Unfair Game: An exposé of South Africa’s captive-bred lion industry

  • May 19, 2020 12:00
  • Biteback Publishing



An exposé of South Africa’s captive-bred lion industry

Michael Ashcroft

Publication date: 16 June 2020

Price: £14.99 paperback





In April 2019, Lord Ashcroft published the results of his year-long investigation into South Africa’s captive-bred lion industry. Over eleven pages of a single edition of the Mail on Sunday, he showed why this sickening trade, which involves appalling cruelty to the ‘King of the Savannah’ from birth to death, has become a stain on the country.

Unfair Game features the shocking results of a new undercover operation Lord Ashcroft has carried out into South Africa’s lion business. In this powerful exposé, he highlights the increasing dangers to public health which lions and their body parts pose. Just as China’s wet markets are widely considered to have led to Covid-19, some experts predict that the rampant trade in lion bones will spark another major health crisis.

The book also shows how wild lions are being captured to widen the gene pool of the country’s 12,000 captive-bred lions; details how tourists are unwittingly being used to support the abuse of lions; and demonstrates why Asia’s insatiable appetite for lion bones has become a multi-million-dollar business linked to criminality and corruption which now underpins South Africa’s captive lion industry.

Lord Ashcroft proves that novel ways of hunting captive-bred lions in enclosed spaces for ‘sport’ are being dreamt up by lion traders all the time, including killing them with dogs; and he confirms that the trade in cross-breeding lions and tigers to produce freaks of nature known as ligers – which are sold for thousands of dollars – is thriving.

Perhaps most disturbingly, Unfair Game reveals how South Africa’s laws and authorities have enabled the small group which controls the lion industry to profit from this misery. The book’s shocking conclusion shows that the reluctance to tackle this most pressing issue has even reached the highest levels of the police force.

Lord Ashcroft further uses this project to renew his call to the British government to ban the import of captive-bred lion trophies.

Commenting on Unfair Game, explorer and conservationist Sir Ranulph Fiennes, who has written the foreword, says: “Lord Ashcroft’s investigation of the captive-bred lion industry is timely, and I welcome it wholeheartedly. It is our responsibility to hand over the baton to the next generation with South Africa’s captive-bred lion industry consigned firmly and permanently to the dustbin of history. I hope sincerely that this book will go a long way towards helping to do just that.”



Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC is an international businessman, philanthropist, author and pollster. He is a former treasurer and deputy chairman of the Conservative Party. He is also honorary chairman and a former treasurer of the International Democratic Union. He is founder and chairman of the board of trustees of Crimestoppers, vice-patron of the Intelligence Corps Museum, chairman of the trustees of Ashcroft

Technology Academy, chancellor of Anglia Ruskin University, a senior fellow of the International Strategic Studies Association and a former trustee of Imperial War Museums. His books include Victoria Cross Heroes: Volumes I and II; Call Me Dave: The Unauthorised Biography of David Cameron; White Flag? An Examination of the UK’s Defence Capability and Jacob’s Ladder: The Unauthorised Biography of Jacob Rees-Mogg.


For more information please contact James Stephens at james.stephens@bitebackpublishing.com


An interview with Caroline Slocock

  • May 11, 2020 09:00
  • Vicky Jessop

For the Biteback Book Festival, we were lucky enough to chat with Margaret Thatcher's only female private secretary, and author of our book People Like Us, Caroline Slocock. Though the interview initially took place on Twitter, we're publishing a slightly-edited version here for you to enjoy...


Welcome Caroline! What was it like being the only female private secretary to work for Margaret Thatcher?

I was the first woman Private Secretary at No. 10. Women were unusual – I was the only other one in the Cabinet Room when Mrs Thatcher resigned. We both knew you had to work harder than a man to be accepted but I also knew she‘d ruled out women in my role, before. She preferred men. I was an outsider and I didn’t share her politics, but I was in her inner circle of five.

I was fascinated by her and as a woman saw things most men didn’t. For example, I saw her insecurity: her challenging behaviour toward her ministers was a response to her feeling undermined, I thought. I saw her cry in front of her Cabinet when she resigned. Having seen events over the previous eighteen months, I thought she was right to go, but as a woman I also understood why she felt angry at and betrayed by her colleagues.


What made you want to become a civil servant?

It wasn’t my first choice. I wanted to become an academic (and a novelist), but the jobs in English departments dried up due to Thatcher’s cuts of arts departments. My PhD supervisor suggested the fast stream civil servant after I’d been unemployed for a year. I applied to the civil service because I thought good administration, whatever the government, was important. I believed as I still do that civil servants should serve the government the people elect, faithfully and well. Bad policies become even worse, if executed badly.


How did you get the job as private secretary?

I slipped through the net. Permanent Secretaries were told not to put forward women as Mrs Thatcher did not want them. But mine refused to go along and the new No. 10 Principal Private Secretary did not know about the edict. He put me in a short list of one, and she interviewed me. The interview was one-to-one, and I was terrified because I couldn’t stand her image or her politics and knew her views on women. She brought blue hyacinths from her flat – ‘I thought you’d like them, Caroline’ – placed them between us, listened and then accepted me. We clicked.


Was she very different in person to the way in which she has been remembered in the media?

She was far more feminine than media images suggest- for example, than the Spitting Image puppet in a man’s suit. Misogyny and stereotypes play a part in this. Across history powerful women have been portrayed as men, and dangerous too. There are good reasons for hating her but these don’t justify the effigies of her as a witch which were burnt at her death. We still see this misogyny today, for instance, with the “Kill the Bitch’ chants against Hilary Clinton at Trump rallies, with T-shirts showing her as Medusa’s severed head.


What’s your favourite memory of working for Margaret Thatcher?

I was at her side during trips and it was good to see her more relaxed. We visited the Rovers Return in Coronation Street and she was offered a drink by Bet Lynch. With the bouffant hair and the big personalities, they were oddly similar! They were both acting, in a way.

It's tempting to think of the big things - that final Cabinet - but tiny things capture her too. Once she spotted that the hem of my skirt was coming down and offered to take me up to the flat to hem it up for me. I refused and said I'd use sellotape instead. Shame, really.


How do think she would have handled this crisis?

She would have been thinking ahead more, and been more across the detail than Johnson, challenging scientists and her own Ministers and coordinating everything. She was a scientist, and would have mastered the science, not let experts completely master her. And I think she would have taken a global leadership role like she did (well ahead of her time) on global warming, going to the UN to seek international action to tackle it. I believe that she'd also be convening world leaders.


What did you move onto after she resigned?

I went to the Treasury, and eventually left the civil service to become CEO of the Equal Opportunity Commission, where we tackled the discrimination women face at work and the systemic barriers they face. It was a fantastic, important job – and it also helped me write this book.


How do you think politics has changed since Thatcher’s era?

No. 10 has far more power now and that’s not a good thing. It’s trying to do too much from the centre, it’s been trying to control the media (for example, not putting up Ministers until recently to the Today programme), and even prorogued Parliament when it got in the way. It’s vital politicians are challenged and scrutinised, it’s bad for government when unaccountable and unelected advisers in No. 10 gain too much power. This caused Thatcher’s Chancellor to resign (and ultimately her) and more recently Johnson lost his.

Power corrupts. Command and control models, which were intensified under Blair and Brown, don’t work well: you just can’t do everything from the centre. Communities are being far more effective in the crisis than the government in getting practical help to where it’s needed, for example.


Do you think that today’s female politicians still struggle to make their voices heard?

Definitely. Recently, Sarah Wollaston complained that women were still being ridiculed in Parliament for their high pitched voices, something that happened to Thatcher.  It's a sign that women are still struggling to be heard in what is remains a world dominated by male voices.


Caroline Slocock's book,  People Like Us, is available here. Or, if you're curious to read more from our  great authors, why not check out the rest of our blog posts?



An interview with Barbara Hosking

  • April 26, 2020 10:00
  • Barbara Hosking

For the last day of the Biteback Book Festival, we talk to one-time press officer to Harold Wilson and Tedd Heath, Barbara Hosking...


What made you want to write your memoirs at the age of 90?

My friends made me write them because they said, ‘You keep on after dinner or after lunch, telling us all about what you did and you’ve got these lovely stories, so why on earth don’t you write them down, so other people can have them?’ It’s a big job: it took me about a year and bit!


What do you miss now about your childhood?

It was lovely because we didn’t have all this technology. We didn’t have laptops and iPhones and all this stuff, which I’m not terribly good at and I find very confusing. I can do it, but it does take me a while.


What were Harold Wilson and Ted Heath like to work for? Ted Heath had a fearsome reputation; was he difficult to get along with?

I was very careful with him to start with because he had that reputation. He had a big temper, and he was difficult and wanted things to be absolutely accurate and right. I was careful with him, but I found that I got on very well with him for two reasons. One was that his life apart from politics was the arts. So was mine, so I had that in common with him. Then I agreed totally with his wish for us to go into Europe, so I loved my time with him because I was doing what I believed in.


What do you think about Brexit?

Brexit? It breaks my heart. It really breaks my heart. It’s the wrong thing to do. We should stay in Europe and be an important part of it, and help to direct it, instead of reneging on it and going on our own. We’re just a little foggy group of islands in the North Sea, and without the EU we’ll come under the orbit of the US and just do what Trump wants. It’s going to be awful for our children.


What was the favourite job you ever held?

I think my favourite job was probably the last one I did, when I was deputy chairman of west country tv. Because I was in a position of authority, and I had a great deal of control over what we did, and so I could get programmes in the Cornish language on our screens, and everyone complained and said it cost a lost of money. And I said, it’s very good for our image. So we did it.


Do you think politics has become more polarised?

No, I just think that the Labour party has been out of politics for a while. It was so busy with itself trying to- I don’t know what it was trying to do, go very left wing, sort of strike out in some new extremely left wing way for itself- but it didn’t take any notice of the fact that it should have been Her Majesty’s opposition, and doing that job well. Democracy needs an opposition.


What do you think about Keir Starmer’s appointment to Head of the Labour Party?

It’s an excellent appointment, because he’s got the stature and the public respect to be a proper leader of a party, and I think that he’ll do a very job. However, he’s also got to bind up all the different parts of the Labour party and make it into an opposition. There’s a lot to do, but the person I actually feel sorry for is the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. He was really a good weather Prime Minister, a jolly, happy cheerful guy, and he goes into the worst crisis this century. It must be hard on him.


The issue of sexual assault has become more mainstream in recent years, with several politicians talking about their own experiences in the House of Commons. Do you think the culture around this is slowly changing?

Yes, I do. I think that the attitude to working women has changed a great deal. When I first started working, which was in 1945-46, just after the war, women were expected to put up with the odd sort of, slap on the bottom or an almost-grope. And you were expected to put up with it. Abuse is such a vague expression, because I used to think that abuse meant, you know, that it had to be hands on. Whereas today it’s much more nebulous: it’s very difficult to know what it means.


Do you think women find it hard to get their voices heard in politics?

I think that Mrs Thatcher did. There she was, coming into the House of Commons with a burning ambition, and a very good sharp mind and good looks, and she just had to do the best she could. She would be insulted by these Tory MPs. I wish it wasn’t like that but it is.


You’ve lived a long time! What’s your secret to staying young?

It’s being with young people. I love to be with people younger than myself: I love to listen to them and know what they’re thinking. I love to probe them and ask them what they mean by these grand statements. But I am totally energised by people. I don’t like being on my own; I haven’t been to a shop for a month. All I see is Margaret, which is lovely. She’s marvellous.


What are you reading at the moment?

I’m reading all sorts of things. I’m reading what’s here, but I have been catching up with writers that I haven’t read, like White Teeth by Zadie Smith. I found her a bit difficult at times, but I liked it and I thought I was quite moving. I’m also reading a non-fiction memoir called White Muguls by Williams Dalrymple, about the English in India two hundred years ago, when they turned into muguls. They had stacks of money! So they took up their ways and often moved to Islam. They really went native.


Barbara's book, Exceeding My Brief: Memoirs of a Disobedient Civil Servant, is out now and only £4.99 until the end of today. Take a look here


An interview with Anthony Seldon, author of May at 10

  • April 25, 2020 13:00
  • Anthony Seldon

To carry on our weekend of politics, we're very excited to publish this interview from author of May at 10 and political biographer par excellence, Anthony Seldon...


What inspired you to write about May’s time at Number 10?

I have always thought that she was a fascinating politician, and only the second woman out of fifty-four to have become Prime Minister.

You’ve written several other political biographies before. How did writing May at 10 differ to them?

It was the only one of six that I’ve written about serving Prime Ministers, where the entire premiership was overwhelmed and dominated by just one issue, namely Brexit. I worked hard to find other areas that Theresa May was giving attention to, and there were several, including the environment, domestic violence and modern slavery, but her high aspiration of looking after the most vulnerable in society was left incomplete because of the overwhelming focus on Brexit.

So in many ways, it was a tragic story of someone coming into office with such high aspiration and such high-minded beliefs, but unable, in common with so many other premierships, to see their wishes fully realised.

Do you think that overall, the media’s depiction of Theresa May as a hapless PM is unfair?

Premierships are dominated by just one overwhelming issue. If the Prime Minister gets that issue right, then they gain the respect of the media and the public at large. If they don’t, then they have a rough time.

Famously, Anthony Eden failed to take the right decisions over the Suez Crisis in 1956, lied to Parliament, and was swept from power. James Callaghan made a hash of the timing of the general election, which he did not hold in the autumn of 1978, then become embroiled in the Winter of Discontent, and when he did call the election in May 1979, he was swept from power. John Major was the subject of five years of media hostility from Black Wednesday, when Britain was ejected from the Exchange Rate Mechanism of the European Union, until he was swept from power by Tony Blair in May 1997.

Tony Blair himself mishandled his defining issue of Iraq, which he still believes to this day he got right, but which the nation at large and the media thought he had miscalculated. In this broader context, the almost uniformly critical media that Theresa may suffered from is explainable, and in some ways, justified. She had a honeymoon period that lasted from the moment she took over from David Cameron in July 2016, through to her calling a general election in the spring of 2017. The media turned on her during that very long campaign, above all for her volte-face over social care, and then her statement that “nothing had changed” in the election manifesto and in her policy.

With hindsight, the criticism in the press does seem unfair because she had very considerable qualities, albeit perhaps not the qualities most in demand by a Prime Minister at that particular point in history.

What was it like researching the book? Were people (especially politicians) keen to speak to you, or was it hard work?

The book on Theresa May, like the other five, lean far more on civil servants than on ministers and on Special Advisors. Many politicians can be excellent witnesses, who genuinely want to tell you the truth. But too many are not like that, especially those who seek you out and want to speak, so one has to be careful with politicians. But I’ve found, ever since my first book, which was on Churchill as a peacetime Prime Minister, written almost forty years ago, that in fact it is the politicians who are often less revealing, are less objective and have less good memories than the civil servants.

What are the challenges of writing a political biography?

The answer is that there are many, especially those that you don’t foresee. The risk is that if you don’t get close to the subject of the book, and their friends and working colleagues, then you will never get the inside information which is absolutely vital and which makes any biography interesting. But the great risk of getting close to the subject and those around them is that your objectivity is compromised, and you end up losing your perspective. Everybody in politics is in politics for a reason, which may of course often be a good reason and a genuine desire to serve but often is not. Writing political biographies can be enormously hazardous the more controversial and unpopular a figure is. So not easy, but a great deal of fun.

What’s one thing you hope people will take away from reading your book?

I hope very much that they will recognise how extremely difficult it is to be Prime Minster. Few people genuinely understand that, and there are such high expectations of the office holder. But it is a book which is also truly sad, because Theresa May started out with such high hopes: this was the culmination of her entire life. She had devoted her entire life to politics, she had not been able to have any family, and she was a very single-minded politician who’d had some high success as Britain’s longest-serving Home Secretary for many years.

But she struggled from the moment that she went into Number 10 with the all-dominant fact of the requirement to get Britain out of the EU, which in her heart of hearts, was not the issue that brought her into politics. She wasn’t one of those UKIP-tendency, or Eurosceptic, or Ultras in the Tory Party for whom the EU was a terrible thing. She had a balanced view about the EU, and more importantly she had no clear view about what she wanted from the EU or from its departure. And understanding the complexity of life in Number 10 and the maddening complexity of the EU and extricating Britain from it, would be the biggest single thing which I hope people would take away.

What are you working on next?

It’s the 300th anniversary of the first Prime Minister, when George I asked Robert Walpole to become his First Minister in 1721. I’m writing two books next year: the first is an illustrated history of Downing Street itself, which is an extraordinary building, and also a book analysing the three hundred years of Prime Ministers, looking at issues such as when did the Head of Government (ie. the Prime Minister) take over from the Head of State (ie. the monarch) as the key figure in British politics; how and why has the office of Prime Minister been the longest continuously-serving office in the Western World; and indeed is it still the same job as Robert Walpole did three hundred years ago.

Thank you, Anthony! 


Anthony's book, May at 10, is only £20.00 until 26th April: check it out here!


Labour in a time of Coronavirus

  • April 25, 2020 09:00
  • Phil Cowley

To kick off our political weekend at the Biteback Book Festival, author Philip Cowley shares his insights on Labour's 2017 election defeat all the way from Hong Kong...


Trapped indoors, as many of us are, we need ways to pass the time. There are the delights of a good page-turner. For those with kids, there's the unmitigated joys of home schooling. Perhaps you prefer a film or a good game of Scrabble.

Or, if you are a certain type of Labour Party member, you can choose to refight the 2017 general election.

Having written a book on the 2017 contest, I should be delighted by the current revival of interest in the subject. It may have taken place a mere three years ago, but it now seems so far away from our current predicament that it may as well be something from the late-Cretaceous era.

The current uptick in interest – and, maybe, just maybe, sales? – began with Jeremy Corbyn's claim that he would have become Prime Minister in 2017, but for the attempts to overthrow him a year earlier. Things then really picked up with the leaking of an internal Labour document that documented the extent to which Corbyn's leadership had been resisted by many of the party's staff. John McDonnell described the claims that party staff had undermined the 2017 election campaign as "the most shocking act of treachery against the party, its members and our supporters in Labour’s century-long history".

That report found what it described as "an abnormal intensity of factional opposition to the party leader", which didn't really come as much of a shock to those of us who spoke to anyone in the Labour Party at the time. But in turn, the refighting of the 2017 contest serves an important factional function of its own. For the left, it's what we might call the Scooby Doo defence. Labour would have won the 2017 election, if it hadn’t been for those meddling kids.

The only sensible response to these sort of claims is: maybe.

The central case being made is fairly simple. Labour came close to government in 2017, certainly closer than most people expected when the general campaign began, and closer than I think many people still realise. Had the party pulled together, it would have made it over the line. "This," tweeted Zarah Sultana, "is how close we came, even with their sabotage", linking to a news report headlined "Jeremy Corbyn was just 2,227 votes away from chance to be Prime Minister".

It is certainly true that it would not have required many votes to have changed hands for the 2017 outcome to be different. In the eight most marginal Conservative-held seats after the election, some 944 votes changing hands would have resulted in five seats going Labour, two to the Liberal Democrats, one to the SNP. This would have produced a sufficiently large anti-Conservative block that Theresa May would not have been able to form a majority, even with the support of the DUP.

You will see different versions of these numbers. Some add up the size of the majorities that needed to have changed, some look at the number of people who needed to change their mind (which is half the former); some focus just on the most marginal seats where Labour was challenging, some on the most marginal Conservative-held seats. It doesn't really matter; however you calculate it, it's all small fry in the context of an election in which 30 million voted.

This wouldn't have been enough to give Labour a majority in the Commons– they were a long way from that – but it would almost certainly have been enough to have prevented Mrs May continuing as Prime Minister and it might then have been enough to put Mr Corbyn in as Prime Minister, heading up a minority Labour government. Given the lack of a Commons majority, I doubt it would have turned out to be a government marked by stability or longevity (McDonnell's claim that we would now be in the third year of a Labour government strikes me as a particularly heroic assumption), but it would have been a government nonetheless.

So maybe.

But then again: maybe not.

The first problem with these sorts of claims is that while this might have been enough to create an anti- Conservative block in the Commons, it is not inevitable that this would then have led to Mr Corbyn entering Number 10. The Lib Dems in particular would have been in a particularly painful quandary. Another possible outcome would have been a second general election, the outcome of which would have been anyone's guess.

The second problem is that two can play at this game. For if Labour were under 1000 voters away from blocking the Conservatives, Theresa May was a mere 51 votes away from having a Commons majority of her own. May would end election night in 2017 just seven seats of a Commons majority – and there were four constituencies that the Conservatives lost with majorities of between just 20 and 30 votes. Just 51 people voting differently in those four seats would have been enough to give her a majority.

At best, all these sort of calculations do is show you how close the election was. But there are much bigger problems with the sort of political what-if than just a handful of votes here or there.

For example, let's assume that disunity in 2015-2017 hurt Labour's poll ratings (which seems a fair assumption). And let's assume that all of the blame for that can be attributed to the factional behaviour of the centre/right of the party and that none of it was the fault of the left (this is more contestable but stick with it for the sake of the argument). Had Labour been more united, it might well then have polled better.

But if it had polled better, there might not have been a 2017 election in the first place. Would Theresa May, who was decidedly sceptical about the arguments for an election when she was 20 or so percentage points ahead in the polls, have been willing to go for it had the gap been smaller? It's doubtful.

And even if there had been an election, it would have been fought in an entirely different context. Had Labour been polling better, the campaign would have been fought on the basis that they were realistic challengers for government rather than the thing being a shoo in for the Tories. This would have had all sorts of consequences. There almost certainly wouldn't have been any risky announcements about social care, for example, which we know badly hurt the Conservatives.

And while Labour did extremely well in the election to fight back to within a few percentage points of the Conservatives, had they been polling better in the first place, it is likely that their campaign fight back would have been less dramatic. Much of Labour's improvement during the campaign came from former Labour supporters who had become disenchanted with the party; these people presumably wouldn't have left Labour to begin with, but for the events of 2015-2017.

It probably won't take you very long to come up with counter-hypotheticals – some plausible, some less so – all focussing on things that could have helped Labour and got Mr Corbyn into Number 10 in 2017. But by now we're a long way from the original claims of Labour being desperately close in 2017.

So maybe. But then again: maybe not.


Philip Cowley is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University. His recent books include The British General Election of 2017, Palgrave, 2018 (with Dennis Kavanagh) and Sex, Lies and Politics, Biteback, 2019 (with Robert Ford).