Plant-based politics

The UK has three vegan MPs – more than any other country according to the Vegan Society. They'll be hosting an event at the House of Commons to mark the launch of November's World Vegan Month to raise awareness of the issues of health, cruelty and sustainability raised by the campaign. Jon Bennett discovered why they went vegan, how it affects their politics and the hostility they faced when they debated the benefits of the lifestyle in parliament.

Plant-based politics

Kerry McCarthy

It's pretty obvious that Kerry McCarthy is one of a more modern breed of MPs from the list of her desert island discs on her blog – including choices like The Lemonheads, Pavement and Soulwax – and her damning verdict on Nick Clegg's favourites, which she describes as 'a bit bleh, the choice of someone who doesn't like music that much'. She turned her back on working as a city lawyer to become Labour's MP for Bristol East in 2005 and has been a real champion for the vegan movement, forwarding the first parliamentary motion in UK history debating the benefits of a vegan diet – to a somewhat mixed response.

When did you become vegan and why did you do it?

It was 1992, so I've done my 20 years now. My sister had become vegan and in some ways she put me off it as she was quite earnest, but one day I listened to what she was actually saying and she won the intellectual argument. It sounds silly, but I just hadn't worked out the connection between cows and milk and pregnancy and calves, and all that was involved.

You've gone on to feel that you can't understand how someone can be vegetarian and not vegan, haven't you?

I'm a lawyer by background so I suppose the rational side of the argument is key for me. I think once you know you are against animals being killed
for you to eat, then the slaughter of calves in the milk industry, and indeed what happens to chicks in the egg industry, means you can't separate milk and eggs from animal cruelty. I personally felt I had to become vegan; I logically couldn't see how I could be vegetarian and consume a product that stemmed from an equally abhorrent industry using animals.

You were working as a city lawyer – how did you become an MP?

When I was a lawyer it was a nightmare in terms of my diet. We had to go to all these posh restaurants for client lunches and they were always French – everything had cheese or butter in it! I joined Labour in 1992 after the party lost the election, with no intention of running for parliament, but gradually I felt I could make a contribution.

What impact does your veganism have on
your politics?

Animal welfare, environmental issues and food waste are all very important to me and I think that stems from my veganism. When I made my maiden speech I mentioned two of my predecessors, Tony Benn and Stafford Cripps, both of whom were vegetarian and teetotal like me. I chickened out of saying I was vegan, as I didn't want to be labelled too much as I thought it might lead to an issue with me not being taken seriously on other issues.

Sustainability is something that has become important to you, hasn't it?

It's an issue that the more you get into it the more frightening it becomes. I did a debate in parliament, which was where I outed myself as a vegan MP, on the environmental impact of the livestock sector – when you look at deforestation for land used to grow grain to feed cattle it's alarming. I didn't get a very good response from the Labour minister at all and when I did a debate on veganism last year the response was massively hostile.

What happened?

It was ridiculous! Normally in these late-night debates it's you and the minister in the chamber, but this time there were about two whips and a government minister basically jeering. I listed the three arguments for veganism – which are ethical, environmental and health – in as informative a way as possible, but they all just rolled their eyes and felt like I was attacking them.

There is a cliché that parliament is rather like a boarding school – this sounds like an example.

It's probably not as bad as it was; there are more women, but there's certainly very much that element. It's a mix of the boarding school and the bar culture, so it's a bit like a working man's club too. Caroline Lucas [Green MP] discussed introducing Meat Free Monday to the Commons just recently and the likes of Nicholas Soames were horrified!

I find it interesting that you use language like 'outing' yourself as a vegan. Did it really feel like that and how have your constituents reacted?

Yes, I was nervous but I've not had any negative reactions. The local paper wanted to take me to visit a butcher to find out if he'd still vote for me, but I pointed out to them that he was a Lib Dem councillor, so it was pretty unlikely! Lots of vegans have written to me and I've not had an issue at all. It helps being in Bristol; aside from Brighton, it's the biggest vegan area I know.

And this year you'll be hosting a vegan evening at the Commons – what do you have planned?

Well, last year we were giving away vegan cupcakes made by an amazing woman called Ms Cupcake. We had all these researchers coming along pretending to be interested for a few minutes, just so they could nick a cupcake! I think we might have to restrict it to MPs this year – they were all miffed we'd run out – but we just want to raise the issue. We'll certainly be better than the canteen in the Commons; the vegan menu is better than it was, but it's fair to say they don't have the mindset of 'let's make this something as many people as possible can eat'. There's normally a vegan soup... I'm not selling it, am I!

Cathy Jamieson

Cathy Jamieson had an unorthodox journey into politics. After studying fine art at Glasgow University she became an art therapist, which led her to become a social worker. She stood for Scottish Parliament in 1999. The Labour member for Kilmarnock & Loudoun has campaigned against extreme pornography and also attracted media attention when she spoke out against the sale of Buckfast, a tonic wine which has become associated with underage drinkers in Scotland. This led to reports that teenagers chanted 'Don't ban Buckie' at the MP (more on this later), who has been vegan since 1996.

Why did you become vegan?

I had been vegetarian for a long time for ethical reasons; I felt there was no need to eat meat. Becoming vegan was partly ethical but it was also about my health. I found dairy produce didn't agree with me and I felt the diet would be much better for me. Also, I don't see any requirement to use animal products.

Has it gone on to affect your political views?

Certainly the issue of food poverty and hunger globally meant vegetarianism made a lot of sense to me. Going on to be vegan, it made me look at the environmental issues and think of the products I was buying. I looked and even saw how things like cleaning products contained animal derivatives.

Were you always open about your veganism or were you concerned it could affect you as an MP? Kerry talked about 'outing' herself as a vegan.

I was vegan before I came into politics so I just always told people. It's not been a huge issue; people ask me about it but by and large they have no problem with it. My constituents are very understanding and when I go to an event there is always something like fruit rather than squashy cakes. They never complain or question it, they understand.

Is it as welcoming in the Commons?

I've recently been having some serious discussions with the caterers. They changed their supplier for sandwiches and there's no vegan option and the salads aren't always labelled. I've had a helpful series of exchanges with the staff.

Has the response been as adult from your peers in the chamber?

I have been surprised at the response.
When Kerry had her debate on World Vegan Day I thought the response showed a lack of understanding about veganism and was frankly hostile. I didn't expect to experience that – I've never even had that from people in the dairy or farming industry, so I was surprised and I thought it was really disappointing.

What's the issue? Surely the public health arguments relating to the impact of eating lots of saturated fat or the impact of intensive farming on the environment are well established?

Well, if you have followed vegetarian lifestyles this stuff isn't new, but it was a wake-up call to me that we can't take it for granted that people understand all
those arguments.

Clearly there are still significant problems with public health in Scotland relating to alcohol and diet. This has gone on for decades – why do you think that is?

I think the Scottish diet developed around what people could afford and it was about big solid meals. When I was education minister we introduced free fruit and I met kids that had never had fruit before, partly because of cost and partly because of availability. There's an issue of people's habits and there have been a lot of campaigns to change this. We still have a long way to go; I think a lot of it is educational and the other is actually having fruit and veg that's affordable.

Your campaign about Buckfast – is it true you were surrounded by kids chanting 'Don't ban Buckie'?

It's absolute nonsense! What actually happened was that I got complaints about local shops selling Buckfast and they asked me to get it taken off the shelves, which I did. That turned into a rumour that I was waging war on the alcohol industry or one brand, but it was about young people who were drinking to excess – but the urban myths are quite funny.

What would be your party trick if Vegetarian Living was coming for dinner?

It would involve lentils, mushrooms and wholegrain rice. My usual joke is that rather than chocolate, that combo is my comfort food after a hard day, normally curried. You may wish to sleep alone…!

Chris Williamson

Chris Williamson became a vegan in the mid-70s – a bold move for a teenager working as a bricklayer in Derby. He went on to lead the city's council but was always interested in animal rights: he was chair of the League Against Cruel Sports and became an active hunt saboteur. He eventually became an MP in 2010 and is shadow minister for communities and local government.

Veganism was hardly well known in the 70s – what led you to it?

Spike Milligan. I was watching an interview on Parkinson and he talked about why he was vegetarian and on the show there was also this French gourmet who was talking about the delights of foie gras. He was trying to ridicule Spike, but Spike wiped the floor with him and I was really inspired. His motivation and explanation for vegetarianism was spot on and chimed with me. Veganism was the next logical step. There were far fewer vegans then and in restaurants there were very few veggie alternatives – even packets of biscuits always had animal fat in them.

Did you speak to the other brickies about it?

Yes, of course, and their reaction was to take the p***! But some of them listened and I think they respected me for taking that stance. I stopped drinking when I was 17, gave up smoking when I was 18 and was 19 when I became vegetarian. I never saw it as a chore, it was just part of me and it had a big impact. Having to be so disciplined was good for me and I guess it may have made me more resolute in other areas of my life. I think being vegan makes you more aware and compassionate, but also I've personally enjoyed very good health my entire life and that's down to my vegan diet.

Having campaigned for the League Against Cruel Sports from 1979 for a ban on hunting, how concerned are you that it may be repealed?

I'm not complacent but I don't think it will happen. There are enough rebel Tory MPs who are opposed to blood sports to defeat any attempt in this parliament and the further away we get from that legislation the more out of touch I think it would appear for hunting to be reintroduced. Opinion polls show the vast majority of the public just don't want it, so I don't think it's tenable. My focus now is on the Gun, Smoke and Mirrors campaign about the bird-shooting industry, where millions of birds are reared in factory conditions and then released a day or two before the shoot. They're not wild, they're not eaten and many of them die an awful lingering death.

How much impact do you think campaigns like World Vegan Month really have?

It's limited, but it's useful because it does draw attention to the issue and gives you a case for a debate. I'm sceptical about how much impact it really has asking people to write to their MPs, but it certainly can't hurt and if the issue starts getting raised then it increases awareness. It's a long haul, this campaign, but it's good if it helps to inform thinking. Also, for me, if it leads a few people to think about the benefits of the lifestyle, it's got a place.

You were in the chamber when Kerry McCarthy stated the case for veganism and was faced with hostility. How aware do you think your fellow MPs are of the argument for not using animal products?

There is a great deal of ignorance but I think that is a reflection of the wider public; certainly, when I talk to people their knowledge of veganism is very limited. It was pretty depressing that debate; people had stayed behind to poke fun and make comments so there is a very big job to do. I would love to wave a magic wand to make the whole world vegan tomorrow, but it's a long haul and I think it's important the argument is put. While they didn't display any understanding in the chamber, I got the impression it was the first time they'd been exposed to many of the arguments, so it's useful to try to focus their attention a bit.
I think veganism is vital to the survival of the planet. There's a lot of attention on emissions from industry yet the impact of the livestock industry is far more problematic. The arguments I put now focus more on sustainability and public health than animal welfare. I keep saying vegans will inherit the earth because 9 billion people can't carry on like this.

Are you optimistic then?

Yes, very. The difference in attitude towards meat consumption over my lifetime is huge. People are cutting down and they understand the argument much more that it's vital for the survival of the planet that we move this way. I think public attitudes are changing outside of parliament and that will feed into legislative change. It's like smoking – everyone used to smoke everywhere and it seems ludicrous now. Parliament eventually reflected a growing trend by banning smoking in public places and I feel vegans do need to make the case for sustainability and the impact of meat-eating. Your readers may feel like these arguments are stating the obvious, and they are, but over time things improve. In the late 70s we were eating packets of mashed potato!

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