Thursday, August 22, 2013

Liberal Democrats, goldfish and my part in their downfall

Mark Pack has written an article today looking at the charge that "the Liberal Democrats have a policy on goldfish". He argues - correctly - that, as far as the party did have a policy on goldfish, it formed part of a policy on animal welfare in general. And much of it has since been passed into law and is now never questioned:
What Lib Dem conference really agreed on goldfish 
In autumn 2003 the Liberal Democrats passed an animal welfare motion at the federal conference in Brighton. The accompanying policy paper Respecting All Animals, which following the passage of the motion became party policy, said: 
Liberal Democrats will … prohibit the giving of live animals as prizes. 
The logic was an extension on the RSPCA’s concerns over goldfish – animals won as prizes are animals that are not well looked after.
David Laws complains 
In 2004 David Laws took up public cudgels against the party’s attitude towards goldfish, complaining in The Orange Book that, 
If freedom means anything it must surely include the freedom to engage in activities which others may consider unwise. This includes smoking, overeating, not exercising, driving “off road” cars in cities, even winning goldfish. A Liberal society is one where people should be free to “make their own mistakes”. 
He wasn’t the first senior Liberal Democrat to knock the policy. Charles Kennedy, when party leader, also did so. His was a rather curious as he had chaired the Federal Policy Committee during the period when the policy paper was drawn up, agreed and signed-off by the FPC.
There is one piece of history here that Mark omits.

This policy was passed in the days when I was a member of the party's Federal Policy Committee. And when the animal welfare working party's report came to it, a few of us staged a libertarian rebellion - using arguments much like those David Laws was later to make. We picked out half a dozen of the most nannyish clauses and voted them out of the report before we passed it.

Don't worry: Conference voted them all back in.

This episode crystallised for me some of the problems the Liberal Democrats face - or faced in those days. We tended to buy in our policy from experts or campaign groups rather than make it ourselves. I can remember the working party chair saying, aghast, that the RSPCA would condemn us if our libertarian amendment became party policy.

And, while we said we put liberty first, when push came to shove we were unwilling to go against what you might call 'the Guardian line'.

One of my reasons, incidentally, for joining this rebellion was an impatience with the RSPCA. They campaigned on fox hunting: they campaigned to curb pet owners. But on the biggest animal welfare issue of all - factory farming - they had little to say.


Mark Pack said...

Very interesting! Can you recall which bits of the policy you tried to get removed?

Jonathan Calder said...

I think they included the goldfish clause and the age at which you could hold a shotgun licence, but it was all a long time ago.

Anonymous said...

On tobacco, we still import policy lock stock and barrel from groups funded by pharmaceutical multinationals .

Paul Holmes said...

One of the areas I always parted company with some of my 'Liberal' friends over is precisely this.

If being a Liberal means that someone's right to be cruel to animals (even goldfish!) is untouchable then I'm not a Liberal.Andrew George (a very good Liberal) and I spent many 'happy' hours fighting against illiberal cruelty in using packs of dogs to hunt animals for human pleasure during the passage of the Hunting Act 2004.