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Tim Bonner: Which matters more, science or celebrity?

There is a level of nervousness in the animal rights movement at present. From a high point in 2021 when the government’s 'Action Plan for Animal Welfare' committed to delivering much of its agenda, there has been an increasing realisation across the political spectrum that illogical animal rights policies (rather than real animal welfare legislation) are not the electoral panacea that some had suggested. Put simply, there is increasing scepticism that something like the Animal Sentience Act, which was little more than a grandstanding exercise, was worth the pain and bad feeling it created inside and outside parliament or had any real political benefit.

For decades the animal rights movement has traded on the idea that being nice to animals is very popular and therefore politicians should adopt its agenda. The first part of that argument is correct, although such issues remain marginal in terms of the effect they have on people’s voting intentions. It is the second part that is highly questionable in that the random and often extreme agenda of animal rights groups in no way represents the desire of the British public that animals are properly looked after.

After decades of successfully selling the snake oil that banning hunting, restricting shooting, stopping greyhound racing, prohibiting the import of hunting trophies or a dozen other politically motivated attacks will win electoral beauty contests the animal rights movement is being challenged. The evidence, both in terms of animal welfare and electoral outcomes, is piling up against it.

Take badger culling as a prominent example. I remember Ministers in the last Labour government admitting privately that it was the only way of stopping the dreadful damage that bovine TB was doing to animal welfare and rural communities, but that it was electorally impossible. Faced with an even greater escalation of bTB the Conservative government was forced to bite the bullet and with extreme nervousness moved to a cull, which nobody wanted but was the only way of tackling what was becoming an existential threat to cattle farming. The predictions from animal rights groups were apocalyptic: the country would rise up, it would be a defining political issue, no one would ever vote Conservative again. Yet 10 years later there has been absolutely no political fall out. No one can seriously argue that the government’s policy has changed the result in a single parliamentary constituency in any general election since the cull began. Meanwhile, there is growing evidence that the policy has been highly successful in reducing the spread of bTB which will make it extremely difficult for any future government to rule out culling as one part of tackling bTB in future.

Add in the long settled political view that the animal rights movements’ other totemic issue, the hunting ban, has done nothing to improve animal welfare and had a disastrous impact on the Labour party’s relationship with rural Britain that has lasted for decades and you can see why they are worried.

The answer, as ever, is not to promote valid arguments about animal welfare or tackling biodiversity decline, but to roll out celebrities to spread glitter and take selfies with politicians. To that end Brian May and Chris Packham were wheeled into parliament earlier this week, but like the agenda they were promoting they look increasingly like has beens. Certainly there are still some gullible MPs who are still living in a world where either of them were culturally relevant, but to the grown ups who steering the major political parties they, and their agenda, are increasingly toxic. There are many challenges ahead and public attitudes to the use and welfare of animals will continue to evolve, but it may be that we are past the high watermark of political buy-in to the lie that there is political benefit in engaging with the extreme animal rights agenda.

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