Leading Article: The pursuit of fox-hunters is a waste of time and energy

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The Independent Culture
TALLY HO! The Home Secretary's announcement that the Government will provide time and assistance to a Private Member's Bill to ban fox- hunting will, if nothing else, mean that British politics will be obsessed to an unhealthy degree by the pursuit of the issue for the rest of this Parliament. But, emotional as the question of fox-hunting is, it remains essentially a second- or even third-level issue of animal welfare. The way it dominates public and parliamentary debate is preposterous.

Compare and contrast fox-hunting with the amount of attention we devote to factory farming, say, or the appalling conditions of exported live animals, both of which surely involve far more suffering to livestock than a handful of fox-hunts manage to inflict. Even more striking - and damaging - will be the way that debate on this micro-issue will distract us from the challenges facing the health service, or our schools, or how we settle our future relations with the rest of Europe. These issues are unlikely to cause a fight in a bar, but they are vastly more important to our lives and those of our children and grandchildren, and far more worthy of our attention, than fox-hunting.

But the idea of banning fox-hunting is worse than an irrelevance. It is also a profoundly illiberal impulse. It has been said many times before, but it bears repeating: it is no part of the role of government or a House of Commons - even if acting on behalf of a majority of the electorate - to ban those things of which it disapproves. Tolerance for the uncivilised behaviour of a minority is the hallmark of a civilised society. We may all heartily disapprove of adultery, or drunkenness, or gambling. They can cause immense human misery. But, rightly, we do not seek to outlaw them.

What this really boils down to is politics. Labour's leadership has woken up to the potency of an issue that will please and distract its own party activists just as the Government gets on with welfare reform and tackling the teaching and medical professions. It forces William Hague to ally himself with some of the most eccentric and unattractive elements in the country, people who talk about militant action as if they were Barbour-jacketed versions of Arthur Scargill.

It will cost the Treasury nothing. And those who threaten the Labour Party with a "backlash" from the countryside have not done their homework. Of the 100 most rural seats in Parliament, the Labour Party holds just a handful. Let us be clear: this is a cynical and illiberal proposal from an illiberal Home Secretary.