Speaking about Animal Rights in the History of Parliament Oral History Project

As two animal welfare Bills progress through the stages of debate in Parliament, in our latest blog Emme Ledgerwood looks through our Oral History Project archive to explore former MPs’ responses to animal rights issues during their careers…

The Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill and the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill are currently making their way through Parliament, the latest additions to the UK legislation which governs the protection of animals in the UK.

Legislating for the protection of animals in the UK began with the Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act 1822, championed by Richard Martin (MP for Galway County, 1801-1826). Many of the pieces of animal legislation that have followed were consolidated into the Animal Welfare Act 2006, including the Protection of Animals Act 1911. The 1911 Act was the basic law protecting animals from cruelty during the twentieth century and had been steered through Parliament by animal rights advocate Sir George Greenwood (Liberal MP for Peterborough, 1906-1918).

The Bills currently being debated go towards fulfilling a commitment made in the Conservative party’s 2019 manifesto to raise animal welfare standards and bring in new laws to replace EU provisions that recognise animals as being capable of feeling emotions or experiencing pain. The extent of the current Government’s plans for animal welfare are set out in the action plan published by Defra earlier this year.

The inclusion of such commitments in the manifestos of all the major political parties in the UK was a long-standing goal of Douglas Houghton (Labour MP for Sowerby, 1949-1974), later Baron Houghton of Sowerby, one of the leading campaigners in Parliament for animal rights during the twentieth century.

Arthur Leslie Noel Douglas Houghton, Baron Houghton of Sowerby
by Godfrey Argent
NPG x18592
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Front cover of the GECCAP 1978 pamphlet, British Library BLL01010541774

He was instrumental in setting up the General Election Coordinating Committee for Animal Protection in the late 1970s. This was a pressure group that sought to persuade political parties to make statements of policy on animal welfare in the run up to the 1979 general election. The GECCAP’s pamphlet Putting Animals into Politics highlighted the issues of concern to animal rights campaigners, such as the welfare of horses, intensive farming, dogs in the community, experiments on living animals, field sports and the export of live animals, noting a ‘a tendency for successive Governments to regard further measures on animal welfare to be suitable for the Private Members’ Bill procedure’. When Janet Fookes (Conservative MP for Merton and Morden, 1970-74 and Plymouth Drake, 1974-1997) secured a debate on animal welfare in time set aside for private members in December 1973, the responding Minister acknowledged that ‘it is traditional that this sort of legislation is often brought in by private Members.’

Baroness Fookes is one of a number of former MPs interviewed for the History of Parliament Trust oral history project who spoke about their involvement with animal rights issues as a parliamentarian. Eric Deakins (Labour MP for Walthamstow West, 1970-74 and Walthamstow, 1974-1987) remembered how his suggestion of a Supply Day debate on the export of live animals in which the Government were defeated helped further his political career.

Eric Deakins interviewed by Isobel White (2013), British Library C1503-080 [Track 1, 00:33:23 – 00:37:32]
Download Alt Text at bottom of blog.

Another mechanism that was frequently used by MPs to express their views on the treatment of animals was the tabling of an Early Day Motion. A keyword search through the UK Parliament’s database of Early Day Motions indicates the range of MPs’ views on the treatment of animals, such as defending their lawful use in scientific research, condemning their treatment as circus performers or calling for a ban on fox hunting.

Many of the latter were tabled by Tony Banks (Labour MP for Newham Northwest, 1983-1997 and West Ham, 1997-2005) for whom interviewee Eileen Gordon (Labour MP for Romford, 1997-2001) worked as a researcher. As an MP she served on the standing committee which scrutinised the Hunting Bill that came before Parliament in 2000:

It was interesting to have Ann Widdecombe on our side. It was good, it was good to be actually doing something about it rather than just talking about it . The bill wasn’t perfect and obviously there are loopholes in it now, but to actually get something on the statute books about it was good. Always hated it, always hated hunting. Tony Banks was a real animal person, but I’d always hated it, even before I went to work for him, so it was really good to be on the committee to just be a part of it.

Eileen Gordon interviewed by Isobel White (2018), British Library C1503-167 [Track 2, 00:36:43 – 00:37:26]

On this issue parliamentarians did not split along party lines as this extract from the interview with Llin Golding, Baroness Golding (Labour MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme, 1986-2001) shows:

Baroness Golding, UK Parliament official portrait
Llin Golding interviewed by Emmeline Ledgerwood (2013), British Library C1503-060 [Track 4, 00:04:28 – 00:05:54]
Download Alt Text at bottom of blog

Similarly this description of his 1930s childhood in the countryside indicates why Sir Richard Body (Conservative MP for Billericay, 1955-1959, Holland with Boston, 1966-1997 and Boston and Skegness, 1997-2001) thought the Bill was ‘a great mistake’:

Sir Richard Body, photographed by Michael Waller Bridge for the History of Parliament Oral History Project

I had all the things that the countryside could offer. I had ponies always, I had ferrets and an airgun to go and shoot birds or rabbits, which one shouldn’t do nowadays of course, and I used to go fishing. […] My father was a soldier, he was in the Life Guards, he was very much a cavalryman and if you were a cavalryman you were expected to go hunting because it was treated as military training. A gallop across country along with a lot of other people and getting ahead of them over a jump … it simulated warfare in a way. He did that twice a week and he had two hunters, they were paid for him by the army and he had a groom. […] Sadly the hunters had to go to the war and of course they never came back. 

Sir Richard Body interviewed by Mike Greenwood (2012), British Library C1503-031 [Track 1, 00:00:46 – 00:03:02)

Emotions on both sides of the debate ran extremely high. Jackie Ballard (Liberal Democrat MP for Taunton, 1997-2001), who later went on to become director general of the RSPCA, described the pressure she encountered from her constituents for her views on hunting.

Jackie Ballard interviewed by Eleanor O’Keeffe (2014), C1503-085 [Track 2, 01:07:57  – 0 1:09:30]
Download Alt Text at bottom of blog
Jackie Ballard, photographed by Barbara Luckhurst for the History of Parliament Oral History Project, 2018

Ballard felt the hunting issue was the reason why she lost her seat, as did Chris Pond (Labour MP for Gravesham, 1997-2005):

The Countryside Alliance had said that they would come and get any Minister who had taken a prominent role on that and indeed on the morning 80 of them turned up in the constituency and that was enough just to get those extra votes in rural areas to tip it over.

Chris Pond interviewed by Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite (2015), British Library C1503-126 [Track 2, 01:13:19 – 01:13:44]

On the other side, Dr Charles Goodson-Wickes (Conservative MP for Wimbledon, 1987-97) also felt that the issue led to his defeat in 1997 after ‘a sophisticated anti-hunting poster campaign’. He spoke about his motivation in becoming chair of the British Field Sports Society which became part of Countryside Alliance.

Dr Charles Goodson-Wickes, photographed by Barbara Luckhurst for the History of Parliament Oral History Project, 2017

I wanted to get the debate on a more rational and less emotive business, talking about jobs and conservation and liberty of people, personal freedom and all the scientific aspects. […] The formation of the Countryside Alliance and the Countryside Rally and the Countryside Marches did allow people who felt disenfranchised in the rural communities—and a lot of people in cities as well who felt sympathetic—to demonstrate to the Government. […] These were powerful demonstrations.

Dr Charles Goodson-Wickes interviewed by Isobel White (2016) British Library C1503-141 [Track 5, 00:26:20 – 00:29:24]

When asked in his 2014 interview about the achievements of the animal welfare movement, supporter Harry Greenway (Conservative MP for Ealing North, 1979–1997) commented on the higher standards that came with improvements in legislation and ‘a sort of public awareness of brutality to animals and guarding against it’. He concluded with a compassionate yet pragmatic aspiration for the treatment of animals. ‘You just want as much humanity and lack of pain as possible without being too censorious and unrealistic.’ (Harry Greenway interviewed by Paul Seaward (2014), British Library C1503-105 [Track 2, 01:38:41 – 01:39:59]).

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Further reading

Garner, Robert, Political Animals (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1998).

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for entries on Douglas Houghton, Baron Houghton of Sowerby, Sir George Greenwood and Richard Martin.

Phillips, Peter, The Eccentric Member for Galway: The Story of Richard Martin, Animal Rights Pioneer, 1754-1834 (Tunbridge Wells: Parapress, 2003).

Stallwood, Kim, Growl (New York: Lantern Books, 2014).

Many of our oral history interviews can be listened to on the British Library Sounds website here.

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