New Labour has been fickle when it comes to this issue. A policy guide prior to the general election stated that the Labour Party was opposed to the practice. In the election manifesto, however, this had been reduced to the more electorally digestible promise of a free vote. But, in the face of a crippling list of amendments from the Opposition and embarrassing marches through London by an aggrieved countryside lobby, the Government did not give Mike Foster's private member's bill enough Parliamentary time. Now, suddenly, Mr Blair has taken up the campaign on his own behalf.
His new plan to ban hunting with dogs is misguided on two counts. The first is that such a ban would be fundamentally illiberal. It is puzzling how people enjoy dressing up in brightly coloured coats to go careering through the countryside, blowing a horn and killing wild animals. But while this pastime may be absurd, it should not be banned. It is easy, after all, to make the case that it is less cruel and damaging than fishing - but then four million voters enjoy that particular blood sport.
The second reason is that the ban is hypocritical, motivated by political rather than animal-welfare concerns. If this Government were really committed to helping animals, it would focus on the real horrors that humans mete out to animals on farms and in laboratories. Each year, 39 million turkeys and 750 million broiler chickens spend their short, miserable lives being bred for slaughter, often in such conditions that they are crippled. In 1997, more than 2.5 million animals were used in scientific research and testing, including 2,600 primates - genetically, our almost identical cousins. But instead of tackling these abuses, the Government is preoccupied with preventing the near-instantaneous slaughter of some 16,000 foxes each year, after a chase lasting, on average, 17 minutes. Fox-hunting is distasteful, not least because the hunters take pleasure in the kill. Sadistic as it is, though, in terms of animal welfare, it is small fry.
This is a matter of personal freedom - the right of one small group of people to pursue a pastime disliked by many others. But Mr Blair may not press the point. He has been inconsistent before, and it would not be surprising if foxhunting slipped quietly off the agenda soon. It would not be the first time Mr Blair has laid a false trail to confuse and distract his tormentors.Reuse content