When values are rejected, a man seems no better than a dog

Back from a fortnight in Washington DC, and I am eager for respite from the fanaticism that runs deep in the American soul. I have seen smokers sent out in sub-zero temperature to puff outside an office or a home, and then hauled over the hot coals of leader articles and feature pieces for their sinful addiction. I have witnessed puritans casting stones at the Reverend Jesse Jackson for fathering a love child, and heard them hissing venom about flesh-pot temptations. Ah to be back in England, where the fanatic gleam has been civilised into a cold look under a raised eyebrow.

And then you read about the war being waged on Huntingdon Life Sciences and all thought of British civility is snuffed out. One employee of the animal-testing company had ammonia sprayed in his eyes by an anti-vivisection protester; colleagues received hate mail and heard animal rights activists threaten their children; lab scientists are living in bunker-style conditions within headquarters, and lying about the nature of their work once they're outside.

The intimidation goes hand in hand with propaganda - which is now also spread through the internet - that shows mice, beagles, marmosets being shaved for X-rays, having catheters inserted into their throats, or being force-fed intravenously. Unpleasant, undignified ordeals - but the very same that human beings must submit to when they are suffering from a seriously debilitating disease. Yet the animal rights activists don't spare them a thought; they never acknowledge that often these invalids' only hope lies in the experiments being carried out on animals.

In the world according to these tyrants, we are to weep for the furry little pup who is squealing under the lab scientist's probe, but ignore the pain of the leukaemia sufferer who could be saved by the procedure that induces those squeals. This inversion of the proper hierarchy of our concerns reveals a far from civilised view of life that ranks soft-toy lookalikes above children. It is a view that drags us back to primitive societies where virgins would be sacrificed to the deified bull, or to the Native Americans who regarded a buffalo as divine but a squaw as disposable.

The trouble at Huntingdon Life Sciences is a consequence of our moral anarchy. We overthrew the traditional Judaeo-Christian order which taught us that although God made all living things, in His eyes, man comes before mouse. What have we replaced it with? The answer is nothing: we have established no order of our own. In our new inchoate universe, everything and everyone is value-free - unless they boast money or celebrity, or can lead to the attainment of either. This has allowed the activists - who, Aesop-like, attribute human characteristics and emotions to their animals - to convince us that man is truly indistinguishable from dog.

This blurring of priorities appeals to the Walt Disney sentimentality that has replaced morality in our trendy, postmodern world. It is a blurring that is all too obvious in our politics as well. Brian Cass, the managing director of Huntingdon Life Sciences, criticises the government and Tony Blair (whom he rubbishes as a "bastard") for being "liverish" before the animal rights movement.

But it's not just fear of losing the votes of the animal lovers that led this government to take up the hunting bill and let down the embattled animal-testing company; it is a deep confusion over priorities. New Labour overthrew the old Labour hierarchy of truths (whereby redistribution was more important than the dubious egalitarianism of cronies stuffing the House of Lords); in the vacuum that ensued, causes have become interchangeable, so that banning a fox hunt becomes as important - nay, more important - than battling poverty; and the dispossessed gain no more support from No 10 than the fat cats of big business.

These priorities may not be off-message, but they are off the wall. No wonder that, today, a marmoset's squealing is more important than a child's suffering.

This article first appeared in the 29 January 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of Mandelson