Liberal Democrats, goldfish and what really happened

It’s a fun barb to throw at the Liberal Democrats: the party’s policy making process is so eccentric that it once decided to ban goldfish.

The barb comes in various forms and not just from outside the party. Some members too also use it argue that the party’s policy making process and/or party conference is in need of reform (and briefings by Lib Dem sources have been the trigger for some of the negative press coverage on the subject).

The missing pieces in the story

Yet it is an oddly curtailed story, told in a way that is so incomplete and hence misleading that it’s hard to avoid concluding those who mention it are either hugely ignorant about the full story or are being deliberate deceitful.

Why? Because, in short, a large part of the policy was, far from being dismissed as bonkers, actually implemented by a previous government – and no Lib Dem MP has tried to repeal that implementation, not even since the 2010 election when there have been not merely Lib Dem MPs, but Lib Dem ministers and a Lib Dem Deputy Prime Minister too.

To add to the confusion, read more recent accounts in the press taking pot shots at Lib Dems  over goldfish and you would be hard pressed to find any clues that the journalists writing them are aware of the phase in the story about parts of the policy actually being passed into law.

So what is the full story?

The role of the RSPCA

In the early years of this century, a series of local councils – encouraged by the RSPCA – banned goldfish being handed out as prizes at local funfairs, due to evidence that many died within a few hours of being handed over. Liberal Democrats supported, even instigated, such bans (see Liverpool and Colchester).

The RSPCA’s role is worth emphasising because whilst no organisation should be considered infallible, and no external group’s policy agenda should be assumed to always be compatible with Liberal Democracy, its support for the policy should at least give pause for thought about whether it is self-evidently such a silly policy you can dismiss it without needing any further consideration.

What Lib Dem conference really agreed on goldfish

In autumn 2003 the Liberal Democrats passed an animal welfare motion at the federal conference in Brighton. The accompanying policy paper Respecting All Animals, which following the passage of the motion became party policy, said:

Liberal Democrats will … prohibit the giving of live animals as prizes.

The logic was an extension on the RSPCA’s concerns over goldfish – animals won as prizes are animals that are not well looked after.

David Laws complains

In 2004 David Laws took up public cudgels against the party’s attitude towards goldfish, complaining in The Orange Book that,

If freedom means anything it must surely include the freedom to engage in activities which others may consider unwise. This includes smoking, overeating, not exercising, driving “off road” cars in cities, even winning goldfish. A Liberal society is one where people should be free to “make their own mistakes”. 

He wasn’t the first senior Liberal Democrat to knock the policy. Charles Kennedy, when party leader, also did so. His was a rather curious as he had chaired the Federal Policy Committee during the period when the policy paper was drawn up, agreed and signed-off by the FPC.

Moreover what neither Kennedy nor Laws did was to question the evidence from the RSPCA and others that handing out animals as prizes was cruel because they often died soon after being won.

The implicit argument, rather, is that it is no business of the state to protect animals in such situations. Better that animals get given out as prizes and die than that the state try to regulate.

An interesting debate to be had, certainly, full of weighty ideological and philosophical points – but also one of rather more substance than the superficial comments that goldfish policy is obviously daft suggest. Which animals can die and under what circumstances before the state should intervene? If goldfish deaths don’t matter, what about parrots? Cats? Dogs? Elephants? Or is it just deaths of animals at fun fairs that are ok? In which case what is so special about them so as to make them an exempt killing zone?

Unless you are going to remove all protection from animals, it becomes not such a simple question to answer.

The goldfish policy becomes law

Moreover, the policy was actually then legislated for by the then Labour government – who proposed in the Animal Welfare Bill to ban the giving of animals as prizes. During the passage of the legislation, this was watered down to giving animals as prizes to unaccompanied children (the logic being that this is the riskier scenario under which such prizes might then be treated badly and die).

That modified proposal became law and has stayed law, without even the Steve Hilton-fuelled deregulation review after 2010 resulting in it being discarded.

The goldfish critics didn’t publicly oppose the law

During the passage and alteration of this legislation there were a few Parliamentary contributions from Liberal Democrats. Norman Baker asked a question, suggesting his support for the original complete ban that was proposed and was Lib Dem policy, but I have not been able to find examples of Liberal Democrat MPs opposing the legislation (which includes David Laws, who was an MP at the time and indeed Nick Clegg too as the legislation wrapped on past the 2005 election).

Ironically, not only since 2010 has the party not tried to undo Labour’s partial introduction of the party’s policy, but its experience in government since then has shown that policy at this level of detail is often very useful – as a huge volume of such detailed decisions land on the desks of ministers, requiring prompt responses.

So what is the goldfish objection really about?

What then is meant to be objectionable about the goldfish policy? There are grounds for arguing over the evidence (how many animals died when given as prizes? how often was the absence of an adult a problem?), but I have yet to find anyone who disagrees with the policy on evidence grounds.

Perhaps it’s the level of apparently absurd detail? But this was something buried deep in a policy paper, not a headline in a party leader’s speech – and is just the sort of level of detail at which ministers have to regularly decide whether or not to act. Is it really better not to have policy covering such decisions and instead rely on ministers making decisions on the hoof, at high speed and with little time to consult the party? Perhaps some people think so, but that is again a much more substantive and controversial point than, ‘goldfish hah hah hah’.

Perhaps it’s the principle – that having some animals die is better than having the state regulate. Just as it’s better for ten guilty people to go free than one innocent person to go to jail, perhaps the anti-goldfish-istas wish to argue that it is better that 10 goldfish die than one clause be added to a Bill.

I quite like the idea of hearing a heavyweight debate on that. But that’s a whole different league from the ‘goldfish hah hah hah’ throwaway insult usually deployed.


Thanks to former Federal Policy Committee (FPC) member Alex Wilcock for providing some of the information I’ve used in this piece and for checking the accuracy of my memory on various points.

UPDATE: Jonathan Calder, a member of the FPC at the time of the goldfish policy, has blogged his own account of events:

When the animal welfare working party’s report came to it, a few of us staged a libertarian rebellion – using arguments much like those David Laws was later to make. We picked out half a dozen of the most nannyish clauses and voted them out of the report before we passed it.

Don’t worry: Conference voted them all back in.

This episode crystallised for me some of the problems the Liberal Democrats face – or faced in those days. We tended to buy in our policy from experts or campaign groups rather than make it ourselves. I can remember the working party chair saying, aghast, that the RSPCA would condemn us if our libertarian amendment became party policy.

And, while we said we put liberty first, when push came to shove we were unwilling to go against what you might call ‘the Guardian line’.


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