Richard North, 06/06/2016  

Looking at the crop of train-wreck interviews on television this Sunday, we can only be thankful that most normal people are not glued to their televisions during the day. Some of the Muppet quotient dribbles out into the print media, and much ends up on the internet, there to be ignored by the majority but laboured over by the political wonks. 

Again though, we see biff-bam politics, with John Major taking a free hit at Vote Leave's own goal on the £350 million lie, telling Andrew Marr that: "What they have done ... is feed out to the British people a whole galaxy of inaccurate and frankly untrue information," adding: "I think their campaign is verging on the squalid".

One should be able to swat Major away with ease, a point clinically made by Sam Hooper. But Vote Leave is so compromised by its own stupidity that even the likes of Marr was able to dismiss Mr Johnson's increasingly absurd claims without even waiting for a denial. The only people insisting that the £350 million weekly payment is right are the top Vote Leave spokesmen.

Johnson is still bleating about 2,500 new EU regulations being produced each year, with "red tape" costing £600 million a week – yet another completely fictitious figure.

Yet again we get the man-child affirming that Vote Leave wants us to leave the Single Market but most of what he has to say is just pure dribble. This is television fodder – not meant for the real world. Rightly, Major describes Johnson as a "court jester" – not that the man is in the remotest bit funny. He prattles, fills time and we move on.

We always said it would come to this. As Vote Leave increasingly departs from reality (not that it ever really had any grip), and the "remains" indulge in ever more vacuous rhetoric, what seems to be happening is that people, increasingly disillusioned with the official campaigns, are walking away from them and looking elsewhere for their information. They have come to the same conclusion , our bloggers have, that the legacy campaigners are irrelevant.

This was seen in the Scottish referendum, where vibrant debates were being played out, entirely unrelated to the official campaign and completely under the radar of the media and politicians. The debate went underground.

It is difficult to quantify this phenomenon, as there is not one debate but many. And while the pundits are watching the social media, this is by no means the full extent of the game. The classic forum is still a huge repository of debate and so are e-mail lists, mechanisms by which millions share their views away from what the media like to call the "mainstream".

Not only that, but the subjects which are being discussed are very different from the stuff the media are obsessing about. We see real world issues being addressed, such as the effect on Brexit on the environment and – crucially for hundreds of thousands if not millions – its effect on farm animal welfare. This is something my own daughter Emma is passionate about and she alerted me to the debate that is currently raging.

Looking at this issue, one place to go is the Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) and, interestingly, on 7 March of this year its website was remarkably neutral - perhaps because it's not in receipt of any serious EU money. It is possible that, as a nation, it said, the UK would have less influence on legislation and policy in the rest of Europe were we to leave the EU. However, it added, "with our significant reach outside the UK, we would continue to act at national, EU and global levels".

Ultimately, CIWF said, "it is clear that both national and international governments need to adopt bold policies to continue raising the base level of animal welfare standards. Regardless of the outcome of the referendum in June, we will continue to campaign and lobby governments at all levels to improve the lives of farmed animals all over the world".

Clearly, this was not good enough for the Guardian. Although it has on occasions used CIWF CEO Philip Lymbery to write for it, on 27 April it got Sam Barker, a financial and property journalist – in the newspaper apparently for the first time – to write a piece stating that "Brexit would be disastrous for Britain’s farm animals".

In his piece, Barker accepts that Britain was the first country to pass any form of protective legislation for farm animals. In 1822, Parliament passed the Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act 1822 which allowed magistrates to penalise any persons convicted of "wantonly and cruelly" beating cattle and (strangely for the title) horses.

Barker also acknowledges that Britain passed many animal welfare laws in the following two centuries but now asserts that "we have become increasingly reliant on Brussels for strong regulations to protect farmed animals". We have "Europe" to thank for Britain getting welfare laws for farmed pigs and chickens, such as banning barren cages for battery hens in 2012 and sow stalls – which kept pigs unable to move for most of their lives – in 2013.

Outside the EU, Barker says, the UK would not be subject to future directives on farmed animal rights. It would not need to keep to previous EU rules that protect farmed animals and it would not increase animal protections. Under pressure from supermarkets and with reduced margins arising from less support, famers might even call for reduced standards.

Thus, we get a litany which is common enough from the Europhile community, tailored for this specific subject. Says Barker: "we really need continued European Union input. Animal rights are too important to be left to our current government, and if Brexit happens then the chances are that rights for farm animals will either stagnate or be whittled away".

So it is that our democratically elected government cannot be trusted with animal welfare and we must rely on the Platonic guardians of Brussels to protect our animals.

But therein is an absolute travesty of an argument. Not only was the UK a pioneer in animal welfare legislation in 1822, this was before most countries in Europe were even countries. And much more was to follow. We got the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1849 and 1854, followed 1876 Act and the Protection of Animals Act 1911.

After the Treaty of Rome but long before we considered joining the EEC, we had the The Slaughter of Animals (Prevention of Cruelty) Regulations 1958 which I was working with 20 years later. We also saw the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1968 which conferred on the Minister significant powers in relation to the welfare of livestock.

We were still making law after we had joined the EEC with The Welfare of Livestock (Cattle and Poultry) Regulations 1974 and The Welfare of Livestock (Intensive Units) Regulations 1978.

Interestingly, one of the EECs first forays into animal welfare was Council Directive 77/489/EEC of 18 July 1977 on the protection of animals during international transport. But this was implementing the Council of Europe's European Convention for the Protection of Animals during International Transport agreed in 1968 and ratified by the UK in 1969, eight years earlier. It was revised in 2003 and remains in force to this day.

In 1978, the EEC adopted the Council of Europe's European Convention for the Protection of Animals Kept for Farming Purposes, which had been agreed by the Council of Europe in 1976 and which was ratified by the UK in 1979. There is also the European Convention for the Protection of Animals for Slaughter agreed in 1979, with which the EU cooperates.

Clearly, animal welfare provisions were not exclusive to the EEC/EU and even less so now when they have assumed a global dimension via the OIE, implemented under the aegis of the WTO, and the FAO via its Gateway to farm animal welfare.

Out of the EU, therefore, the UK would still be party to international agreements and, with a strong history of legislating for animal welfare, even after it joined the EEC, it is absurd to argue that standards would be in any way prejudiced. Our "significant reach" would be maintained.

But argue we must and, behind the scenes, these are exactly the sort of things that are being argued. Vote Leave isn't part of it and, barring the brief foray of the Guardian, media input has been minimal. These though, are the things that matter to real people. And that's where the debate is at.

Johnson, Gove and the others, with the fatuous £350 million a week and their crass, ignorant posturing, really don't matter. They may be on the telly, but they're not even registering in the real world. If we win, it will be in spite of, not because of Vote Leave.

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