A debate hounded by hypocrisy

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This is, no doubt, going to get me into trouble with my children, but I have to say I am relieved that the Government's refusal to provide parliamentary time looks like dooming the anti-hunting Bill.

Perhaps part of this is pleasure at seeing Labour's hitherto all-conquering spin doctors outflanked and forced to retreat on a popular issue. But after a week of listening interminably to the arguments, it seems to me the case for banning fox-hunting is unproven.

Then there's something distasteful about the way the Bill was being swept along on a wave of ecological correctness. Not to speak of how it was given a fair wind by a government that accepted a pre-election gift of more than pounds 1m from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, which makes no bones about giving money to advance its cause "in the same manner as the commercial sector has done for years".

In fact the environmental arguments probably favour the hunters, as do the employment ones. Fox-hunting has helped preserve copses, spinneys and hedges in an increasingly denuded countryside, while even the abolitionists admit the ban would kill jobs.

o MIND YOU, the likes of the people in Hyde Park have also been behind much of the destruction of the countryside by intensified agriculture - and have shown little concern for massive job losses elsewhere.

But, then, there has been a lot of humbug on both sides, whether it was the right-wing philosopher Roger Scruton, on Radio 4's The Moral Maze, saying he hunted to "be in touch with my species being" (whatever that may be) or the anti-hunt campaigners who unblushingly compared themselves to Mother Teresa and their cause to the fight against slavery. And how about Michael Heseltine, chosen to speak by the rally organisers in preference to Lord Tebbit or Nicholas Soames (and one can see their point). The man who killed the coal industry denounced the Bill for threatening to "destroy communities ... and destroy jobs".

But then it was senior Conservatives who, by muddling up environmental concerns with undoubtedly important questions of cruelty to animals over whaling, set the precedent for last week's fuss.

Back in the early Eighties, a ban was imposed on commercial whaling to save species. But when it became clear that there were plenty of minke whales, the main type hunted, John Gummer, then agriculture minister (who attended the rally), changed tack, insisting the ban must stay because of whaling's cruelty. Later, the then fisheries minister, Tony Baldry (who last week attacked the anti-hunting Bill in Parliament) went even further: whaling should still be banned even if it could be made humane, he said, because "it is opposed by the vast majority of our citizens".

How then can they continue to support fox-hunting? How can Mike Foster MP, the Bill's sponsor, not extend it to his own sport, competition angling, which seems just as cruel? And what about the League Against Cruel Sports, which will not discuss fishing as "outside its mandate"?

Given the barbarism of much of Britain's farming, shouldn't we all be vegetarians? But even that would not be enough for consistency, for milking cows are also treated cruelly to over-produce.

It is indeed a moral maze. I'm not sorry to see the Bill go on the backburner until we have done more to chart our way through it.

o AT LEAST the rally provided a rare opportunity to see Baroness Mallalieu in full cry ("Hunting is our music, it is our poetry, it is our art, it is our pleasure"). Her earlier claim to fame was being elected, in 1967, the first woman president of the Cambridge Union. Over at its still male-run Oxford counterpart, in an execrable pun on her name, this was shamefully held to be Mal a l'autre lieu.