Leading Article: Pity Mr Blair, caught between the activists and the men in red coats

IT MAY seem a long way from barking hounds and mud-spattered flanks to the cosy fastnesses of the Soho drinking clubs where the stars of stage and screen are more usually to be found. But the thousands who mounted their horses to follow the 300 Boxing Day bank-holiday hunts have been in the thoughts of pop stars including Noel Gallagher and Sir Paul McCartney, as well as thespians such as Jenny Seagrove, Sir John Gielgud and Dame Judi Dench this weekend. These illustrious members of the community have been sharing their thoughts on hunting with the Prime Minister in a spate of letters that call on Mr Blair to support the private member's Bill, being introduced by his bete noire, Ken Livingstone, to ban hunting with hounds.

Our Prime Minister may not fear the serried ranks of hunt saboteurs, whose every act of extremism merely serves to alienate those of us who fail to see the point of chasing about the countryside after an exhausted, panting fox - but he has never failed to show his respect to the featured stars of cool Britannia.

His own views about the necessity of banning hunting are notoriously hard to read: one moment he is characterising the sport as yet another product of the forces of conservatism; the next, his official spokesman is letting it be known that his government will not be finding parliamentary time for Mr Livingstone's Bill this session. Our guess is that he does not much care about the matter one way or the other, but, as a politician, he is blown about by other people's strong feelings.

On the one hand, many of the activists in his own party care passionately about the matter; on the other, his desire to get everyone under New Labour's broad tent makes him sensitive to the Countryside Alliance's successful linking of hunting with all matters of rural life, from farming to seasonal employment.

The political fix has been to buy time through the appointment of the Burns inquiry into fox-hunting, which - fortuitously - is not expected to report before the end of June: that will be just too late to introduce legislation in the current session of parliament.

Not that matters are much more satisfactory on the other side of the hedge. In what must be the silliest offer of a compromise on record, Lord Daresbury, who is chairman of the Masters of Fox Hounds Association, has suggested that, if the huntsmen were to abandon their traditional red jackets, the forces of progressivism might allow them to continue their pursuit of foxes across field and moor. His reasoning contains a kernel of truth: the red jackets are associated with the attire of toffs, and a large part of the agitation against fox-hunting would seem to be based on class antagonism (cf the failure of the animal welfare lobby to campaign against fishing). But it is too late to hide behind a costume of demotic attire: the anti-hunt brigades have their quarry in sight and they will not be put off the scent by such transparent trickery.

If the opponents of hunting wish to base their opposition on ethical grounds, rather than on simple antagonism to the recreational activities of people they dislike for other reasons, they have a moral duty to oppose all forms of animal cruelty with equal vigour. Until it can be established that hunting with hounds is a uniquely cruel way of eliminating the surplus population of foxes, we can only observe that the case for legislation has yet to be proven.

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