Ever since Michael Gove inadvertently found himself on the wrong side of a row over animal sentience at the end of last year, he has been all over animal welfare with the uninhibited enthusiasm of a python preparing its dinner. His latest move is a bid to stamp out the hideous cruelty of puppy farming by introducing a ban on the sale of kittens and puppies in pet shops. In future, would-be pet owners will have to go direct to the breeder or (so much better) to a pet-homing charity.
The Mirror, which has run an energetic campaign calling for the ban, is thrilled. Earlier this year, Battersea Dogs Home was equally chuffed when the environment secretary promised tougher sentences for animal cruelty, and the Express has only just got its breath back from cheering Gove on after he posed with Finn, the police dog who nearly died protecting its handler, and pledged tougher sanctions against anyone who attacked service dogs or horses. True, he has been persuaded that a total ban on electric collars for dogs and cats, used for restraint and training, might have the unintended consequence of leading to more pets dying on the road, but the direction of travel is unmistakable: in a world polarised by Brexit, pets can be the new politics.
I’m obviously not accusing Gove of cynicism. He is a pet lover himself. He has a dog, Snowy, who came second in a Westminster pet show a few years back, and reportedly a cat too (he looks more of a cat person than a dog person to me).
Britons are famously fond of animals and, with obvious exceptions like the hunting ban and the badger cull, their welfare is more often a question that unites than divides people, even politicians. When Labour recently announced a policy to prevent landlords banning tenants from keeping pets, the party was shrewdly revisiting an issue that was last aired when the Tories used it as an argument for giving social housing tenants the right to buy their council houses in the 1970s. Cats or dogs, house rabbits or rats, in a world where far too many people feel lonely, our pets are (usually) easefully uncomplicated and generously predisposed to love, even if only until the food is in the bowl.
But I wonder if there’s more to Gove’s new concern for animals than the normal politician’s desire for conspicuous ordinariness. Perhaps it is more, even, than a hasty reaction to the power of social media to generate a storm-force grievance that Gove experienced during the Brexit bill, when the government appeared to deny that animals are sentient. Maybe he has realised that the understanding of the relative place of human and other animal life is undergoing a transformation that is of a quite different order to the boom in small-animal vets and the rise and rise of shops selling stuff for pets.
The ethicist Peter Singer first published Animal Liberation in 1975. As is the way with radical ideas, its influence has slowly rippled out over the intervening 40 years, until it no longer seems wacky to question the universal privileging of humans over all other animals. His argument that animals should be part of the equation when considering the greatest good for the greatest number is finally beginning to seep into public attitudes.
The trend is reinforced by new work on animal intelligence, not least by Singer’s fellow Australian philosopher, Peter Godfrey-Smith, whose whole outlook was transformed by coming eyeball to eyeball with a cuttlefish. Scientists in New Zealand have discovered that octopuses can work out how to turn off a light, showing they do not just react to their environment, but try to shape it. We have the glimmering of an understanding of the social life of humpback whales. Elephants have a clear enough sense of their own bodies to realise they cannot complete the task of handing over a stick tied to a mat without stepping off the mat.
It is one of the most basic purposes of education to convey an understanding of other worlds in time and space – to realise that there are different, equally valid ways of ordering the world, and that they change over time. But comprehending that creatures as obviously different from us as elephants, or whales or cuttlefish, can still share with us a pleasure in society, a capacity to learn, perhaps even a moral sense – attributes we are accustomed to considering uniquely human – is a great dislocating jolt to our sense of the order of things.
Of course, it’s one thing to be entranced by an octopus working out a puzzle and quite another to abandon meat-eating altogether. Most of us live in complacent denial of the nastiness of the life of a factory-farmed animal. All the same, hearing whales sing to one another must make you at least think twice about the plump breast of a battery-reared hen. The knowledge of one, after such a period of ignorance about it, begins slowly to influence our attitude to the other.
Michael Gove might merely be pandering to the sentimentality of a group of voters who, some poll evidence suggests, are also likely to be Brexiters. It is not impossible to imagine that he has spotted a two-fer advantage in being pro-pet: after the furore over animal sentience (and the bizarre pledge in the Conservative manifesto last year to raise the possibility of re-legalising hunting) he is simply trying to neutralise a vulnerability, while promoting himself on a non-party issue at the same time. But he may be one of the first mainstream politicians on to a much more fundamental and lasting shift, one that will transform the way we think about the other animals we share the planet with.
• Anne Perkins is a former deputy political editor of the Guardian