How ‘Great’ Would the UK be in Gandhi’s Eyes?

Posted by on October 2, 2010 | Permalink

Mahatma Gandhi once said that “the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated”. If he were alive today, how would Gandhi assess the UK? Are we “great” only in name, or do our actions make us a truly progressive nation? In honour of Gandhi’s birthday, October 2, let’s reflect on the positive strides we’ve made and contemplate what more we can do to achieve true greatness.

The UK introduced one of the first pieces of animal rights legislation in the world – the Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act 1822 – and many more forward-thinking laws have been passed here since, including, most recently, the Animal Welfare Act of 2006, a comprehensive law designed to prevent abuse and neglect, not simply react to them. Britain was also among the first countries to give great apes proper protection from experimenters – Home Office guidelines forbid experiments on chimpanzees, orang-utans and gorillas.

While they’re not all revolutionary, our laws are indicative of our evolving attitudes towards animals. Surveys show that 93 per cent of the people in this country refuse to wear fur (a ban on fur farming was introduced in the UK in 2000), and 94 per cent of people who responded to a government survey on circuses support a ban on the use of wild animals in travelling circuses.

Foie gras production is prohibited in the UK, and the “delicacy” is so unpopular that most major retailers, including Selfridges and House of Fraser, refuse to sell it. Every year, less meat is consumed in the UK – 245,000 tonnes less in 2009 than in 2005. A 2003 Consumer Analyst Group study indicated that Britain would be a vegetarian nation by 2047 if people continued to forswear meat at the current rate. Change doesn’t always happen rapidly (women weren’t granted equal voting rights in the UK until 1928), but as far as social movements go, the animal rights movement is one of the fastest-growing in history. However, much more needs to be done before our nation’s treatment of animals can be called great.

Every day in the UK, animals are abused, neglected and killed. We eat them, wear them, hunt them, race them, experiment on them and force them to perform for us. In 2008, the RSPCA investigated 140,575 cruelty complaints – only 2,574 offenders were convicted.

Even if domestic cruelty cases were rare and offenders were always punished, it would be incongruous to consider ourselves an ethical society while we use animals for food, clothing, entertainment and experimentation. There are approximately 250,000 captive animals in the UK’s zoos, aquaria and circuses, and around 3.5 million other animals are used in laboratory experiments each year. Nearly 900 million cows, chickens, pigs and other land animals are killed for their flesh every year in the UK.

Gandhi, a vegetarian, would no doubt be shocked by the sheer size of the meat industry alone. He’d surely be horrified that newborn calves are taken away from their mothers within hours of birth, that turkeys are bred to be so massive that they cannot mate naturally and that chickens have their beaks seared off with a hot blade to prevent them from pecking each other in tiny, crowded cages.

Our understanding of animals and their needs has increased significantly since Gandhi’s time, but our actions to protect them have yet to fully evolve. In many cases, ignorance has only given way to wilful abuse. With no justifiable reason, humans have assumed ownership and jurisdiction over other living beings. If the UK – and humanity – is to make real moral progress, we must treat animals not as property but as sentient beings whose lives are their own, not ours.