Are animals losing their innocents?

A campaign rooted in Middle England may be turning into an ugly confrontation between hardliners and police. Paul Vallely reports
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In the dispute over the export of live animals a nodal point has been reached. The street violence this week - the first directed against the police by protesters - is only the symptom of a further polarisation of positions. Recent days have seen new resolution on the part of ministers, a toughening of police tactics and a statement of uncompromising support for the trade from senior members of the judiciary. On the streets there have been the first signs that moderate protesters are being elbowed aside by the extremists they have hitherto managed to hold at a distance. There are indications too that the media honeymoon for the rag-tag army of protesters may be ending.

For almost a year the dispute has progressed with what may turn out to have been comparative gentility, beginning with the campaign by animal rights activists to press cross-channel ferry companies to pull out of a trade in calves and sheep which had, hitherto, been worth around £175m a year. True, there had been a few attempts by extremists to harass the ferries by sending letter bombs to their headquarters, but the serious pressure had come from hundreds of thousands of letters from the public, orchestrated by mainstream animal campaigners including a dramatic RSPCA campaign of newspaper ads.

One by one, the ferries capitulated. As exporters found replacement outlets through small ports such as Shoreham in West Sussex and Brightlingsea in Essex, an extraordinary campaign of street protest began. It was aggressive but largely non-violent, and brought together a curiously English coalition of protesting types - hunt saboteurs, opponents of new roads, dreadlocked travellers, politicised protesters against the Criminal Justice Act - with a band of first-timers which included large numbers of middle-aged Tory ladies and retired Home Counties businessmen.

They were a potent group. Even the tabloid press felt it had to warm to them. Soon Tesco announced it would stop buying veal from Holland, and Sainsbury's put up signs to say it never had. With each new outlet, the port of Plymouth or the airport at Coventry, came new protests. And though at one of them a demonstrator, Jill Phipps, a single mother and veteran animal activist, was accidentally crushed beneath the wheels of a veal lorry, the reaction was one of general sorrow rather than anger. The temperature stayed resolutely cool.

Two weeks ago, things began to change. The Agriculture Secretary, William Waldegrave, after months of emollient noises about how Britain would campaign for change in European law, announced that Britain could not enforce a unilateral ban. The RSPCA and the International Fund for Animal Welfare dispute this analysis and claim to have found a way to ban the trade without violating European law, but the cross-party Welsh affairs select committee came out strongly in support of Mr Waldegrave.

Then last week, two High Court judges ruled that those ports which had crumbled to the pressure of the daily presence of demonstrators at their gates and banned the trade had acted illegally. The judges accused the authorities at Coventry, Dover and Plymouth of "surrendering to mob rule". Public authorities, they said, "must beware of surrendering to the dictates of unlawful pressure groups ... The implications of such surrender for the rule of law can hardly be exaggerated."

It was in this climate that the police decided to get tough. It is unclear what was the proximate influence. Certainly the cost of policing the demonstrations was becoming significant. Figures released to the House of Commons earlier this month show that the additional policing burden was almost £7m: almost £4m at Shoreham, £2m at Brightlingsea, £385,000 in Coventry and £100,000 in Plymouth. But sources in Essex indicate that the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, assured the Assistant Chief Constable, Geoffrey Markham, of his full support if he decided to use the Public Order Act 1986.

That decision has "moved things up a gear", according to one of the protest orchestrators, Mark Glover, of Respect for Animals. It has brought in increasing numbers of Socialist Workers Party members and "others whose chief object seems to be to seek confrontation with the police".

The same concern is expressed by Maria Wilby, an aromatherapist and a key figure at Brightlingsea, who yesterday reported that agitators from the SWP arrived "only when there came the threat of the Public Order Act".

Mr Markham's decision to invoke the Public Order Act as from Tuesday this week was announced in a letter delivered to every home in the town. It would outlaw the demonstrators' standard tactic of holding a slow procession through the streets in front of the triple-decker animal transporters. In future, they would have to give six days' written notice of marches, and ring leaders could face arrest and three months in jail if protests got out of hand.

The move has transformed an animal rights issue into one of civil rights, drawing in libertarian lawyers and extremist opportunist agitators. "The police have to make very difficult decisions about resources," says Liz Parrott, campaigns officer of Liberty, "But it raises concern about the basis on which the police decision was made. By saying `We can no longer afford to police this protest', you are effectively saying there is a price on human rights. Leaving it up to the police to decide whether or not people's human rights should be upheld is unsatisfactory both for the police and for protesters."

Others, such as the left-wing lawyer Michael Mansfield QC, are more forthright. "The Public Order Act and the 1994 Criminal Justice Act together constitute the widest and most draconian powers available to the police since the war," he said. They gave the state powers that Britain would have condemned had they been implemented by South Africa under apartheid. "It amounts to: `Thou shalt not protest except under our direction.' This is not policing by consent."

Adherents of the cock-up theory of politics might point to the fact that entirely different tactics have been employed in Shoreham, where police and protesters seem to have reached a tacit understanding that demonstrations will take place only on two days a week and that they are allowed to disrupt but not totally prevent the export process. They might point, too, to the change of mind that the police Brightlingsea have undergone. Privately, they admit that the decision to invoke the Public Order Act was a tactical error.

The police chief's letter sparked the sudden disbanding of the town's action group BALE - Brightlingsea Against Live Exports - because its leaders feared they would be otherwise be held responsible for the actions of anyone who turned up. And turn up they did - to hurl eggs filled with paint at the police, causing two officers to be taken to hospital for treatment to their eyes.

"No real animal activist would throw eggs," says Mark Glover. "What the police have done has attracted in the SWP element, and the danger is that they will drive out the Middle England people who have been the backbone of all the protests and who are put off by the swearing and the violence."

The consequence of that could well be that the protest is transformed into a smaller, more ruthless group with far fewer scruples than most of the existing protesters. The riot shields will not be far behind.