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).

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He can’t be a party leader, he believes in what he says …

There is a media storm over the leadership battle for the Labour Party. Against all the odds Jeremy Corbyn is currently the most popular candidate. It’s being claimed that he was only nominated to ensure that “the loony left” was represented, and now there are endless warnings that if he’s successful he will make Labour unelectable. However, some of the most extreme comments about Corbyn simply highlight the fact that he genuinely believes in a whole set of principles. It’s noteworthy that every media report mentions the fact that he’s a vegetarian. And even worse than that, he really is. The Daily Mail referred to him as “a strict vegetarian”, but they probably don’t actually know the difference between “a vegetarian” (you don’t eat any meat or fish) and “a strict vegetarian” (you don’t eat any meat or fish). The confusion for tabloid hacks is probably caused by “celebrity vegetarians” like Gwyneth Paltrow (she claims to be veggie but isn’t).

And when he was interviewed for The Guardian a few years ago, these ridiculous comments appear: “Our meeting was delayed for a few minutes by an amicable disagreement at the hot food counter in the Strangers’ Cafe in the House of Commons. Corbyn was refusing a plate of spaghetti because it was served bolognese. He insisted on being given a dull looking vegetable goulash instead. ‘I don’t eat meat,’ he explained. He takes his vegetarianism, like all his other beliefs, very seriously.”

Please note that the disagreement was “amicable”; instead of him shouting and screaming as most vegetarians obviously would. Also, that he was “given a dull looking vegetable goulash instead”. Of course this dish was “dull looking”, everybody knows that veggie food is always dull. And finally, “he takes his vegetarianism, like all his other beliefs, very seriously”. What? That’s outrageous, I don’t want somebody like this leading the Labour Party. Can you imagine what he might say about the meat industry, the badger cull, fish farming, and vivisection?

After all, this is the MP who led the deputation to No. 10 Downing Street in 2006 to hand in The Primate Nations (the report which showed why we shouldn’t be using non-humanJC at WDAIL 1984 primates in experiments); who won the Gandhi Foundation’s International Peace Prize in 2013 for his work for social justice and non-violence, including non-violence against animals; who has signed 13 of the 14 Early Day Motions currently putting the case for animals before the House of Commons; who in fact has backed campaigns for animals all through his parliamentary career.

OK, I accept the fact that it will be very difficult for Labour to win the next election if they adopt a series of left wing policies under Corbyn’s potential leadership. However, the Labour Party is currently “unelectable” because of the horrendous legacy of Tony Blair. It’s deeply ironic that Blair has publicly stated his objection to Corbyn. Could there be a greater difference between these two politicians? The former is a Messianic nutcase; guilty of a long list of heinous crimes against humanity. He always promoted himself as “a practising Christian”, and after leaving office he converted to Catholicism (which is enough to have him carted off in a strait jacket).

Have we really reached such a dire level in British politics that a man with “serious beliefs” based on fairness and compassion is considered a bad choice as a party leader? Maybe Corbyn is doing so well because he represents something that has been so lacking within our political structure? He might not have enough broad appeal to win a general election, but he’s still a fantastic breath of fresh air. And it’s just wonderful to dream about the possibility of a vegetarian Prime Minister.

 

[The photograph shows Jeremy Corbyn speaking at a World Day for Animals in Laboratories rally in 1984.]

 

Paul Freestone

 

Victorian Attitudes

DSC04714There was a big demonstration in London today against the proposed amending of the Hunting Act. Mostly the demonstrators looked and shouted across the road at the Houses of Parliament, to whom the message was being directed. But when some speeches were made by Brian May and others, from the steps of a statue further back from the road, this great assembly – with its placards, fox outfits, and other insignia of protest against field “sports” – turned to face none other than King George V, whose statue it is, standing high above the green there. A most ironic situation, because King George was not just a stickler for correct dress and procedure, but also a habitual killer of wild-life: principally so-called “game” birds, but also, when he got the chance as Emperor of India, more exotic creatures like tigers, rhinoceroses, and bears. For much of the time during today’s speeches, the King had a pigeon on his head, preening and scratching itself: in his lifetime, that would perhaps have been the only safe place anywhere near him for a bird to be.

In John Betjeman’s poem of 1936, ‘Death of King George V’, there is mention of this hunting and shooting, but King George is presented as rather poignantly old-fashioned in his tastes and standards. In the last line, by contrast, his successor Edward VIII is a modern figure, turning up casually dressed for the time and occasion, and by aeroplane: “A young man lands hatless from the air.” This more modern king did indeed pursue less rural and destructive hobbies than his father had, but, as we know, it was not the end of hunting and shooting as royal pastimes. Even the present Prince of Wales, for all his earnest promotion of green causes, seems to have no particular feeling for wild animals as individual lives, deserving of respect as ours are.

It seems that the royal family refuses to modernize in this matter. The one British monarch who has had a really powerful and personal hatred of cruelty to animals was George V’s grandmother, Queen Victoria. Admittedly she seems to have accepted her consort Albert’s hunting and shooting. Perhaps also, like the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to which she gave royal approval in 1840, she was readier to mind cruelty to animals among the working people than among their superiors. If so, she made an exception to that in her plain-spoken indignation against what she called “this horrible, brutalising, unchristian-like vivisection [her own underlining]. In a letter she wrote to the Home Secretary, whose office had been made responsible by the 1876 Act for overseeing the practice, she called it “a disgrace to a civilized country.”

That Act, incidentally, was not euphemistically titled, as the present Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act is; it was bluntly named the Cruelty to Animals Act. Everyone knew what they were talking about. However, at the time of the Queen’s letter, the early 1880s, the Act was in the hands of Sir William Harcourt, and so far from agreeing with Queen Victoria, or paying attention to her complaint, he did more perhaps than any other Home Secretary before or since to give the scientists what they wanted: that is, the power to administer the Act themselves, and to enjoy its professional protections without being troubled by its restrictions.

The quotations from Queen Victoria’s letters can be found in Jon Wynne-Tyson’s magnificent anthology of anti-speciesist writings, The Extended Circle (Centaur Press, 1985: revised edition 2009). This book is a sort of permanent demonstration, a great collective statement to the effect that we cannot call ourselves civilized until we cease to tyrannize over our fellow-animals. It ought to be the bedside reading of every politician and monarch.