I live in fear of the question: “Why are you vegetarian?” It shouldn’t be tricky to answer, given that no one avoids meat three times a day without a decent reason. But, for me, it grates badly, like a damp aubergine. 

First, I feel on the defensive, having to explain my status as social deviant. Second, the question often leads to absurdity: a man in my local café recently followed up by asking whether, if I were stranded after a plane crash, I would refuse to eat the bodies of my fellow passengers. (Obviously, it would depend on whether or not the passengers were free range.) Third, and most important, animal welfare is a tough subject. How do you say politely that you believe meat-eating is immoral and environmentally wasteful?

British people love animals. One in three women, and one in five men, donates to animal welfare charities. Nearly half of households have a pet. Larry, a cat installed in Downing Street in 2011, has attracted more favourable media coverage than any of the humans who pass through his house. Brands such as Volkswagen and Andrex have long known our weak point, and played on it, including spurious animals in their adverts.

This love just hasn’t translated much into politics. We’ve had few debates on the realities of farming, or what we as a society might sacrifice for animals’ wellbeing. There’s a general reluctance to address the issue. This is hardly unique to the UK, but it may have been exacerbated by past battles over vivisection and fox hunting, which were traumatic and divisive.

Theresa May, the prime minister, initially epitomised this reticence. Her government started off with little time for animal causes. It toyed with legalising hunting, the pursuit loved by traditionalists but opposed by two-thirds of Britons. It resisted a global ban on ivory sales, fearing the damage to the antiques industry. In November, it rejected a parliamentary move to state explicitly in post-Brexit law that animals are sentient — that is, capable of feeling pleasure and pain — arguing that the principle was already established.

For the mainstream media, this was the approach that you would expect from a Conservative administration ( David Cameron not only backed fox hunting, he went out riding with huntsmen). But the online reaction was furious. An article about ivory sales on Evolve Politics, a pro-Corbyn website, became one of the most shared stories in the 2017 UK election campaign. In November, after the vote on sentience, more than 360,000 people signed a petition that wrongly claimed the government had removed animals’ status as sentient beings. 

Perhaps May should have seen this coming. In 2002, she had memorably identified that the Conservatives were seen as the “nasty party” because of their attitudes to women and ethnic minorities. What she didn’t identify was how disdain for animal rights could become another source of perceived viciousness. 

We used to demand that politicians kiss babies, or talk about sports and pop music. Now, in an age of online cat videos, we want politicians to prove their humanity by caring for animals. Barack Obama, Emmanuel Macron and Justin Trudeau all took in pet dogs within a year of taking office. (Donald Trump, however, is the first US president since the civil war not to have a pet. Teddy Roosevelt had everything from a lion to a flying squirrel. And Andrew Johnson left milled grain out for White House mice before his impeachment 150 years ago. Then again, Trump commonly insults people by saying they have been treated “like a dog”.)

In the UK, animals are becoming political. You can hardly move on social media without bumping into a picture of May or one of her MPs cuddling one. This window dressing reflects a new product range from the government, which has recently announced some animal-friendly policies. It has committed to a ban on ivory sales, ruled out legalising fox hunting, trialled the release of beavers into the wild, promised to make abattoirs install CCTV and to consider a ban on puppy sales by pet shops. 

Earlier this week, Michael Gove, the environment secretary, promised that Britain would not lower animal welfare standards as part of any trade deal, and proposed instead that farmers could be paid for increasing standards or trying new technology that benefits animals.

There is now a political race to the top: earlier this month Labour proposed a total ban on foie gras imports, an end to the badger cull and reviews of how animals are treated in medical testing and by zoos. “Our vision is one where no animal is made to suffer unnecessary pain,” the party said, albeit with typical silence about the possible trade-offs. Within a year, the political wind has changed direction entirely. 

Campaigners smell an opportunity. Britain is leaving the EU, creating the biggest overhaul in agricultural policy since 1947. More of us are vegans, vegetarians and, if you can stand the phrase, flexitarians (a recent survey found that a quarter of dinners in the UK contain no meat or fish). Could animal rights become a real force in politics? 

We have already come some distance. Two centuries ago, British law didn’t protect animals at all — except as property. Many English people still enjoyed watching bulls being tied to a post and attacked by dogs (hence the breed bulldogs). This bull-baiting took place in town squares, at feasts and even at wakes and weddings. Perhaps the best man’s speeches weren’t brutal enough.

Putting an end to baiting was not easy. William Wilberforce, the anti-slavery campaigner, supported a ban at the turn of the 19th century. I like the fact that he didn’t dismiss it as insignificant compared with his main work; see also some campaigners for women’s suffrage a century later, who similarly and simultaneously supported animal rights. 

In 1809, one of England’s most distinguished lawyers, Thomas Erskine, used his retirement to launch a broader crusade for animal rights. Erskine was an egotist: those reporting his speeches joked that their printers ran out of the letter “I”. But he seems to have loved animals almost as much as he loved himself: according to his biographer, he had pet dogs, a pet goose, a pet macaw and even two leeches that he thought had saved his life. 

Both Erskine and Wilberforce’s efforts were defeated but in 1822 parliament did ban cruelty to cattle, horses and other livestock. Individuals including Wilberforce set up the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to help enforce the act; the society then lobbied, successfully, for a ban on cruelty to animals. In 1835, bull-baiting became illegal. In 1842, the term vegetarian was invented, probably referring to what we now call vegan. 

These were true landmarks. What would an animal-friendly government look like today? In the Netherlands, the Party for the Animals aims to set the agenda for other parties. It wants an end to factory farming, but also has views on everything from trade deals to housing projects. Animals are affected by the environment, and the environment is affected by everything, so there is a rational basis. The party won 3 per cent of the vote, and five seats, in last year’s election.

Gove has himself come round to a sweeping approach. In response to online outrage, he proposed a bill that would recognise animal sentience in British law, and require ministers to regard animal welfare when forming policy. However, as a committee of MPs has noted, this is such a broad and vague responsibility that it would produce endless court cases. It won’t survive parliamentary scrutiny. 

Gove’s draft bill is also unclear on what counts as an “animal”. Many people don’t quite believe that fish suffer pain, and existing animal-welfare legislation does not include lobsters as sentient animals. Scientists cannot tell with certainty what animals experience. But experiments do suggest that lobsters feel pain: for example, when the creatures are given shocks on entering a compartment, they are then reluctant to re-enter that same space. 

In many ways, it’s remarkable we haven’t already done more. As long ago as 1781, the philosopher Jeremy Bentham argued that the question was not “Can animals talk?” — but “Can they suffer?” We haven’t pursued this to its logical conclusion. Unlike Switzerland, the UK hasn’t banned battery chickens, or ruled that lobsters must be stunned before they are boiled alive. 

British animal-rights groups are calling for a variety of specific measures. They want agricultural subsidies linked to animal welfare. They want the CCTV footage from abattoirs to be reviewed by independent specialists. They want primates to be removed from medical testing. They are concerned that pheasants and other game birds, shot for pleasure, are bred from battery hens. 

Is this enough? Kim Stallwood, an independent academic and activist, accuses the animal-rights movement of “failing generally and significantly” to reduce the number of animals eaten. He argues that the focus on lifestyle change — such as veganism and vegetarianism — has distracted from political lobbying. I disagree. On the contrary, it’s such personal acts of defiance that often encourage politicians into legislation. It’s no coincidence that bull-baiting was only banned once an influential part of society had given up on it (fox hunting, favoured by the upper classes, survived another 169 years). 

The real problem is that today’s politicians and voters don’t have much direct experience of animal welfare. Erskine and Wilberforce could not avoid seeing how animals were treated. Britain was an urbanising society, but farm animals and beasts of burden were still easily visible across the country. Erskine told parliament of watching a horse drawing a cart “loaded with greens to a most unmerciful extent”, and whose “bone was visible to the eye”. 

Today, 90 per cent of Britons live in cities. We romanticise animals in children’s stories and marvel at wildlife documentaries, but it is easy for us to avoid thinking about industrial farming. How many people know that British pigs are often kept in cages, or that non-egg-laying male chicks are thrown in a shredder?

When KFC emphasised the quality of its meat last year with a video showing chickens, and the strapline “the whole chicken and nothing but the chicken”, it became the most complained about advertisement of the year. But on a daily basis, we tend to worry more about battery chargers than battery chickens.

Activists try to jog us into thinking about the source of our food: some protesters march into supermarkets, take chickens from the chiller cabinets and hold mock funerals for them. But the effect is questionable: in a video of one such protest in California, you can hear an unfazed shopper in the background saying, “I’d like some of this, uh, sushi-grade salmon.” 

When the public does realise cruelty, it can drive real change. In 2013, the film Blackfish exposed the emotional suffering of killer whales living in captivity at SeaWorld, the US-based theme park. Shares in SeaWorld halved after the film’s release and have never recovered. But you can’t make a Bafta-nominated film about every abusive practice. Nor can you create endless viral petitions, like the one that scared the Conservatives into action recently. 

What would make the most difference to animal welfare in the UK is a change in eating habits. Peter Singer, the philosopher who wrote the 1975 polemic Animal Liberation, recalled how he hoped that “everyone who read the book was going to say, ‘Yes, of course . . . ’ and would immediately become vegetarian, and start protesting”. That clearly didn’t happen. 

As of 2016, only 2 per cent of British adults said they were vegetarian, with a further 1 per cent identifying as vegan. That is painfully slow progress. Perhaps the only solution is for us vegans and vegetarians to explain our reasons better — to walk around armed with a few facts, powerful but not off-putting. Personally, I think it’s useful to focus less on how animals are killed — we know that nature is brutal — and more on how they are forced to live. On average, at least a quarter of dairy cows are lame; mothers also experience significant emotional distress when their calves are taken away. 

The recent scandals around sexual harassment in various industries remind us that a tipping point can arrive, at which people stop dismissing certain practices and start condemning them. One day that may happen in the food world, and people will be confronted over lunch with the question, “Why aren’t you a vegetarian?” Then again, I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. 

Henry Mance is an FT political correspondent.

Illustrations by Tim Lahan

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Letter in response to this article:

You will find people of all backgrounds at a foxmeet / From Martin Lovegrove, Sevenoaks, Kent, UK

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