At the beginning of 1995, in the midst of a generalized governmental crisis, with accusations of ‘sleaze’ and corruption in high places, historically high levels of unemployment, fears about the commercialization of the health service and unprecedented government unpopularity, the political system was suddenly rocked by an explosion of protest—about the live export of veal calves!footnote1 Much of the reaction of the Left has been, predictably enough, sceptical and dismissive. Even Red Pepper, the leading forum for red/green politics in the uk, concluded a survey of the new wave of protests in sharply disdainful tones:

Any genuine, lasting results from the new wave of grassroots activism can only be welcomed. But the much-vaunted empowerment of middle-class, middle-aged, Middle England can be easily over-rated. Come the next election, the insurrectionary deeds could well be just a hazy memory.Many will doubtlessly retreat behind their net curtains again and vote Conservative.footnote2

Interestingly, this scepticism was not widely shared among the established media, most of which was initially sympathetic in its coverage of the protests. A relatively little publicized boycott of p&o and Sealink ferries had begun in 1993. When, in October 1994 these companies discontinued live exports, the trade was taken up by smaller operators, using minor ports and airports. Mass protests at Shoreham began early in January of 1995, soon followed by commencement of live export of sheep from the small port of Brightlingsea on the Essex coast. Massive, and generally sympathetic news coverage followed the tragic death of one of the protesters, Jill Phipps, at Coventry airport at the beginning of February. Probably as a result of the protests, Shoreham stopped exports of live animals in June, but the exports, accompanied by daily pickets, protests and blockades continued at Brightlingsea throughout the spring and summer until the exporter’s announcement, at the end of October, that it would be ‘suspending’ its operations. Exports from Dover continue to be contested by demonstrators, including contingents from Brightlingsea.

As the protests continued, shifting news values and the evolution of the issues at stake rendered media coverage gradually more complex and differentiated, but it remained far removed from the hegemonic hostility which has characterized media treatment of industrial action by workers, as well as other more obviously comparable forms of protest action, such as those of campaigners against the Criminal Justice Bill, hunt saboteurs and motorway protesters. It is also significant that no major public figure disputed the moral case advanced by the protesters, though there were numerous attempts to discursively reconstruct the issue. One of the most concerted of these was to link compassion and high standards of animal welfare with national identity: ‘we’, of course, long ago banned the rearing of veal calves in crates. The export trade continues only because we have so far failed to persuade other European countries to follow our example. For the Euro-sceptics on the Tory Right, the issue, constructed in these terms, was a gift: if it were not for trade regulations imposed on us by Brussels bureaucrats, we would be free to ban this disgusting trade.

For the government itself, the European dimension was a useful way of deflecting the issue from its own jurisdiction: the protesters should join us in attempting to persuade other European publics and governments to abandon these cruel practices. The chief government spokesperson on the issue, William Waldegrave, was somewhat undermined by the widely reported discovery that calves from his own farm had been sold on into the export trade. Even the main farming lobbies affected moral concern for the calves, but posed the protesters with a practical dilemma. The export trade in veal calves is largely a by-product of the dairy industry. If farmers are not to dispose of their surplus male calves in this way, what are the alternatives—slaughter of these calves immediately after birth? Morally regrettable though the trade is, all of us who consume dairy products must acknowledge that we are implicated in it, no less than the farmers. Meanwhile Labour called for changes in the Treaty of Rome, for tighter regulation of animal transport, and for a ban on the veal trade. On the 30th January, the Financial Times led on the issue with a critical discussion of the moral case itself. In the view of the Financial Times, the case for extending the concept of rights to animals is shaky and incoherent. However, that we have a moral obligation not to mistreat animals does have the virtue of coherence. This is a distinct moral argument, but whatever its merits, it does not legitimate attempts by protesters to prevent the exporters from ‘pursuing a legal trade’. The separation which the Financial Times leader effects, between the question of the moral status of animals, on the one hand, and the political and legal issues and conflicts surrounding this status, on the other, is an important one. As we will be arguing, failure to recognize its significance is one reason why the Left has so far, and for the most part, failed to address the ‘animals issue’. But before we develop this argument, and provide our evidence for it, it will be helpful to set the recent wave of protests in their context.

There is, of course, nothing new about campaigns against animal cruelty. One of the most influential commentators on attitudes to nature in early modern times, the historian Keith Thomas, notes that urbanization increasingly distanced a growing human population from direct involvement in instrumental and exploitative uses of animals. Even in the urban setting, of course, animals continued to be used for transport and as beasts of burden, as well as for food. As late as the 1840s, Engels vividly describes the practice of keeping pigs in the courts between the cottages in the working-class districts of English cities such as Birmingham, where they would feed on the putrefying animal and vegetable waste of the inhabitants. But Thomas’s point is that the new urban setting also provided conditions for a new kind of sensibility to animals to emerge, especially among the middle classes, on the basis of non-utilitarian relationships with animals. Primary among these new relationships was pet-keeping. This practice:

Encouraged the middle classes to form optimistic conclusions about animal intelligence; it gave rise to innumerable anecdotes about animal sagacity; it stimulated the notion that animals could have character and individual personality; and it created the psychological foundation for the view that some animals at least were entitled to moral consideration.footnote3