Against All Odds: Arc Print and the war on the Animal Liberation Front

It’s September 1986, a benefit gig for the ALF Supporters Group (ALF SG) is taking place in a squat not too far from Kings Cross in London, and the punk band Rubella Ballet has brought hordes of its fans to the packed venue. A tall lanky man with dark hair turns up carrying a box of books for the information stall.  His name is John Page and the book is Against All Odds.

AAO was different to other publications that were around. Nowadays it looks primitive but at the time it marked a major step forward in terms of production with a striking yellow cover depicting a beagle being liberated. Most publications from grassroots organizations then were of extremely poor quality by today’s standards. This by contrast was properly printed, 116 pages in length and even had an ISBN number.

What was Arc Print? According to one of its flyers it was: “An animal rights organisation which prints leaflets principally for local animal rights groups; publishes booklets for the animal rights movement; and constantly addresses the issues of tactics, theory and direction.”  Behind Arc Print were John Page and Jane Holgate.

The same leaflet gives a chronology for the group, it was founded in January 1985 in Manchester “as a result of the needs of the Holcombe Hunt Action Group” and in August it purchased a 25-year-old offset litho printer “to produce leaflets for local groups throughout the Northwest.”

AAO was Arc’s first publication and in general it’s an impressive analysis of direct action against vivisection from the early 1970s to mid 1980s. It asserts direct action has provided “victories, be it a handful of animals rescued…exposing the reality of vivisection or by causing extensive damage to the machinery of animal abuse”(pg 111).

However the main theme running through the book is how the ALF lost its way and “a cult of militancy arose.” It blames “hardliners” behind the ALF Supporters Group for alienating “large sections of the movement and consequently the public because of their growing contempt for anyone not involved in ALF actions” (pg 112).  National societies like the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV) are also attacked for their “liberal” view of society based on parliamentary democracy, which ignores “the role of the state in protecting the interests and profits of the ruling class.” (pg 111).

On page 109 it says: “We need to build a strong effective movement based on economic sabotage against large centres of animal abuse…There are a few large laboratories in this country but, with carefully planned raids, many of these places could be put out of action for many months, resulting in large scale disruption and uncertainty for those who control vivisection, millions of pounds of lost revenue and the saving of many thousands of animal’s lives.”

Why John and Jane moved 200 miles south to London isn’t clear. The city was home to several national groups including the BUAV but it was hardly a hotbed of animal rights activism.

Perhaps they had fallen out with fellow activists in the north. No matter which group they joined, they ended up either leaving it or getting thrown out due to their need to be in control. In fact their printing press and car had been paid for by the ALF SG but they then left that group too.

I had direct experience working alongside them in Islington Animal Rights. Jane and John lived in the adjoining borough of Hackney and in 1987 they became part of the group. Initially they brought a lot: printing a range of different leaflets, proposing separating planning from campaign meetings and also holding meetings with speakers from other organizations. This led to the group’s revival with higher turnout at meetings and a Living Without Cruelty vegan fair, attended by over 1000 mainly local people.

They also cooperated with another group I was part of, London Greenpeace. The group’s main campaign was against McDonald’s and for the day of action in October they printed over 50,000 leaflets for 17 local groups.

In January 1988 they left Islington AR partly because they encountered resistance but also because they had bigger fish to fry. Co-ordinating Animal Welfare, an umbrella network for local groups, had been reactivated and published its first bulletin “in association with Arc Print” in April 1988.

CAW was the brainchild of indefatigable activists from Bristol but from the start the control freakery of Jane and John was to the fore. The first editorial said: “CAW has not been established to provide a captive audience for random discussion. CAW meetings have an agenda and a purpose, we therefore do not have time to entertain speakers who are neither in support of the aims of CAW, nor interested in the discussions on the agenda.”

The second bulletin saw “a major analytical article” by Arc Print entitled Broad Based Groups, which set out Jane and John’s strategy for the movement.  This developed themes originally found in AAO.

After 10 years of Thatcherism, the political and social climate was grim for humans as well as animals: “We are living in a period where the tide of humanity is on the way out. The animal rights movement is not capable in isolation of wrestling significant parliamentary reforms in a dark period of reaction.”

The solution was to build “a mass movement based on broad opposition to animal cruelty which is innate in almost every human being.”  Only this could “challenge the vast corporations and powerful institutions who maintain animal abuse.” 

Three examples given were the Hunt Saboteurs Association, “which drew in large numbers of new and enthusiastic campaigners,” local AR groups and the Liberation Leagues such as Northern Animal Liberation League (NALL) in the eighties.  These campaigns “were not based on animal rights purism,” their aim was to recruit people who would “learn and adopt animal rights principles as they go along.”

CAW was a “coordinating body based around local group campaigning” whose primary objective was to build “broad based local animal rights groups…to recruit and organise everyone in their area who is opposed to animal cruelty.” Meat eaters and even anglers should be welcomed because once inside the group they can be educated “about all forms of animal abuse.” The aim was “an active animal rights movement recruiting directly from the public.”

Jane and John repeated the attacks made in AAO against a “tiny minority of ALF supporters” of backing the Animal Rights Militia. However they conceded the ARM was widely believed to be “a highly successful dirty tricks campaign, either by the animal abuse industries themselves, the Economic League or Special Branch.”

By contrast the Liberation Leagues, especially  NALL – “a locally based campaigning group which involved itself in low-level direct action” – were credited with rapidly advancing the movement. But when those groups folded “the animal rights movement was severely shaken by the collapse in local organisation.”

Another article in the Bulletin gives a clear insight into Jane and John’s political beliefs:  Where power lies – a socialist perspective.  The Tory Party is “the representative of the ruling class, they not only own the vivisection laboratories and factory farms, the grouse moors and the countryside over which they hunt, they also control the legislative and judicial process”. The Labour Party, meanwhile, offers “an alternative capitalist party, not an alternative to capitalism, and therefore not an alternative to the use of animals in industry to fuel company profits.”

The alternative is the creation of a classless society by the working class seizing control of the means of production.  Socialism would remove factory farming and  vivisection at a stroke because they only exist to accumulate profit. The lesson is:

“Political campaigning should not be about trying to impress or influence those who are currently in power. It is about aligning ourselves with the working class who have the ability to otherthrow the profit system and with it the overwhelming reason for animal abuse.” Examples include donating vegan food to striking workers and pet food for the striker’s pets. 

When the next CAW Bulletin appeared it no longer had any association with Arc Print. John and Jane had flown the nest once again.  What caused their rift with CAW is uncear but it might have been an article called BUAV v ARC which went into great length about a dispute over a loan from the BUAV to the Manchester Animal Fund, when Jane and John were in charge of it.  Using CAW to air their grievances in public like this was hardly conducive to working for unity in the movement.

Arc continued printing leaflets for local groups and published three more booklets The first, Up Against The Law, a guide to the 1986 Public Order Act, proved very successful. The Hunt Saboteurs Association sold 700 copies to its members. First Steps was a vegan recipe booklet and finally Kill or Cure?  – “a scathing attack on the vivisection-based drug industry.” Although all three were well received, none had the impact of AAO.

Having left two groups in quick succession, Jane and John then decided to set up their own. In June 1989 they announced the formation of Action for Animals (London Area) with a “founding statement of principles”. Amongst the usual pledges to fight animal abuse and educate the public there was a denunciation of “those who advocate a campaign of violence (including the planting of bombs and incendiary devices) against the animal abuse industries” who would be barred from membership along with supporters of fascist groups. 

Action for Actions (AFA) was true to its word as my membership application was rejected on the basis of my being “an outspoken opponent of the principles of Broad Based campaigning” and “also an outspoken advocate of the ALF incendiary device campaign” (letter dated 21.08.1989). In fact I had been campaigning in a “broad based” way with Islington AR for years and while I did support the ALF, I saw no contradiction between the two.

AFA launched a newsletter Biting Through in September 1989 by announcing a protest against alcohol experiments on animals at St Thomas’ Hospital. Four of the ten pages were taken up by a report on alcohol testing by Animal Aid. It appeared Jane and John were forging closer ties with one of the national societies they had condemned just three years earlier for their “liberal” view of society.

This process was completed with a change of name to Animal Aid (London Area) in the next issue. The changed was justified on the grounds of formalising close links between the two groups, including “Animal Aid’s strict policy of nonviolence which is in line with our own”.  What they neglected to tell their members was they had become the group’s campaign officers. 

John Page and Jane Holgate

Mark Gold, Animal Aid’s director, was as vociferous a critic of the ALF as Jane and John, condemning a new publication called Arkangel as “a nasty little magazine which is basically the ALF SG journal under a new and clever disguise.” At Animal Aid’s Living Without Cruelty fair in London groups selling copies of Arkangel were told to remove them or face expulsion from future events.

Jane and John’s attacks on the ALF became increasingly hysterical. When an explosive device was detonated at Bristol University they said: “It is the responsibility of every animal rights campaigner to isolate the terrorist tendency within the movement…We have more in common with the meat eating public than we do with the proponents of animal rights terror.”

This action was claimed by an unknown group called the Animal Abused Society and condemned by the ALF SG, as were bombs placed under the cars belonging to two vivisectors in June 1990. Neither was hurt but one device caused serious injuries to a small child who was hit by shrapnel.  

This use of explosives – as distinct from incendiary devices – in quick succession was unique and has never happened since. At the time there was speculation it was a dirty tricks campaign by the state to discredit the movement but Jane and John thought differently and they now had Animal Aid as a vehicle in their vendetta against the ALF.

In a resolution submitted to the Animal Aid Council on 24 June 1990 they called for the ALF to be isolated and crushed “irrespective of their other occasional non-violent activities.” By this they meant animals rescued from laboratories, factory farms and fur farms. Their witchhunt against the ALF meant those animals were now expendable. 

The resolution was passed and it became the official policy of Animal Aid not only to condemn violence but also to “destroy the lifeblood of the minority who carry out violent acts in the name of animal rights. Regrettably this means confrontation with those who control the purse strings of the ALF, who have consistently failed to condemn violence and, as seems likely, have some connection with the funding of some of the violent activity.” (Letter from general secretary Gillian Egan to Robin Webb, 23 July 1990.)

Jane and John’s views were expanded at length in the Animal Aid (London Area) campaign strategy booklet called Strictly Peaceful.  It’s introduction said:

“We have a clearly defined policy of peaceful campaigning and public education which rejects wholeheartedly the blind alley of individual acts of terrorism. If we are to continue to build on our successes then we feel that those of us who are committed to peaceful campaigning must exclude from our group those individuals whose views on campaigning are fundamentally at odds with ours. To continue to work with advocates of, or apologists for, violence, would effectively cripple our own campaigns.”

No evidence was given for this assertion and indeed there were other groups and campaigns that did not exclude ALF activities and were successful. For example Islington Animal Rights had succeeded in closing down a local laboratory called Biorex after seven years using a wide range of methods.  Along the way there had also been ALF style direct action. 

In Strictly Peaceful Jane and John went to great length to downplay the influence of the ALF on the animal rights movement, even to the point of rewriting history.  They claimed the ALF had been insignificant in the decimation of the fur trade as the first incendiary device attack had only occurred in December 1985, by which time the fur trade was on its knees anyway due to non-ALF campaigning in the preceding five years. 

In reality the early eighties had seen an escalation of direct action against fur shops in the form of smashed windows, glued locks and painted slogans.  SG Newsletters of the time detailed these actions and as a result the proprietors went out of business, mainly due to lack of insurance. Pickets by local groups, civil disobedience and public education by groups like Lynx all played a part but the importance of direct action in crippling the fur industry should not be underestimated. 

What’s more by 1990 not a single department store in the UK had a fur salon. The last one to close was Harrods in March that year. This was almost entirely due to the ALF’s incendiary device campaign. 

Jane and John finished the section of their booklet entitled Challenging the ideology of terrorism with the sentence: “Whilst the car bombings are already beginning to recede from the public mind it is a distressing thought that in all probability there is worse to come.”

They were wrong. 1990 saw a resurgence of ALF activity in the form of traditional raids on animal abuse centres. This began with the rescue of 82 beagles and 26 rabbits from laboratory supplier Harlan Interfauna in March that year.  

One of its customers Boots plc owned two laboratories and in November eight female beagles were rescued from one of sites. The following week the Animal Liberation Investigation Unit “inspected” this laboratory and held a rooftop banner drop.  This marked a return to tactics similar to those of the Liberation Leagues.

What Jane and John thought about this isn’t known. They were now preoccupied with impending war in the Middle East. On 11 January 1991 Animal Aid (London Area) issued a signed letter headed Stop the War – keep up the pressure for animal rights which said: “There is much to do: whistleblowing, L’Oreal, the vegetarian campaign all must continue, as well a local activity across the spectrum of animal rights. But we must also place our support firmly behind those groups and individuals who resist the current war drive. As a group Animal Aid (London Area) has affiliated to Stop the War in the Gulf. “

A PS to the letter added: “Please note this address is from Animal Aid (London Area), it does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Council of Management of the national society based in Kent.”  The accompanying factsheet did not contain it, however, giving the impression that Jane and John’s views reflected national policy.  They did not and shortly afterwards they were sacked from Animal Aid, victims of the “liberal” worldview of national societies they had once condemned in AAO.  

Their factsheet Stop the war for the sake of human & animal life forcefully expressed their leftwing beliefs with lines such as: “It will not be a war for democracy, on the contrary it will be a war motivated by greed and the desire to control the oil profits of the region.” It also highlighted warfare experiments on animals carried out at Porton Down and elsewhere.

Jane and John’s socialist politics greatly influenced their campaigning. One of their slogans was “Fund the NHS, not animal experiments” and the leaflet Animal tesing – protecting workers and consumers? said: “Animal experiments are invalid as a safeguard of your health. Trade union organisation is the key to safe working practises. Help yourself and laboratory animals by demanding a safe and cruelty-free working environment. Join a union and ensure that others at work do the same.”

At the time, most of those on the direct action wing of animal rights were anarchists who believed in overthrowing the state and capitalism but class struggle was not key to that. They thought the ALF can other groups could overturn oppression on their own because “if we can create within ourselves the prophecy of victory, then there is little doubt that we will see that prophecy fulfilled.” (ALF SG newsletter 17.)

The idea that committed activists through their individual will and determination can bring about the downfall of vivisection or other areas of animal abuse is seductive.  It reached its apotheosis in the hunger strikes of Barry Horne and groups like SHAC and Speak from 1997-2007 but it failed because it did not understand the power of the state and capital.

AAO was prescient in declaring “the militancy of the few in place of the actions of the many is a recipe for disaster,” (pg113) but this state wasn’t reached until 20 years later.  Before that the 1990s actually saw a period of renewal and sustained growth with successful high profile campaigns like those against Boots, live exports and laboratory animal breeders which drew in thousands of new supporters. The biggest animal rights protests ever held took place then.

Jane and John’s dismissal from Animal Aid didn’t end their campaigning. Shortly afterwards they reformed Action for Animals (without “London Area”), describing it as “a new, independent animal rights organisation”. The first edition of its Campaign News was devoted almost exclusively to “Primate Action Day”. Protests against vivisectors throughout the UK were mentioned alongside other events as far away as West Yorkshire and Blackpool. It appeared Action for Animals was intended to be a national group. 

It didn’t last however. A meeting was held in October 1991 which I attended but three months later subscribers received a letter from Jane and John saying the group was being wound up. 

I never saw the letter so can only speculate on their reasons. Possibly the effort of launching the group was too much for just the two of them.  Or maybe it was the trajectory of the movement. The anti-Boots campaign was taking off as a national network of local groups with a common goal. Direct action was playing an important role as well. They might have felt they were getting left behind and chose to quit.

Jane and John were socialists but not of the libertarian variety. There were rumours they were members of the Socialist Workers Party and Arc Print used the address of the SWP’s bookshop in its early years. Despite their love of the word democracy, they confided in me that they believed the most effective way to run a group was as a dictatorship. 

They had a bundle of ideas, lots of energy and a printing press to boot but were difficult to work with and bore a grudge against the ALF that turned into a self-destructive obsession. As far as I know they have had no contact with the animal rights movement since they left although they are apparently still vegan.

Of all Jane and John’s projects, AAO is the most enduringI recall seeing it on a stall in at a fair the late nineties that belonged to Robin Webb, then ALF press officer. He was exactly the sort of “militant” they would have condemned. There are pdfs online and secondhand copies available on Ebay and Amazon for up to $60!

Although very few people remember its authors, it seems AAO is destined to live on as a new edition translated into Spanish for the first time is forthcoming. It deserves to be read and reread, both for what it said about the campaigns of yesteryear and for its relevance to the world of today.

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