Wednesday 24th October 2012 | 22:03
House Magazine interview: Brian May on the badger cull
Stopping the badger cull was on a par with playing guitar on the roof of Buckingham Palace, Brian May tells The House
WORDS BY SAM MACRORY
Brian May is feeling exhausted. To make matters worse, his knee has swollen up after a day spent charging around between meetings in Parliament, an appearance in the Commons Chamber, and a constant stream of interviews which ended with a questioning from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight.
But the pain is worth it. The Queen guitarist was in Westminster to watch as the Government announced a delay in the planned badger cull. It felt, he says, “like a day that lasted a week.”
For years, May has been at the forefront of the campaign against the cull, arguing – along with a coalition of scientists, animal rights campaigners and even some farmers – that a badger cull was not a sensible way to tackle Bovine TB, a disease carried by badgers. And Tuesday's announcement by Owen Paterson, the Environment Secretary, that plans for a cull were on hold was, May says, one of the greatest days of his life. Not bad for a man who has played to sold-out stadiums, on the roof of Buckingham Palace, and written some of the most successful and popular records of the last 50 years.
“You know, it was quite comparable”, says May of Tuesday’s momentous events. “That moment will live on in my memory. It’s on a par with some of the great moments in my life. Standing on the roof of the Palace was one of them, and yesterday, watching the fruition of the belief that the people can still speak and make a difference, that was a very big moment for me. I was part of that moment in history. I’ll treasure that moment for a long time.”
An animal welfare campaign is far removed from power-chord-driven anthems like We Will Rock You, let alone the camp operatics of Bohemian Rhapsody. So what do his fellow Queen members think about his alternative career path?
“Well, it doesn’t come up very much,” May replies. “Freddie [Mercury] has gone of course. And I never see John [Deacon], sadly. Roger [Taylor] is in a sense in a different place because he’s part of the whole grouse shooting community, which is actually quite hard for us. We’re grown ups and we tend to treat the matter lightly so that we can remain friends, which we do and we’re quite good at respecting each other’s positions. It’s a very separate activity from anything that happens inside Queen.”
But it is one which May, who on Tuesday watched events unfold in Parliament itself, sitting in the public seats at the back of the Chamber, passionately believes in. At the forefront of the Team Badger campaign, May has worked tirelessly to secure 100,000 signatures to force a Parliamentary debate on the subject, which may have had a part in triggering Tuesday's announcement. “To me it was incredibly exciting to be sitting on one of those green seats. It was actually thrilling. Particularly, I was learning that those badgers were going to get a reprieve” May recalls, explaining that Thursday’s Opposition Day debate on the cull is still a crucial part of the process – even he admits that he is not sure what its immediate effect will be.
“I’m not clever enough to know that”, says May, who has a PhD, modestly. “I don’t understand the workings of Parliament – I’m learning fast. All I know is that it’s very important this debate has come about. It’s raised it to the level of national concern. I found it shocking that a Prime Minister can invade Iraq without asking anybody, and can go out and slaughter a huge percentage of our indigenous wild animals without asking anybody. These to me are shocking parts of democracy. There had to be a debate in the House and I am very pleased that there is. In a way I think that’s the most important thing of all, the fact that it is being debated.”
For May, the issue goes further than merely saving the badgers of Britain. “It’s thousands of badgers but a very big principle” he argues. “The principle that is being established is the public do put a value on creatures other than humans. If this particular Government had got away with just setting their value at zero then that would have been a terrible precedent. An important process is going on. We are seeing a change, a shift in the wind.”
But despite the inevitable accusations of yet another Government U-turn, Owen Paterson stressed that he remained “convinced” of the logic of the cull, and once a string of excuses – including the Olympics, bad weather, and over-breeding – had been listed, insisted that the cull would take place in the future.
But May is in positive mood. “I’m not ungrateful, put it that way. I could have been doing the whole day yesterday, doing media like I did, with badgers already falling on the ground, blood dripping out of them, being piled up in heaps, in their thousands. That would have been so depressing.”
May starts from the moral argument that it is wrong – “wrong in capital letters” – to kill hundreds of thousands of wild animals, arguing that the solution is akin to “saying we’ve got thousands of babies with Diphtheria so let’s go out and kill lots of them. It’s just insanity”.
And he is convinced, as many scientists are too, that developing a vaccine for cows is by far the more logical approach. “I’m a scientist. I will be going back to that. I have no doubt... that vaccinating cattle is the aim which completely blows everything else out of the water.” And when the politicians cite delays, May just shakes his head. “If we were at war right now and defeating an invader meant that we had to deploy vaccines, it would happen over night. It’s all there. We have this technology, it just needs to get through the red tape to be deployed. This makes me angry listening to [David] Cameron and Paterson saying its years away. That’s gross irresponsibility. We could be already in the process of getting the OK from Europe, and I do not believe that Europe will stand in our way. That has been an excuse that’s been used for too long by successive governments”.
May wants to “head towards a trial, a proper trial, and I think that would head us in a very healthy direction for the first time in 30 years as regards bovine TB.” So it’s not surprising that May remains deeply unimpressed with the “obsessed” Paterson’s commitment to the cull. “It makes very little sense listening to him. I think in his mind it certainly is just a delay. To me he is a very unusual kind of human being. I don’t think he is accessible to reason. I don’t think he would ever have changed his mind on this even if it were proved to him that killing badgers would cause him to die. You know, I don’t think there’s any way of changing that man’s mind. He’s one of those people who has a different agenda and it’s very deep.”
Fittingly for a man who has a PhD in astrophysics, May turns to HG Wells for an analogy of Tuesday’s dramatic events.
“I was thinking of the War of the Worlds. The whole of the planet united in a magnificent way to try and defeat these creatures but in the end what defeated them was their inner weakness that they couldn’t cope with bacteria on this planet. Yes, the whole country actually did rise up. In the end Paterson had all of science against him, just about all of the people in Britain, a large percentage of the farmers too, even the farmers in the hot spots, but in the end what defeated him was the inadequacy of the policy.”
In a damning criticism, May doesn’t believe “there will ever be such an animal unfriendly Government again in future times”, citing Conservative Party plans to overturn the Hunting Act as evidence.
So would he re-enter to the campaigning fray if fox-hunting returned to the heart of the political agenda? “Oh absolutely” he replies without hesitation. “In fact we’re actually campaigning against the repeal of the Hunting Act the whole time. It’s very much in our mind. We have to be very vigilant. Yes I would absolutely be jumping into the ring again if there was a hint that the Government was going to bring up the repeal of the Hunting Act again.”
May insists he is “completely non-aligned” politically, believing that animal welfare should be a cross party issue. “I’m not a party member and I don’t intend to be,” he adds. But if, say, a rural seat in an area particularly affected by any future cull became available, could he stand as a single issue MP?
“I don’t know enough yet to answer that question”, May replies, intriguingly. He admits that “in a strange way, intellectually I’ve really enjoyed being a part of the Parliamentary process”, but adds that “at the moment I don’t think I could be an MP. I think that I would have to sacrifice too much to do that”.
But in the future? “I believe there should be a Minister of Animal Welfare. There used to be and this Government doesn’t have one. We have this horrendous conglomeration called DEFRA... it’s completely controlled by farmers. .. completely one sided. It’s fundamentally corrupt, in a society that claims to be democratic, that there’s a section of sentient creatures that are not represented. That has to change. If there were a Ministry of Animal Welfare then perhaps I would look at that and I would like to take a part in that.”
Tuesday's statement was largely overshadowed at the top of the news agenda by a Commons select committee hearing into the Jimmy Savile scandal. May says he has been following developments “from a distance”– and with sadness, what with Queen having appeared on Top of the Pops in the Savile era.
“I do find it shocking. It makes me very sad. It affects the whole way that you perceive that period. Because that’s something, the music of that time, that we were connected with – we used to go to the old BBC centre as it is now, you know, the round building, for Top of the Pops every now and again, and for that moment you were part of that whole glitzy, glamoury… whatever it was, scene. I personally had no idea that anything like this was going on and I am truly deeply shocked. We will never be able to watch those old programmes without knowing this now. Something will be gone forever. But you know, I think it’s good that it comes up, we have to examine everything in society honestly.”
But if those memories of his musical career have been damaged, Brian May is positive that his campaigning career will reap rewards. So who is Brian May in 2012? Guitarist, musician, would-be politician, campaigner?
“I don’t know what I am anymore” he admits. “I’m a person who can get certain things done in unusual ways become I come from an unusual place. I believe I have enough information in my head now to fashion a plan. I have a belief that problems can be solved if you just use your loaf.”
For that, the badgers of Britain will be grateful – and totally understanding if Brian May wants a day off.