On this day 23 years ago the Britsh Union for the Abolition of Vivisection’s EGM descended into mayhem due to a long running dispute between the society’s so-called dissident and modernising wings which split the 12-strong executive committee (EC) down the middle.
Bouncers were hired for security and those without membership details were refused entry. Nevertheless around 1000 members witnessed the moderniser’s attempt to railroad through their proposals, namely to remove the dissidents and introduce proxy voting.
On arrival members were handed leaflets attacking the dissidents. During his opening address the leader of the modernisers and EC chair Dominic Johnson showed footage of animals subjected to experiments. People were in tears and bellowed “turn it off” but Johnson claimed his opponents would render the society ineffective and thus allow animal abuse like this to continue.
He then caused uproar by refusing to put the standing orders to the meeting. A glance at the SOs revealed they had been changed to limit the number of speakers and anyone wishing to speak had first to complete a form with their question.
This blatant breach of procedure invoked fury and when committee member Ralph Cook asked for the SOs to be put to the membership, his microphone was silenced. Johnson then ordered bouncers to eject Cook but BUAV members, including “at least a dozen elderly ladies,” rushed to his defence and “scuffles broke out and coins, teabags and water were thrown over platform speakers, especially Johnson.”
Cook described the proceedings as “like Nuremberg all over again” and left the hall only to burst in a few minutes later. He was wrestled to the ground by security but members rushed to help, enabling him to make his way to the platform where he refused to leave. At this point Johnson called the police, something he’d threatened to do earlier. However when they arrived, instead of removing the dissidents and their supporters, they closed down the meeting.
In context: Conflict between rival factions within the BUAV went back decades but the origins of this dispute arose in the 1980s after the failure of Mobilisation For Laboratory Animals to curtail the government’s new legislation on vivisection. Chastened by their failure in the political arena, many in the leadership stood down but those who replaced them were, if anything, worse.
By the end of the decade most of BUAV’s campaigning was against cosmetics testing, which accounted for just 1% of overall experiments, whilst advocating an annual 10% reduction strategy for the rest. This meant even if successful vivisection would last for another 130 years!
Other changes included dropping the “all” from “Against all animal experiments,” the axing of contact meetings and the cancellation of The Liberator, the only forum for member’s views. Contacts who disagreed with these changes were dismissed.
It was revealed the BUAV wanted to eliminate its membership structure and drop medical campaigning entirely. The same year it sued the National Anti-Vivisection Society for possessing confidential BUAV documents (which had been passed to the former anonymously) and leaks showed the upper echelons discussed a take-over of NAVS to seize its rival’s assets.
Despite a deep recession and declining membership, executive salaries rose sharply. Director Chris Fisher’s increased from £19,000 to £31,000 within 18 months. In May 1992 the EC held a strategy meeting at a hotel costing £1200 despite having spent £85,000 on luxurious offices containing a suite of meeting and conference rooms. Adding insult to injury, John Beggs – his accommodation paid for out of BUAV funds – was too drunk to get up and chair the second day’s proceedings!
In 1993, following a deficit of £250,000, co-director Steve McIvor was given £10,000 in voluntary redundancy, despite three EC members knowing he was moving to highly paid position at the Body Shop. The same year senior management refused to hand over a £12,000 legacy to the Bolton BUAV branch that was rightfully theirs. The money was instead given in an out of court settlement to Shamrock Farm, the notorious breeder of primates for vivisection, following a botched prosecution.
Ordinary members of staff were treated shamefully. The BUAV imposed a new contract of employment on threat of dismissal. It also tore up its trade union agreement, which granted union recognition and the right to negotiate for and represent members. Mat Daly, an ex-worker, said: “These people are promoting animal rights, but union rights seem to go by the board.” Chris Fisher denied union bashing but accused it of “negativity”.
Many members were outraged by these revelations and tried to elect new EC members who would uphold the society’s founding principles. Dominic Johnson, however, introduced a new voting procedure that prevented dissidents gaining a majority. The committee resulting from the 1994 AGM elections was split 50/50 between the rival factions.
When it became clear the two sides couldn’t work together, the dissidents decided to requisition an EGM at their own expense, gaining 100 signatures from members. The management refused it on a “legal technicality” and instead spent £20,000 of BUAV money on malicious mailings, telephone and legal fees in an effort to smear their opponents as “terrorists”.
What happened next: Workers arriving at the BUAV offices on the following Monday found themselves locked out. Five London staff and two regional staff – all suspected supporters of the dissidents – were suspended. Staff were warned not to talk to the press but one said: “It shows they’re in a state of panic. They do not trust their staff unless they have sworn an oath of allegiance to Dominic Johnson’s faction.” Six of the seven staff were sacked after disciplinary hearings, including two who had been with the BUAV for eight years and were highly regarded in the movement.
The ruling faction took legal action and in February 1995 a High Court judge ruled in their favour, allowing a postal vote on proxy voting and the future membership of the EC. Proxy voting had been forbidden under the society’s original constitution because the founders correctly understood it gave enormous power to those in control – access to membership lists and resources, which could be abused to manipulate elections. Requiring members to attend meetings, vote on important decisions and elect committee members meant they were bound to hear views other than those already in charge.
The modernisers under Johnson lost no time in consolidating their position. They scrapped the constitution, replacing it with one they claimed was “revised, modern and more stable” and the local contact network was dissolved, leaving power concentrated in their hands. Even more resources were devoted to opposing cosmetics testing. An initiative called Paradise Lost opposed wild-caught primates flown to Europe – not the use of primates in general – and as a result captive breeding programmes were set up instead. The BUAV became more interested in lobbying the EU than running hard-hitting campaigns.
But by the mid-1990s the grassroots AR movement was growing in confidence following its success in closing two laboratories owned by Boots the Chemist. Networks like the Animal Rights Coalition were mobilising activists in local groups without any assistance from national societies. 1997 was a turning point as Consort beagle breeders went out of business following a determined campaign and Hillgrove cat farm became the next target.
It was also the year an undercover investigation at Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS) caused public outrage when footage of dogs being punched, slapped and abused was shown on Channel 4. A delegation of “representatives from animal protection societies” including the BUAV asked the Home Office for a public inquiry. This was of course refused but the BUAV then found itself on an injunction, alongside radical campaigners. It applied to the High Court which lifted the injunction against it.
The decade from 1997-2007 saw several laboratory animal breeders shut down, the building of a new primate laboratory in Cambridge halted and HLS, the biggest contract testing facility in Europe, brought to its knees. The BUAV had nothing to do with these achievements and was seen as irrelevant by most campaigners. Another attempt to change the society, the BUAV Reform Group, came to nothing but this went unnoticed as the wave of unprecedented success stirred the imagination of a new generation of activists.
All this didn’t go unnoticed, however. The new chief executive, Michelle Thew, became obsessed with Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty, then grabbing all the headlines. She told one of the workers they had to choose between a career with the BUAV or going on SHAC demonstrations. Soon afterwards the employee was sacked.
In 2015 the BUAV ceased to exist. It was merged into Cruelty Free International, which had been set up three years earlier to campaign against cosmetics testing. Such was its lowly status by this stage that most activists never even knew, much less cared, about its fate.