Thu 9 July 2020

With the 2019 Conservative Party Conference focusing on animal welfare, Nick McAlpin warns that unscrupulous elements are currently preying on animal welfare.

In previous decades, at least within the West, believers in animal rights were born almost solely through engagement with the animal rights movement.

This movement was founded on the works of academics and writers like Peter Singer, Tom Regan, Brigid Brophy, Carol J. Adams, and Gary Francione. These thinkers range from liberal to socialist, but all are on the left in its most general sense.

Their writings, and the activists and organisations they have inspired, justify animal rights as extensions of other traditionally left-wing principles – anti-racism, feminism and wider human rights.

The populist right’s appropriation of animal considerations is only in its infancy in Britain. One of the places where this phenomenon is most advanced is Israel.

But today, stances which once arose through a left-wing, human rights-based political education within the animal rights movement, are often arrived at by other means.

For instance, the cult of celebrity means that veganism has become but a trend for many. For others, it’s a healthy lifestyle choice, an often apolitical reaction to our planet’s climate breakdown, or a purely intuitive rejection of animal suffering brought about by the newfound public consciousness surrounding the issue.

As such, while the typical vegan is still left of centre, this is decreasingly the case, and being left-wing doesn’t necessarily mean that one’s animal rights beliefs are rooted in human rights. Other animal concerns have also broken out of the movement, with a whopping 27% of people now supporting a blanket ban on animal research.

It goes without saying that the mainstreaming of animal rights is fantastic news – it has and will save animal lives. Even so, we cannot ignore the risks that come along with this.

Previously, because animal rights were embedded in human rights and in left-wing political mobilisation, this meant that little opportunity existed for populists on the hard or far-right to co-opt the animal movement. Such elements were relegated to their own fringe groups. And, although there were occasional exceptions to this rule, these tended to rely on conventional animal advocates being unaware of their involvement.

In the present political climate, however, the populist right can – and has – intervened, most notably in the UK and Israel.

During the 2016 EU Referendum, Vote Leave, the official pro-Brexit campaign, ran a series of targeted social media adverts in the run-up to the vote. The group, whose high-flyers were mostly from the hard right of the Conservative Party and UKIP, worked with the controversial political data firm AggregateIQ to attract key voters with messages close to their hearts. Several of these adverts attacked the EU’s record on animal rights, focusing on themes such as whaling, bullfighting and polar bear conservation.

A Vote Leave Facebook advert

There is no data to determine how successful this messaging was, but recent polling suggests that Vote Leave was onto something.

More than 80% of voters who support each of the major political parties – the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats – believe in the maintenance or strengthening of current animal welfare laws post-Brexit.

Conservative voters, the most right-wing of the three and arguably the most likely to have backed Brexit, actually placed more importance on protecting animal welfare laws than Labour or Lib Dem supporters did.

Israel and Veganism

But the populist right’s appropriation of animal considerations is only in its infancy in Britain. One of the places where this phenomenon is most advanced is Israel, where leftist, human rights-based discourse and animal rights ‘have become decoupled’ or dissociated, on all levels.

Animal rights are now deemed an apolitical matter there. This includes veganism, a philosophy which still belongs largely to the left elsewhere in the West. And while this decoupling has seen veganism explode in popularity in Israel, by some accounts to as much as 5% of the population, it has equally provided Benjamin Netanyahu and his extremist Likud party an opening.

Under Netanyahu’s premiership, the Israeli state has implemented a succession of racist policies such as the illegal West Bank Apartheid Wall. Nevertheless, it has simultaneously painted itself as a vegan paradise and its army as “the most vegan army in the world”, as part of a fairly fruitful effort to whitewash its crimes by appearing too progressive to have possibly committed them.

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This also serves to attract Western vegans, particularly those on the right or those whose beliefs have not been shaped by human rights, and who thus do not note the similarities between the violence facing animals and that facing Palestinians.

But Likud is not stopping there. It seeks to use the depoliticisation of animal rights to birth a new, hard-right animal movement. Tal Gilboa, one of Israel’s best-known vegan activists, was recently appointed as Likud’s advisor on animal rights and welfare and has immersed herself in campaigning for the party. “There’s a great movement toward the Likud, and vegans approach me all the time to tell me they’ll vote for the Likud, following me,” she said.

It’s early doors yet and, although the true scale of this movement remains to be seen, its mere existence is disturbing. For animal rights activists, the challenge was once convincing those who believe in human rights to extend their principles to animals. Regrettably, the task is slowly but surely being flipped on its head.

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