Is Kosher still kosher?

When it comes to animal welfare, should secular standards trump religious scruples?

The lower house of the Dutch parliament has voted by a large majority to ban the slaughter of animals without prior electric stunning, as practised by religiously observant Jews and Muslims. The Netherlands would not be the first European country to have such a law -- it is already banned in Sweden, Norway and Switzerland -- but the vote has inevitably reopened the debate on the balance that any modern society must strike between common standards and the rights of minorities to maintain their own traditions.

The debate is perhaps especially fierce in Holland, a country that has long been at the forefront of liberal modernity but which has more recently seen deep and ugly divisions on questions of immigration and culture. Last week saw the acquittal of Geert Wilders on charges of inciting religious hatred through his strongly expressed condemnation of Islam. The vote on banning ritual slaughter has been compared by the country's Chief Rabbi to Nazi legislation that began with the closing of kosher abbatoirs and ended with the Holocaust.

The comparison seems exaggerated, even offensive. But then Hitler was famously a vegetarian. Concern for animal welfare has not always gone hand-in-hand with love of human beings or the promotion of human rights. Even if -- as I strongly believe -- increasing concern about the treatment of other animals is a mark of a more civilised society, it doesn't necessarily follow that those promoting new rules act from disinterested motives.

For many people, the question is purely and simply one of reducing -- so far as is possible -- the pain and suffering of the animals being killed for food. The best scientific evidence suggests that pre-stunning animals is more humane than the religiously-decreed alternative of slitting their throats while still conscious, and that should be the end of the matter. It is widely accepted, after all, that even in a tolerant and religiously plural society some practices are off limits. There's no prospect of allowing female genital mutilation, for example, or child marriage, or the ritual use of illegal drugs. There's even a growing debate about the morality of cicumcising baby boys.

By and large, religious leaders accept that exemptions cannot be demanded as of right, or purely on the grounds of tradition and strongly held belief, but that they must pay lip-service at least to secularism. It's not enough to say simply, "This is what God has ordained". If religious slaughter were demonstrably cruel -- not merely less humane, but mandated that animals be slowly tortured to death or roasted while still alive -- then the argument would have ended long ago. In fact, before the introduction of prior stunning there was little or any distinction, in terms of animal suffering, between religious and non-religious slaughter.

The question thus is whether the religious should be forced to take on board the modern advance of electric stunning if they are to continue to eat meat. The change may in fact be easier for Muslims than for Jews, since some interpretations of Islamic law allow animals to be stunned before being killed. The practice is widespread in New Zealand, where for largely commercial reasons almost all meat is now halal. But Jewish law has historically been flexible, and one should never underestimate the ingenuity of rabbis.

The aim of both kosher and halal butchers -- they claim -- has always been to dispatch the animal in as swift and merciful a manner as possible. God, they would argue, would not have ordained a needlessly cruel death for his creatures. And this is, of course, the stated purpose of modern, secular, animal welfare regulations. Of course, being modern and secular the regulations invoke science rather than God, but the motivation is similar. One might almost call it religious.

Instead of crying religious discrimination, should the rabbis and imams not rather be grateful to the scientists for helping them to fulfil the deeper purpose behind their commandments more faithfully?

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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The Liberal Democrats are back - and the Tories should be worried

A Liberal revival could do Theresa May real damage in the south.

There's life in the Liberal Democrats yet. The Conservative majority in Witney has been slashed, with lawyer and nominative determinism case study Robert Courts elected, but with a much reduced majority.

It's down in both absolute terms, from 25,155 to 5,702, but it's never wise to worry too much about raw numbers in by-elections. The percentages tell us a lot more, and there's considerable cause for alarm in the Tory camp as far as they are concerned: the Conservative vote down from 60 per cent to 45 per cent.

(On a side note, I wouldn’t read much of anything into the fact that Labour slipped to third. It has never been a happy hunting ground for them and their vote was squeezed less by the Liberal Democrats than you’d perhaps expect.)

And what about those Liberal Democrats, eh? They've surged from fourth place to second, a 23.5 per cent increase in their vote, a 19.3 swing from Conservative to Liberal, the biggest towards that party in two decades.

One thing is clear: the "Liberal Democrat fightback" is not just a hashtag. The party has been doing particularly well in affluent Conservative areas that voted to stay in the European Union. (It's worth noting that one seat that very much fits that profile is Theresa May's own stomping ground of Maidenhead.)

It means that if, as looks likely, Zac Goldsmith triggers a by-election over Heathrow, the Liberal Democrats will consider themselves favourites if they can find a top-tier candidate with decent local connections. They also start with their by-election machine having done very well indeed out of what you might call its “open beta” in Witney. The county council elections next year, too, should be low hanging fruit for 

As Sam Coates reports in the Times this morning, there are growing calls from MPs and ministers that May should go to the country while the going's good, calls that will only be intensified by the going-over that the PM got in Brussels last night. And now, for marginal Conservatives in the south-west especially, it's just just the pressure points of the Brexit talks that should worry them - it's that with every day between now and the next election, the Liberal Democrats may have another day to get their feet back under the table.

This originally appeared in Morning Call, my daily guide to what's going on in politics and the papers. It's free, and you can subscribe here. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.