THERE was an old episode of Yes Minister on BBC4 the other night and, as usual, it was clever, and funny, and very good at pointing out why change – real, profound change – rarely happens.

The minister Jim Hacker was desperate for a particular reform, but his civil servant Sir Humphrey was desperate to stop it. “Can it be done?” says Hacker in exasperation. “Many things can be done, minister,” says Sir Humphrey. “Ah, yes,” says Hacker. “Many things can be done, as long as nothing is done for the first time.”

Give or take a reform or two, Hacker’s words pretty much sum up the conservative mind: the hardest and scariest thing to do, and therefore the thing that must be resisted, is the thing that’s never been done before. And yet, this week, we had a Queen’s Speech from the Tories that contained striking plans that are definitely happening for the first time.

The fact that the plans focus on animal welfare may confuse some people. Tories shoot birds from the sky, don’t they? And tear foxes apart with their dogs? And eat geese that have been forcibly fattened in France? Many do, yes, but there’s also a streak in the party that’s concerned about animal welfare – groups like Vegan Conservatives and Blue Fox – and one of their most prominent supporters happens to live in the flat about Number 11 Downing Street with the Prime Minister.

The theory here, of course, is that it’s Carrie Symonds who’s been pushing for the reforms and that may be true, but the result is welcome anyway: a ban on live exports; a proposed ban on the sale of foie gras; mandatory microchipping of cats; and most importantly a legal recognition that animals are sentient and feel happiness and pain. These are important plans. They could make a big difference.

The longer-term test – as with anything said by Boris Johnson – will be the delivery and the difference between what he says and what he does, but what was striking about the plans on animals – as opposed to, say, the plans on social care – was that there was detail. This will make it easier to check the government is doing what it said it would. It’s also part of a bigger trend that recognises the link between the health of the planet (and its people) and the way we treat animals. The pandemic has only made the link more obvious.

However, the plans in the Queen’s Speech do come with hidden caveats. First, the recognition of animal sentience needs to have practical effects i.e. it has to be considered when new policies are being formulated. Second, it only applies to certain animals; what about pigs in farrowing crates and chickens in factories? The Tory plans may look cuddly, but those animals are still suffering.

Then there’s the question of Scotland. Animal welfare is devolved, but there’s no possibility of the Scottish Government obstructing any of these measures – by doing so, they would place themselves in a very uncomfortable place: less progressive than the Tories. And, besides, the SNP say animal welfare is one of their priorities.


Which raises a question: why hasn’t the Scottish Government led the way on this issue? Why did they only restrict live exports when they were taken to court? Why have they done nothing about strengthening the law on fox hunting? Why are snares still legal? Why are wildlife criminals still shooting and poisoning hen harriers pretty much with impunity? Would things change if hen harriers and foxes and cows and pigs could vote in referendums?

As it turns out, it’s the UK Government that’s taken the big step forward, which is to start the process of changing attitudes to animals by recognising they are sentient like us, and feel pain like us, and need protecting like us. It’s only one step, and a hundred more are needed, but amid all the misery over Brexit and independence, it’s a small sign – a very small sign – that instead of getting worse, the planet might be getting a little bit better.

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