Bless the beasts, not the children: In putting animals before people, Britain is again the odd man out in Europe, says Andrew Marshall

Click to follow
If you want to know why the British have such peculiar ideas about animals, you could do worse than ask William Waldegrave. Mr Waldegrave is an alumnus of All Soul's College, Oxford, where the fellows sing the 'Mallard Song'.

Three times a year they gather to praise the bird, found when the college's foundations were dug. It is a quintessentially lunatic English tradition, one of those things that makes foreigners realise we are odd.

It was Mr Waldegrave, in his capacity as Minister for Agriculture, who yesterday took up the cudgels in Luxembourg for animals. Not mallards these, but livestock. Farm ministers from the European Union were trying to agree limits on the number of hours that livestock can be transported. They failed.

The root of yesterday's problem is that continental carnivores prefer their meat freshly and locally slaughtered. But to travel abroad, livestock often has to suffer appalling conditions. The animal welfare lobby has fought hard to prevent live exports, putting pressure on ferry companies to stop them.

Britain has higher standards for the protection of livestock than other countries, and yesterday's discussions can be seen as a move to impose minimum standards on the rest of Europe.

The animal welfare lobby is strong in Britain; not just extremists or organised groups, but the vast body of Middle England. The issue produces one of the biggest postbags for the Ministry of Agriculture and the National Farmers' Union alike. Most would not go as far as the lunatic fringe that has letter- bombed NFU offices, but animal welfare arouses strong passions.

Not so elsewhere in Europe. Cat hurling has long died out in Ypres, and the Spanish no longer do such dreadful things to donkeys. But it is clear that our European partners have nowhere near the same level of interest in the welfare of animals as the British. America alone shares our obsession.

In northern European countries such as Germany and Denmark, animal welfare is gradually rising up the political agenda, but it is still low to non-existent on the list of concerns of the southern nations. The appetites of the French for fresh meat, the Italians for tiny birds (preferably brought down with something rapid fire and large calibre and with a smart leather carrying case), and the Spanish for tormenting farmyard animals in public are legendary.

So it would be fair to say that the British passion is not only inexplicable to the rest of Europe, but also held to be deeply suspicious. If you argue animal welfare with the average Frenchman or Italian, they will make dark comments about our attitude to people, and especially children. It certainly is rather odd that the British association devoted to animals is royal, while that which protects children is merely national.

Or perhaps, given the revelations of the past few weeks, it is not so odd at all. The Royal Family, as everyone knows, is devoted to its vast retinue of four-legged retainers, those smelly and aggressive corgis in particular.

Children, it would seem, are not such a strong suit, perhaps because they are more difficult to train and less readily adapted to field sports.

Europeans note that this strange order of priorities is reflected in the way Britain operates within the European Union. Successive British ministers have argued against European legislation to safeguard the rights of young workers, paternity leave and even to limit working hours. Ministers delight in arguing that regulation should be minimal in every other field; only when it comes to things that involve animals are they willing to push for the toughest possible standards. There are votes in animals; apparently, there aren't in people.

Seen from Brussels, it is easy to caricature this issue as North versus South, the doughty rationalist Protestant against the swarthy neo-pagan Mediterranean. But it is actually the town against the country. Rural life and rural traditions still play an important role in the culture and society of Europe's southern countries. But the Continent is gradually losing its agricultural past, forgetting that nature is red in tooth and claw. Britain, which experienced the agricultural revolution so early, has virtually lost its rural life and communities, and replaced them with a suburban sentimentalist attitude towards animals and the country.

Like all sentimentality, this generates hypocrisy. In this case, the transport of livestock in unnecessarily unpleasant conditions is, of course, wrong; and Mr Waldegrave is right to argue against it. But the basis of his case is, in a wider context, suspect. He is arguing that there are basic standards that must be met, for reasons of morality as well as competitivity. British farmers, understandably enough, do not want to bear the costs of this problem alone, as it would undercut their position in the European market. Most, in any case, have a high regard for the welfare of their animals.

These are arguments that the Conservative government would simply not accept when it came to social policy. Employment arrangements are a matter for employers and employees to sort out, ministers argue; the market should decide what levels of worker protection are justified. If other states want higher levels of protection, well, so much the worse for them: we get the investment.

But a sniff of the farmyard, the sight of Dobbin and Daisy - and Tory logic turns on its head. Suddenly, compassion means we must reach for the law book and act. A tip for trade unionists the next time you want some help from Westminster: learn to moo.

(Photograph omitted)