It was the loudest, liveliest and most youthful demo I've been on in a long time. Its demands were progressive - in defence of "science, reason and the welfare of mankind", no less. And yet the left was nowhere to be seen. There weren't any of those SWP placards that usually cluster around the merest sneeze of protest, and no veterans of 1970s splits bickering on the sidelines over whose position was most correct. It was a left-free zone.
That is because it was the demonstration to defend the building of a research laboratory at the University of Oxford, where experiments will be conducted on animals. And when it comes to animal research, the left keeps a cowardly silence or, worse, pitches its tent on the wrong side of the barricade.
Saturday's demo was organised by Pro-Test, the brainchild of Laurie Pycroft, a 16-year-old boy from Swindon, who thinks it is time that progressives stood up to the animal-rights activists. About 700 people - students, academics, mums with sick kids and others - marched to the half-built lab, chanting catchy slogans such as: "Animal testing cures disease/Human beings before chimpanzees".
"Without experiments on animals we wouldn't have penicillin, insulin, heart transplant surgery or even painkillers," said Emma, 20, a chemistry student. She was handing out a leaflet entitled Animal Research: the facts to counter, she said, the perception that scientists are "wicked men in white coats" who get a kick from "rubbing shampoo into bunny rabbits' eyes". A group of English students was there to "defend scientific progress, which benefits all of us".
You would have needed a hard heart not to be moved by the mother of a disabled child who made a speech saying it was time the public - most of whom benefit from animal research - came to the defence of the scientists. James Panton, a politics lecturer, said the demo was about more than medical research: it was about "defending progress" against the idea that there is "no moral difference between humans and animals".
Some on the left refuse to get involved because they say animal research is geared to boosting the profits of drugs companies. What a cop-out. The vast majority of scientists (and their students, judging by the demo) who experiment on animals are driven by the desire to cure disease. By pointing the finger at drugs company bosses, the left not only opts out of this cutting-edge clash between human progress and "animal rights"; it also allows drugs companies to
pose as champions of progress.
There was a counter-demo by animal-rights activists, and the difference between the two was striking. The pro-testing protest was organised and mostly made up of fresh-faced students; there was an air of open debate and a palpable sense of positivity. The anti-testing protest consisted mostly of forty- and fiftysomethings, some of whom looked weary. Their placards spoke of fear and suspicion of scientists, and humanity. "We live in a world of deceit: don't believe the scientists' lies," said one.
It was hard to resist the conclusion that the anti-testing demo was a reflection of the state of the old left, drowning in cynicism and moral relativism, while the pro-testing demo was new and surprising, an attempt by forward-looking young people to define themselves as progressive and humane. The left has been left behind.
Brendan O'Neill is deputy editor of spiked (www.spiked-online.com)