All of us, commentators and politicians alike, have been dumb-founded by the strange explosion of animal rights activism. Everything about it is unexpected, unfamiliar and odd. It doesn't fit into the deep, dull ruts of party politics. These people seem to have little to do with conventional Left/Right divisions. Their view of the world appears at Westminster to be upside-down. Poor William Veal-de-Grave, as the placards call him, is looking like a sick calf himself, tottering on uncertain legs. Who arethey, what do they mean, and where do we go from here?
Those depressed by the political apathy of our times have tried, somewhat frantically, to find hope in Shoreham and Brightlingsea. At last, is there a flicker of life-blood in our veins after all? The argument goes something like this: disaffected with the ideological dust-bowl at Westminster, the people are at last rising up and expressing passionate political emotion about something, anything. Calves are just a symbol for all that is cruel and evil in our warped society.
"It is the democratic deficit that has suddenly got to them," somebody said the other day. It is not the calves themselves, but human identification with how a calf feels. Society has reduced us all to feeling like calves in crates.
How reassuring if that were so. We would know where we were then, back on political terra firma, back indeed with an old neo-Marxian agenda of alienation and what not. The blighted masses are rising up and fighting with the police again, and we know all about that. But it is not like that. Most of these are people who have never demonstrated about anything before, and they are proud of it. They wear badges saying this is the single issue about which they care very passionately, and they have never caredso much about anything else ever; not their fellow citizens and their social conditions, not difficult questions like distributing income more fairly while promoting economic growth, not hard issues such as the relationship of nations in a fissiparous world. No, animals are easy. This is juvenile politics, not even politics at all but a spasm masquerading as a movement.
Of course the Vegetarian Society is jubilant. Thousands are converting every week, they say, and since Shoreham, they haven't been able to send information out fast enough. Polls show 8 per cent of the population is now vegetarian, and 20 per cent of teenagers (most of them girls). They have sent videos and information packs to every school in Britain. The former head of the Vegetarian Society has just formed a new group called VIVA, which goes into schools with an emotive video and tells them graphically about the slaughterhouses the meat in their hamburgers comes from.
Schools, eager for subjects to debate, are happy to invite them in, fondly imagining that this is a safe and non-party political issue for children to get their teeth into. What used to be nature study in schools, with nature tables covered in sycamore seeds and conkers, has often become something akin to green propaganda, as have many children's television programmes, from children's documentaries to Captain Planet cartoons. Somewhat naive teachers see the environment (and animals) as a se rious current affairs subject children can engage with on uncontentious non-political territory. But children are easily manipulated. On the one hand there are the gross capitalists, wicked humanity and animal murderers, on the other are innocent rain fo rests, the beauty of nature and soft animals with big eyes. The Meat and Livestock Commission, to which farmers pay a levy for putting their case, is left lamely preaching the nutritional advantages of meat to Home Economics classes.
Children can hardly be expected to see these green issues in context; it is hard enough for the rest of us.
But first we really must clear our heads on the question of rights. Animals have none. Rights only apply to human beings, because rights are indissolubly linked to responsibilities. Rights spring from human agreements, social contracts among fellow citizens. Rights come linked to moral obligations. That doesn't mean we should condone cruelty or gratuitous pain. We think badly of a man who wilfully steps on a butterfly, but that doesn't confer rights on the butterfly.
The more aware animal activists are anxious to dispel the notion that they care more about animals than they do about human beings. They become exceedingly indignant is anyone accuses them of misanthropy. On the contrary, they say, the treatment of animals is all part of the same great social web as the treatment of human beings. Whoever mistreats animals (or eats them) will mistreat humans too. Animals and people are all part of one seamless skein of life. A society that was kind to dumb beasts would be kind to one another, too.
They just choose to start with animals rather than with the plight of mental patients, old people or neglected children. They go a step further. Animals are no different from these weak members of the human race, they have the same rights and the same inability to express or uphold them. Is it surprising that a society that doesn't acknowledge the rights of dumb animals, doesn't honour the rights of the helpless members of its own species?
That, of course, is to seek to have it both ways. We are uniquely moral, with a consciousness and conscience that has given us not only dominion over but responsibility for the animal kingdom. At the same time, they are just like us, with the same feelings and rights as us, and we are not unique. A further, more absurdist point, is that if animals have rights and we are responsible for them, are we not obliged to police them and stop them killing each other? At this stage, I weary of the debate. What isthis? It is fin de siecle decadence.
It is also making us, yet again, a laughing stock in Europe. We who wouldn't sign up to the social chapter for the rights of people are now trying to impose an animal rights social chapter on them. They look across the Channel at us incredulously as a nation of bizarre priorities.
The Vegetarian Society's latest campaign is called Suffering Seas and is about fish. I look at our single pet, a gold fish, and recall that its memory span is so brief that as it swims round it cannot remember ever having seen the other side of the bowl,let alone the ornamental bridge at the bottom. I would defend it against pain or cruelty, and sentimentality combined with distaste prevents me from frying it, but suffering? It cannot know the meaning of the word.
Polly Toynbee is social affairs editor of the BBC