The man whose £1m gift keeps Blair's mind on hunting

Michael McCarthy
Monday 12 July 1999 23:00

HE IS hardly known here, and he emigrated from Britain as a schoolboy failure in 1955. But the £1m he donated to the Labour Party to ban fox- hunting is helping keep the issue high on the Government's agenda.

HE IS hardly known here, and he emigrated from Britain as a schoolboy failure in 1955. But the £1m he donated to the Labour Party to ban fox- hunting is helping keep the issue high on the Government's agenda.

Brian Davies is in the UK this week. Tomorrow morning he will visit the London office of a leading polling organisation to check on public opinion regarding a hunting ban.

Here on a visit from his Florida home with his second wife Gloria, the tanned and smartly dressed Mr Davies, 64, will like what he hears. Robert Worcester, chairman of MORI, will tell him that the latest research shows that even among Tory voters, there is a substantial majority - more than three to one - in favour of outlawing fox-hunting.

It will be satisfying news for the man from an obscure Welsh background who went on to build the world's wealthiest animal protection organisation, the US-based International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). The IFAW, which is a private company not a charity, has put its enormous financial resources behind the cause of a hunting ban in Britain.

Mr Davies brought Canada's annual slaughter of baby seal pups to an end with a 20-year campaign which featured one of the most dramatic newspaper photographs of the twentieth century. These days, he eschews publicity, and when the pros and cons of hunting are debated, his name is rarely mentioned. But if the Government ends hundreds of years of red coats, tally-hos and dead foxes he will be as responsible as anyone for the change.

Since 1991 he has been channelling huge sums of money to the main political parties in the anti-hunting cause. Between 1991 and 1996 he sent £365,950 to Labour, £117,578 to the Conservatives, £70,105 to the Liberal Democrats and £54,262 to other groups. Influence? He secured for his pains meetings with John Major, the then Prime Minister, Chris Patten, then Tory party chairman, Neil Kinnock, then leader of the opposition, and Paddy Ashdown, the leader of the Liberal Democrats. Photographs from these meetings were used in IFAW mail shots.

The best was yet to come. In the summer of 1996, at about the time he attended what Downing Street yesterday described as a "private dinner party" where Tony Blair was a fellow guest, Mr Davies give £1m to Labour, the largest single donation the party had received up to that point.

Labour has never made a secret of the donation, but yesterday it was being suggested that the money was the real reason Mr Blair last week announced that a hunting ban would be brought in soon.

Mike Baker, the current head of IFAW in the UK, denied reports that he had threatened a hostile advertising campaign against the Government unless it kept its commitment to ban hunting. But it is not necessary to be a conspiracy theorist to believe that people do not part with a £1m without expecting results.

The supporters of hunting are already drawing comparisons between Mr Davies's £1m, and the £1m Labour received, from Bernie Ecclestone, the Formula 1 motor racing boss, who was concerned about a tobacco advertising ban. Labour, famously, returned Mr Ecclestone's donation.

Like Mr Ecclestone, Mr Davies is a flamboyant character. The IFAW, which has headquarters in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, now has branches in several countries and an annual income of many millions of dollars from perhaps 1.5 million supporters around the world who are passionate about animal welfare. The UK branch of IFAW alone, based in Crowborough, Sussex, had an income of nearly £18m in 1998.

Mr Davies is now a mid-Atlantic man with a half-Welsh, half-American accent who lives in a substantial home in Florida. He has never been keen to talk about his salary, but in March this year it was revealed that his severance deal from IFAW, when he retired as its chairman and chief executive in 1997, was in the order of £1m, spread over several years.

The fund yesterday confirmed that his initial payment was £250,000 but said that the full total would be £1m as an "absolute maximum".

It is thought to be the largest severance deal ever seen in comparable lobbying organisations and it is serious money for a boy who emigrated to Canada in 1955 after, by his own admission, failing completely at school.

The young Brian Davies joined the Canadian army, rising to the rank of lance-corporal. After five years he left to start small animal protection charity.

His life was changed in the early Sixties when he witnessed the savagery of the Canadian seal hunt, on the spring ice floes of the St Lawrence river. Hunters clubbed to death hundreds of harp seals for their fur, concentrating on the young pups, whose coats, for the first three weeks of their lives, are pure white.

Mr Davies set out to end it, becoming a full-time campaigner. He succeeded, not least by enlisting the help of the Daily Mirror, then at the height of its power and influence. In 1967 the paper devoted its front page to an unforgettable photograph of a sealer swinging his club towards the wide-eyed head of a baby harp seal pup. The headline read: "The price of a seal skin coat".

International opinion turned against Canada, the European Union banned the import of baby seal pelts, and eventually, in 1987, the hunt was banned.

There was no doubting its cruelty, and no doubting Mr Davies's passionate commitment to ending it, but things did not stop there. Along the way the IFAW had gone from campaigning for seals to become perhaps the world's most successful animal protection body, certainly in terms of fund-raising. With its direct mail shots, its coupons in newspapers and its emotional advertising showing animals suffering, the fund was able to tap into an enormous well of goodwill from animal lovers in the developed countries - and the cash rolled in.

For his fox-hunting campaign, Mr Davies in 1990 set up a company separate from IFAW although associated with it, the Political Animal Lobby (PAL) and it was through this vehicle that donations were channelled to British political parties.

Although IFAW is keen to stress that both organisations are now separate, it is likely that much of the money that went through PAL was raised by IFAW.

Mr Davies is still very much involved with PAL. Speculation as to the purpose of his current visit to England was rife yesterday.

One observer commented: "I wonder if he'll be seeing anybody from the Labour Party - and I wonder if he's brought his chequebook."

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