oxford University’s animal research laboratory in South Parks Road, as there is every Thursday and has been for many years. Of course Mel Broughton was there, the man who led the campaign against the building of the Oxford lab, and (successfully) against the primate research centre earlier proposed at Cambridge. Mel’s experience of arrest and imprisonment for arson during the Oxford campaign was described in this blog four years ago, shortly after the conclusion of his ten-year sentence. When he was free of his sentence, and had returned to South Parks Road (“I promised myself that as soon as I got off licence I’d come straight back here, and I did.”) and to the animal rights movement in general, it was a scene very much changed from the one he had known. On Thursday, he spoke about the changes and about the present and future of the animal rights movement.

Mel 2

Mel’s own prison sentence, and similarly severe ones passed against a number of other activists, were part of an increasingly resolute intervention on the part of government and police authorities to support animal-research institutions. Almost certainly both Huntingdon Life Sciences and Oxford University’s new laboratory would have been defeated without this intervention. It involved both financial backing and stricter legal and policing controls. Demonstrations and marches, and even those Thursday afternoon vigils, were so conspicuously policed that they had a quasi-criminal appearance. All this had, as Mel says, “a chilling effect” on the movement, as it was intended to do: not just making direct action a much more hazardous option, but also alienating many who would otherwise have given active support at events.

Two developments which should have been beneficial – the rise of social media and the increasing popularity of veganism – have in fact, so Mel believes, rather compounded the problem. In the case of social media, the will to support a cause can too easily be satisfied by online ‘action’:

They go on their smart-phone and they look at a post about a demonstration, and they go ‘O.K.’ and click on it, and that’s it, they think it’s done. The responsibility for everyone to do something themselves, for everyone to act, has been largely taken away. It’s almost like ‘follow us on Twitter, or ‘like’ us, and we’ll do the work for you.

Veganism has, of course, been an excellent thing in itself, in so far as it lessens animal suffering. Mel himself has been vegan for forty years:

I’m all for it. But veganism doesn’t guarantee animal rights. ‘Go vegan!’ they say, but for many animals it makes no difference. Their status remains exactly the same.

Unless veganism is taken on as a necessary implication of the belief that animals have rights to life and freedom, then it’s likely to be a life-style choice, more about the person than about the animals, and therefore to lead nowhere.

That was indeed the view of it taken by Stephen Clark in his remarkable book The Moral Status of Animals (1984). Throughout that book, he insists that veganism, or vegetarianism at the least, is a minimum commitment, a starting-point. He says, “All those who believe that animals are not utterly beyond moral consideration, that they should be spared all avoidable pain, are duty-bound to abstain from meat, and to campaign against vivisection.” You’ll notice the connection of the diet to the campaigning – specifically, campaigning against vivisection. It’s the point Mel Broughton was making, and Mel recalled that vivisection was indeed a crucial interest in the early days of modern animal rights in the 1970s: “Vivisection was the issue which gave birth to the animal rights movement, that and hunt sabbing.” He himself came into the movement in the early 80s, involved in the campaign of that time against animal research at Oxford University. The policy then was “direct action to save lives”, notably the lives of laboratory animals.

These are still Mel’s priorities. During a hunt event three years ago, Mel was ridden down by a huntsman, and very seriously injured; after a long delay, the man is now facing a charge of ‘wounding with intent to do grievous bodily harm’. But animals in laboratories remain Mel’s priority: “I do think that vivisection is the darkest crime of all . . . I don’t think anything comes close to the laboratory in terms of complete violation of rights.”

In those earlier days, the research institutions themselves largely relied for their freedom of action on the ignorance of the public. They would close ranks and increase their security after each public scandal. Since then they have learnt to be more sophisticated. In particular they have created the ‘Concordat on Openness’ to advertise, at one and the same time, pride and confidence in their animal research and commitment to doing less of it. Has all the publicity arising from this Concordat – the countless web-pages about animal research, the ‘virtual tours’ of laboratories, the open days and other such initiatives often recounted in this blog – helped to baffle the anti-vivisection movement? Mel Broughton concedes that it “placates people who want to think the animals don’t suffer.” It enables them to think so, by judiciously selecting what’s shown (even the Concordat organizers admit this): “It’s a snapshot, that’s all it is; it’s dishonest.”

More positively, all this publicity, in common with the now elaborate bureaucracy that regulates animal research, is evidence of the effectiveness of all the years of opposition: “You could argue that they were forced to do it because we were exposing them; they had little choice but to do it.” But of course the essential character of vivisection has not changed, and it has come clearly into light again at MBR Acres, the establishment at Wyton near Cambridge that breeds beagle dogs, at the rate of about two thousand a year, for research-use in the UK and beyond. When the American company Marshall Bio-Resources first took over this breeding enterprise from Harlan Interfauna, all the dogs then being kept there were destroyed. This sort of ruthlessness, says Mel, is “the reality of vivisection”.

Mel speaking

Mel Broughton and others started to make MBR Acres the target of attention two years ago. Making visits at night, they placed cameras at the perimeter fence. These cameras recorded the boxing and transporting of the beagles, ugly and sinister images which gained national coverage in the Daily Mirror and other places in April and May of 2021. The small group of activists that had been making regular visits there now swelled in number, some began to stay overnight, and today there’s a permanent Camp Beagle at the gates of the establishment. Mel says that it’s “one of those campaigns that theoretically we could win; they could be closed down.”

So MBR Acres has become the focus for activist anti-vivisection, as Oxford once was. And the ordeal of radical dissent – the confrontations, the policing, the arrests – is renewed there. The company hopes to secure an injunction limiting the scope of the protest, just as Oxford University did. And Mel Broughton is once more the principal name in the injunction: “I find myself in the High Court, going through the whole process again.”

Many individuals have taken their part in the anti-vivisection protests over the forty years since those 1980s protests in Oxford; most have passed through and gone, replaced by others with their own periods of commitment. A very few have been there throughout, and Mel is one of them. He has paid very heavily for his purposefulness and leadership, but he is wholly steadfast:

I’m not defeated, and there’s a lot still to be done. I’m not going to stop. 

Notes and references:

Mel Broughton was speaking on Thursday, 5 May, during one of the weekly demonstrations in Oxford organised by SPEAK campaigns. His account of arrest and life in prison can be read in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/05/11/an-animal-rights-activist-in-prison/

The Moral Status of Animals, by Stephen R. L. Clark, was published by Oxford University Press in 1984; the quotation is from pp.169-70. This is the most impassioned and uncompromising of the academic accounts of the subject that I have encountered.

The photographs show Mel Broughton in South Parks Road and speaking at an event in London.

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