So, back in November I had an adjournment debate in the main Commons Chamber on World Vegan Day, ie November 1st. I was prepared for a not especially positive reception, especially given that it fell to Jim Paice, the Farming Minister, to reply, but what I wasn’t prepared for was a concerted effort to heckle, jeer and ridicule from the Government benches. It’s usually the case that for the end of day adjournment debates the Chamber is deserted, except for the MP whose debate it is, and the Minister responding. On this occasion I was faced with two Government whips joining the Minister on the frontbench, one of whom, Lib Dem Alistair Carmichael, was particularly obnoxious, and about half a dozen or so other MPs there, mostly with farming interests, and the likes of Simon Hart, the ex-Chief Exec of the Countryside Alliance. I was also joined by my two fellow vegan MPs, Chris Williamson and Cathy Jamieson, which at least provided a bit of back-up. And the next day many MPs came up to me who’d been watching the debate on TV or had read Hansard and were appalled at the Government response.
What I don’t understand is why people get so hostile at the idea of veganism/ vegetarianism. It’s not as if holding a half hour debate on the topic is suddenly going to put all the farmers out of business, and I steered clear, deliberately, of going overboard on criticising those who do eat meat. I tried to be factual, reasonable and moderate. (Admittedly Paice did pull me up on one point about Nocton dairy farm, on which it now looks like I was wrongly-informed; it’s not multi-storey, although many such farms are. That was a bit annoying, as it detracted from the other, very well-evidence points I was making.) Some of his answers were ridiculous however, for example, saying that most soya consumption is by vegetarians eating fake-meat products rather than by livestock! I’ve tabled some parliamentary questions to try to get his sources for that.
I thought it was particularly unpleasant of the MPs on the Opposition benches to jeer and heckle when I was outlining the health arguments for reducing meat consumption. The evidence linking diet and such diseases is fairly conclusive, and I thought was widely accepted. One could argue for moderation rather than eliminating processed meats or red meat entirely, as one of the Unionist MPs did, but to dismiss the argument entirely and not with a counter-argument but with sneers and boos is childish and ill-mannered. My father died of bowel cancer 11 days after this debate, which they weren’t to know, but I don’t think they should have needed to be told that to at least listen to what I had to say with a little respect. They perhaps weren’t aware either that one of their senior colleagues, I’m told, drinks soya milk because his wife is suffering from breast cancer – instead they jeered when I mentioned surveys showing that breast cancer rates have risen in Japan as women there have adopted a more Western diet.
Why is it seen as OK to ridicule beliefs held on ethical grounds, but not, say, beliefs held on religious grounds? If I’d been standing there outlining why as a Muslim I didn’t drink alcohol or eat pork, or as a Jew I adhered to Kosher practices, wouldn’t they have listened in silence and respected my right to believe that? (Perhaps a debate on halal slaughter would have been received with more criticism, but I don’t think a Muslim MP would have been ridiculed…) But that leads me on to a separate issue I’m going to blog about soon, on free votes on issues of conscience, and why it’s only religion that counts there. Watch this space for that one…
Anyway, here’s the link to the debate. We also had a lunchtime event, with the award-winning Ms Cupcake giving away free vegan cupcakes, which was swamped by MPs and researchers. And the House of Commons catering staff made a sterling effort to put vegan dishes on the menus. I’m not sure what we’ll for World Vegan Day 2012, but I think the cakes may make a comeback – and we’ll make sure we get twice as many in this time!