In July 2007, David Cameron asked me to become the Shadow Home Affairs Minister, with special responsibility for Animal Welfare, the first role of its kind on the Conservative front bench.
Over the past two years, I have learnt an immense amount about the invaluable work undertaken by the various animal welfare organisations, both on a national and international level.
Although not traditionally associated with the Home Affairs brief, this area of policy has branched out significantly in recent years, culminating in the cross-departmental approach that we now have in place. This is symbolic in reflecting how animal welfare continues to develop greater political prominence in British politics today. We are a nation of animal lovers and it is right that the Conservative Party takes the agenda forward on this issue.
As a Shadow Minister, a key task for me during the past year has been policy-formation. Digesting and, in most cases, respecting the views and attitudes of a multitude of individuals and organisations is perhaps the most difficult, yet most rewarding, aspect of the policy-making process.
Animal welfare has proved particularly challenging in this respect, primarily due to the natural human tendency to react and argue purely on emotion. The need to balance our ever-increasing cultural compassion for the way in which animals are regarded and treated, with a realistic and feasible approach to implementing legislation that sometimes clashes with other agendas, should never be underestimated.
This is why it is so important to draw a line between animal welfare and animal rights. We are not in the business of humanising animals; but we want to advance the human approach towards them. With furthering the cause of concern for animals, comes a responsibility to tackle the debate-hindering activities of extremists. Most people I meet hold a genuine desire to promote the wellbeing of animals, but a select few choose to manipulate the cause for their own agenda through inappropriate and sometimes violent means. Distinguishing between these individuals is crucial in accelerating the progress that needs to be made.
In this country alone, we are confronted with a whole host of welfare issues on which this government has failed; the number of stray dogs is rising; dogs used as weapons has become a serious issue in our towns and cities; the level of scientific procedures involving animals has been increasing for the past decade; the illegal trade in wildlife is spiralling out of control; and we have species-specific concerns too numerous to mention. In order to tackle these problems effectively, we must detach ourselves from the idea that animals require “rights” equal to those of humans.
To an extent, accepting the dominant position held by the human race is crucial to understanding and appreciating the level of responsibility we have towards animals. Some of the world’s most exotic creatures and wonderful species have continued to thrive only through human intervention; these are exactly the kinds of attitudes and actions we need to encourage.
Whether visiting London Zoo, meeting with the RSPCA, or responding to a constituent’s concerns on the cost of their veterinary bills, it is crucial to communicate the Conservative Party’s new-found enthusiasm and dedication towards the cause of animal welfare.
Never before have sincere, long-term ideas been more crucial in British politics and, whilst this area of policy may not shake society at its core, it has the potential to be a leader in forward-thinking for maintaining the health, diversity and overall quality of our planet.
These are exciting times for the Conservative Party, as we continue to identify and move on to new ground, in line with changing priorities amongst both committed and swing voters. Whilst the economy and foreign conflicts continue to dominate international affairs, it is refreshing to be able to focus on domestic issues of more casual, everyday importance to families across the country.
I believe it is these issues that will matter most to voters at the ballot box.