LEADING ARTICLE: Ideology is dead ... long live animals!

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The Independent Online
When fervour grips people we are often baffled and struggle to understand their zeal. This week we asked ourselves why 4 million people gathered in Manila to catch a glimpse of an ageing Pole, John Paul II. But the more pressing question was close r to home. Why did hundreds of normally quiet, law-abiding citizens in Brightlingsea suddenly protest en masse against live animal exports through the Essex port?

The answer to both questions must lie in people's quest for what has value and meaning in their lives. Filipinos are uplifted by their Roman Catholic faith and the papal messenger from their God. And the people of Brightlingsea? In animal welfare, they seem to have found a cause that expresses their sense of what is right, both politically and, for many of them, spiritually. The victory at Shoreham, where exports are due to cease, has only emboldened them.

The Brightlingsea rebellion startled some, not least the police. Those who imagined a community that sought only a quiet life were surprised. These people had not followed normal practice and retreated into narrow personal lives, unconcerned about publicissues. Their commitment was symbolised by the image of an 85-year-old woman standing on the picket line, squaring up to robocops armed with riot shields and truncheons.

Those bemused by this week's events were mystified only because they had failed to recognise how political discourse has changed. Until recently ideology drove politics. The battles of the right and the left brought people on to the streets. Many people adopted positions whose rigid theology and demonology were reminiscent of a religious code. Their beliefs had a passion. Now, following the collapse of Communism, these conflicts have fallen apart. Arguments about how to run an economy have become dull, taken over by technocrats. A vacuum has been left. In the absence of popular influence on such great themes, politics has moved on.

The new battle is over ethics and morality. The economy seems beyond our control: we can only bemoan its unfair and cruel outcomes. But we can still influence public ethics. The behaviour of politicians, law and order, family values and standards in the media preoccupy us. Great moral questions about the nature of man's relationship to the environment dwarf the old economic issues.

In this instance, people were not prepared to sit back and watch as animals suffered unnecessarily on long, life-threatening voyages to live a short, miserable life in a foreign country. Xenophobia perhaps fuelled the anger. Britain's reputation as a nation of animal lovers gave it added fire. A sense of disenfranchisement determined the tactics. Ministers had thrown up their hands and declined to tackle effectively the international trade in animals. So Brightlingsea found itself suddenly and unusuallyon the wrong side of the Establishment.

But the change in politics only partly explains what has happened there and in Shoreham. An important additional factor is a gradual change in Western spirituality.

Established faiths tend towards monotheism and typically have a transcendent, distant god. It is this god that the Pope was trying to bring closer to the population in the Philippines. But the people of the West have been moving away from their traditional way of expressing spirituality. The old religions are in decline. The new spirituality would be better represented by the reverential, prehistoric animal paintings revealed this week in caves in southern France. We are rediscovering the sacred nature of our immediate environment. Certain animals have even become symbols of our new beliefs. We struggle to save the whale, the elephant and the panda with a fervour that resembles the reverence an African animist might accord to his animal totems.

This is also an age when emotion has been legitimised. The feminisation of society means that feelings have now won proper public respect alongside rationality. Men are even catching up with the trend, struggling to express this side of their characters.Some people may still regard an empathy for furry animals with disdain, considering it to be anti-intellectual. They are out of touch.

We should celebrate this week's victory by animal rights campaigners. It shows that politics has not died in the post-Communist West. Environmentalism demonstrates that people have global concerns. They have not become introverted in their politics. Evenmodern technology and the police cannot frighten them. People can still bind together in a common, worthy cause and win.