"The answer is, I do not see a role for government. I am well aware there are strong opinions on this matter, but it is not uppermost in the minds of the majority of the population. What they want are decent schools, a decent health service, and to be able to walk down their streets in safety."
There is no contradiction between Straw '98 and Straw '99. The announcement that the Government will offer "reasonable time and drafting assistance" to a Private Member's Bill to outlaw hunting with dogs merely confirms that it is behaving as it should, given the massive majority for such a ban last time the House of Commons voted. That's just democracy, ain't it?
And smart politics. The two-year wobble caused by the reaction of hunters to the prospect of a ban is now officially over; the Government has a strategy. From now on, Tony and the rest of the gang will be able to hold up their hands and say, "Not us, guv, it's those free-thinking MPs, whose independent-mindedness we've always valued so much. They've expressed the people's will, and there you are."
There'll even be an inquiry, so that everyone can put their point of view, pro and anti, and be listened to. Then this inquiry - I'm prepared to bet - will find that the impact of a ban on rural jobs will be negligible, and that such a ban would be relatively easy to enforce; easier, in fact, than the already existing prohibitions on badger-baiting, cock-fighting, prize-fighting and other golden oldies. It's pretty hard to hide three dozen red-coated folks on big horses chasing about after a flock of yapping hounds. The Beaufort Hunt would find it difficult to meet at night, with only a torch to guide it.
Since there is no avoiding a decision on this issue, and with the next election likely to be called in the summer of 2001, Labour wants to be able to go to the country (if not the countryside) with, at best, William Hague promising to reintroduce a sport that most voters appear to think barbaric.
At worst, the Bill will have failed because of the residual hereditary Tory majority in the House of Lords, and because it has become a matter of democrats versus toffs. Either way, should MPs vote for a ban once more, I am now convinced that fox-hunting will pass into history with the old millennium.
I hope they won't vote for it. I hope that they will change their minds. And I say this despite the fact that, for several months, the antics of the pro-hunt lobby have nearly blown it for me. Of all the pressure groups that have been active in Britain in the last 20 years, only the Serbian Information Centre comes anywhere close to the fox-hunters for disinformation, hyperbole and bullying. No argument has been eschewed as being too improbable, no totally unrelated issue has been seen as beyond useful deployment.
They have exaggerated enormously the job losses and other economic consequences of an end to hunting, lumping in just about everything that relates to equestrian or canine activity in Britain. They have suggested, ludicrously, that hunting is linked together with other "rural" problems, such as transport, shopping, the right to roam, planning issues and so on, all of which - they suggest - add up to an assault by the urban majority on their rustic cousins. But it's country people themselves who don't use the buses (no, they don't) and who don't shop at local village shops, and the richer ones among whom educate their kids privately, depriving the local schools of pupils. It may be, as the Countryside Alliance claims, that 54 per cent of rural residents "believe that they pay too much council tax compared with their urban counterparts", but it's still bollocks.
Worse, to then claim, as some have, that an end to fox-hunting is tantamount to "ethnic cleansing", is an absurd charge that suggests that some country people - who have been featherbedded and over-protected for too long - should get out a bit more.
It simply isn't true that townies "do not understand" the countryside; just as it isn't true that foxes love being hunted, or that they die a goodish sort of death, or that they're only chased 'cos they're pests. If it were pests that hunters were really after, then they'd go city-centre rat-hunting on tricycles. If they weren't interested in the death of an animal, then they'd enjoy drag-hunting. Townspeople know this; our houses may be close together, but we aren't that stupid.
Consciences move on. People have the right to redraw the boundaries of what is and isn't acceptable. Once wife-beating and bear-baiting were thought to be perfectly OK; then we decided that they were unacceptable, and no one argues for legalisation to reintroduce them nowadays.
So there should only ever have been one argument put forward by the hunters against a ban on their sport. And it's best framed as a question: is it a good idea for you to ban me from doing something that I like and that harms you not at all, even if you disapprove? A similar question, incidentally, might be posed about cannabis, ecstasy, or, for that matter, sado-masochism. This is the issue for the MPs when they come to consider their next vote - the one that may well decide the issue for ever. Forget the postbags. Especially forget the opinion polls. It's bloody easy to tell a clipboard that some other woman's fun ought to be stopped.
It's another thing to tell her to her face. Hunting may be a bit cruel, but do you really feel strongly enough about the foxes of Britain to deprive fellow-citizens of a pastime that they clearly value immensely? And that is a reasonably colourful and harmless connection to England's past?
Is angling tolerable because you have reconciled the complex scientific arguments about the nervous system of the carp, or because fish are not furry and do not beseech you with piteous whines? Is meat-eating acceptable merely because you have never visited an abattoir and seen what really goes on there? Or are there just too many anglers and too many meat-eaters?
In general, whom do you stand alongside, the banners or the bannees? A fairly good rule of thumb here is that if Ann Widdecombe is against it, then you should be in favour, from gay marriage through women priests to the production of cannabis.
(Should the Countryside Alliance want a proper link, by the way, it should remember that more spliffs, bongs and joints are being smoked in rustic Britain than ever there are jodhpurs being ironed. "Dope," it should say, "the perfect accompaniment to a day's sport. And somehow you won't care whether the fox gets caught.")
But if MPs refuse my advice and do ban hunting, then I have some sound counsel for the fox-hunters. Take it on the chin. Please don't give us all this stuff about civil unrest and barricades; that's towny talk. You'll just end up fighting the police, because that's what it always comes to. You're on the wrong side of history here.
You may be able to hang on; indeed I hope you do. But once gone, hunting will never, ever, come back.Reuse content