Animal rights, human wrongs

As he takes up his new role at the Food Standards Agency, Colin Blakemore talks about animal rights,

"Ooooooof!" Colin Blakemore is stumped - a rare occurrence indeed. Professor of neuroscience at Oxford and Warwick universities, former chief executive of the Medical Research Council (MRC), the youngest ever Reith lecturer (in 1976) and winner of the Royal Society's Michael Faraday award for public communication of science, Blakemore is not a man known for shying away from controversy or being short for words. He thinks that alcohol and tobacco should be classed as more dangerous than LSD or Ecstasy, and that all drugs should be legalised. Never mind animals (more of which later), he believes human beings should be used as guinea pigs for medical research. He even defended the DNA pioneer James Watson after the Nobel laureate caused a stink with his crass remarks about race and intelligence last year.

But on the question of who in the past ten years has been his favourite health secretary, he cannot form an opinion; or, at least, not one he is prepared to communicate in public. "I'll pass," he says eventually, adding in a mutter combining a dash of sympathy with the suggestion that none of them has been much cop, "It's a very difficult job."

Blakemore is a busy man. He bustles into his office at the Science Museum in South Kensington, rangy limbs sticking like beanpoles out of his trousers (a keen marathon runner, he has the physique to show for it), lopsided smile on a face that has borne too many cares. He's late after being stuck in traffic, but "he's always late", confides his secretary, and no wonder.

On top of jobs at Oxford and Warwick, Blakemore has just started as chair of the new general advisory committee on science at the Food Standards Agency (FSA). The previous day, the Health Protection Agency asked him to chair another committee on electromagnetic fields - "radiation, mobile phones, power lines, all that controversial stuff". He is to give a lecture that evening for which he has to prepare, as well as write two articles on cannabis the same afternoon. And he is just about to jet off to Singapore, where he leads the government's Neuroscience Research Partnership.

"My life is overfull!" he exclaims. "I probably said yes to too many things when I left the MRC." But whatever he does for the rest of his life, Colin Blakemore will always be known as the scientist who stood up for vivisection. After his departure from the MRC last year, he had the unenviable distinction of being the only person to have left that position without a knighthood. In 2003 it came out that he had been turned down for a "K" because of his past work on animals, which had led to breakthroughs in preventing childhood blindness. He threatened to resign unless the government made clear it supported scientists engaged in animal research, which the then science minister, David Sainsbury, duly did.

There was still no knighthood, though. The finger of suspicion landed on Sir Richard Mottram, the Whitehall mandarin infamous for his indelicate response to the resignation of Stephen Byers ("I'm f*****. You're f*****. The whole department's f*****"). Mottram chaired the committee thought to have blocked Blakemore's nomination, which provided convenient cover for ministers. "In a letter to a colleague, Tony Blair was firm that the government didn't control the process," says Blakemore, with a dry chuckle. Of course not.

But this was no one-off. Blakemore has been passed over at least five times now, the last occasion being the 2008 New Year Honours list. "People tell me that every time it's been on the grounds of my involvement in animal research and the controversy [an award would cause] in public." When the Animal Liberation Front threatened a series of attacks on Oxford later this year, to coincide with the opening of a new facility housing all the university's animal testing labs, Blakemore's name inevitably came up. "The implication was that I would be the target," he says. "But I don't have a licence any more. I haven't worked on animals for five years and don't intend to, not because I'm changing my views on the legitimacy of it but because it would have been impossible to sustain while I was at the MRC. So I would be particularly pissed off," he half laughs, half shouts, "if I became the number-one target again."

Incendiary devices

The bitterness of his humour is unsurprising. Incendiary and nail bombs have been sent to his home in Oxford by animal liberation terrorists. On one occasion his children (he has three daughters) opened one; fortunately it failed to explode. Packages have to go through an X-ray machine before they can be accepted in the house, which is fitted with panic buttons, triple locks and a safe room. Mobs have smashed windows and tried to break down doors. Still Blakemore speaks out.

He is particularly withering about the animal rights phil osophy of Peter Singer, which has provided a veneer of intellectual respectability to campaigns of violence. "Of course animals don't have rights," he says. "Where would they come from? We bestow rights on them, but they don't know about them, they don't earn them, by their own behaviour they don't acknowledge them." In terms of equality of suffering and entitlement, he says, "Where do you draw the line?" If not between humans and animals, then where? "In Animal Liberation, Singer says it's somewhere between a rat and a flounder. What's wrong with flounders? The answer is that they don't look like people. It's reverting to a very shallow anthropomorphism." I mention that another philosopher, Roger Scruton, used to have a pig called Singer; and that, chez Scruton, I once dined on sausages made from the deceased animal (he tasted rather good). Blakemore looks dubious. "I know Roger. I don't think I'm in quite the same territory as him," he says, leaning forward and twisting his legs uncomfortably round the side of a large armchair.

He prefers to reframe the whole debate, to talk of responsibilities, rather than rights. "The reason why I don't mistreat my own cat is not because it has some kind of rights. It's because I try to be a decent person. Our primary responsibility is to our own species. As for, say, mosquitoes, do we have responsibilities to them? No. Do you swat them? Of course. They don't have rights. They're bloody awful, carriers of disease. None of this, ah, pseudo-Buddhism."

Moral justification

So far, so solid: not a hint of retreat. But Blakemore goes even further in his defence of animal testing (for medical and scientific research only; he has long supported a ban on animal testing for cosmetics). "Of all the things humans do to animals - eating, looking at them in circuses, hunting - the one area which is the most highly regulated and is not aimed at pleasure is the most vilified. The one area that tries to improve the state of humans and animals is research. You could make the case that it's the most noble thing we do to animals. If their use in research benefits people, that is much more morally justifiable than eating animals for pleasure." So, does he? "In general, I don't eat mammals." He wouldn't touch factory-farmed chicken? "I try to avoid it, but how can you if you're at a restaurant? I wouldn't be fanatical about it." Would he wear a fur coat? "Keeping mink in decent conditions, killing them painlessly and then using their fur doesn't appal me.

"I know a fair number of animal researchers who are vegetarians," he adds and mentions a pro-animal research march he attended in Oxford. Among the thousands of scientists and members of the public was a group with a "Vegetarians for Animal Research" banner. "There's no inconsistency," he insists.

Blakemore is very straightforward, and is unbothered about the motives of supermarkets stocking healthier ranges of food and agreeing to indicate fat and sugar content on labels. "What matters is whether it's done or not." Although a self-proclaimed "old left-wing libertarian", he has no problem with using taxes as a device to steer behaviour. "I think it's well established. I mean, I'm sure the Treasury wouldn't have said that they would have been opposed to the smoking ban if it turned out that they'd have lost lots of revenue from tax. That would have been tantamount to encouraging smokers."

Then he reveals something very interesting: it turns out that the Treasury did consider this factor. "They did do an analysis of the impact of the smoking ban. Very conveniently for the government, they discovered that over a ten-year timescale, the gain, in terms of benefit to the health service, would outweigh the costs they lost." Being a no-nonsense consequentialist, he doesn't seem overly troubled by the implications. Others can only wonder what would have happened if Prudence had found herself in conflict with principle, and what this says about the government's real attitude to public health.

Where Blakemore is an idealist is when it comes to the NHS and state education. I ask him if he would disapprove of any MP or government minister going private. There is a very long pause, which I take to mean yes. "I've never had private health care, I must say," he begins. "If you're a very busy politician, then ahhh" - he sounds as though he's desperately trying to think of some attenuating circumstances - "you could argue that your time is of more use to the country than the principle of you waiting for NHS treatment. I would just say that it's unfortunate to have to make that choice."

Volunteers wanted

A working-class grammar school boy who won a state scholarship to Cambridge, Blakemore has a confession to make: he sent his children to public school. "I still suffer pangs of guilt about that," he says, looking tormented by remorse even though this must have been some time ago - he is 63 and he met his wife, Andrée, when they were both 15. "Although I'm quite sure it was the best thing to do - not the right thing but the best thing," he stresses. "It was against all my principles."

Despite this lapse, Blakemore is such a believer in the institutions of state provision that he thinks people should volunteer for medical trials currently being carried out on animals (it would cut the time and cost of new drugs). He has said this should be considered "just as much a part of the contract of the NHS as paying your National Insurance so that you can access it". "If only people could see it's in their interests," he says, "we could certainly have a cheaper health service if we committed to playing that part in research."

His enthusiasm for the NHS as a grand project in which we all share, participation in which is in itself virtuous, is rather thrilling. His keenness that we should all undergo testing and risk the fate of the six men who almost died at Northwick Park Hospital two years ago, on the other hand, is slightly unnerving. Reference to that incident prompts a reproach. "The very fact it was front-page news gives you a sense of how rare it is."

So what can we expect from Professor Blakemore in his new role at the FSA? If not legislation, certainly intervention. "The state has the right to intervene if there is a burden on the taxpayer from the consequences of individuals doing silly things with their lives and their health." The number of people with severe weight problems "certainly affects the health service. It's going to affect the economy. We should all feel that we carry a burden because of the epidemic of obesity."

Off he goes, ready to fight another battle. He reminds me of the type of teacher that used to be found in those schools he feels so bad about sending his daughters to: strict but encouraging, clever, certain of the benefits of a cross-country run, and with a slight cussed streak that speaks to a deep sense of duty and purpose. No doubt there were one or two at his old grammar. A man of old-fashioned values, that's what Blakemore is. It's good to be reminded of those from time to time.

Blakemore:the CV

1944 Born 1 June in Stratford-upon-Avon. Educated at King Henry VIII School, Coventry

1962 Wins state scholarship to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, to read natural sciences

1968 Gets doctorate in physiological optics at University of California, Berkeley

1976 Reith lecturer on "Mechanics of the Mind"

1979 Appointed Waynflete Professor of Physiology, Oxford

1989 Awarded Royal Society's Michael Faraday Prize

1992 Co-founds Boyd Group, a think tank on animal research

1997 On World Day for Lab Animals, 300 activists surround his home in Oxford

2001-2004 Chairman, British Association for the Advancement of Science

2003-2007 Chief executive, Medical Research Council

Research by Aditi Charanji

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 03 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Gas gangsters