Keep chasing that fox, Mr Blair, and you'll take the wrong turning

The campaign against fox hunting is classically New Labour, at once politically correct and popular
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Indy Politics

PERHAPS THE oddest aspect of the endless analysis to which the Prime Minister's announcement on fox-hunting has been subjected is the assumption that it will somehow pacify a Labour Party restive at the failure of the Government to be socialist enough. This isn't because the assumption is wrong. Quite the contrary; there is every sign that large swathes of the Parliamentary Labour Party are indeed much heartened by his suggestion, opaquely reinforced yesterday by the Home Office minister George Howarth, that he does seriously intend to ban hunting during the current Parliament.

PERHAPS THE oddest aspect of the endless analysis to which the Prime Minister's announcement on fox-hunting has been subjected is the assumption that it will somehow pacify a Labour Party restive at the failure of the Government to be socialist enough. This isn't because the assumption is wrong. Quite the contrary; there is every sign that large swathes of the Parliamentary Labour Party are indeed much heartened by his suggestion, opaquely reinforced yesterday by the Home Office minister George Howarth, that he does seriously intend to ban hunting during the current Parliament.

No, what's odd about the assumption is that it is right. That after all its doubts about burying tax and spend, or the relatively slow pace of delivering social inclusion, or whatever particular issue it is that concerns this dissident MP or that, the People's Party should be so heartily delighted by a policy whose sole beneficiaries would not be people but foxes.

On one level, this may be understandable. The crusade against hunting is not, as it happens, a particularly ferocious Old Labour cause, though many old Labour MPs support it. It is significant that ministers report the real, hawkishly Cromwellian enthusiasm for a ban to be much higher among newer and younger Labour MPs than among older ones. The anti-hunting cause is anti-libertarian, which makes it so peculiar that the Liberal Democrats should wholeheartedly support it. (The argument that it isn't illiberal, valiantly advanced in these pages yesterday by Jackie Ballard MP, only works if you think animal rights are on the same plane as human ones. Logically that leads you pretty inexorably to a ban on angling, not to mention meat-eating. Since these are rather more popular activities than fox-hunting, no sane politician - and Mrs Ballard is certainly one of those - would ever suggest such a thing.)

But in one sense the campaign against fox-hunting is a classically New Labour cause, at once politically correct and popular. Opinion poll support for a ban, at least when people are asked about it, is high, not just in cities but in the rural areas that organisations like the pro-hunting Countryside Alliance so presumptuously, and falsely, claims to represent. And it won't cost anything. Indeed, for the party, if not for the taxpayer, it may actually bring in some revenue since the ferociously anti-hunting Political Animal Lobby, by giving £1m to the party, has now shown itself to be in the big league, party donor-wise.

Or at least it won't cost anything financially. Politically, it will, of course, disturb an important element of the coalition of interests that it has been New Labour's especial talent to assemble. That is no bad thing. To paraphrase John Major, if the government doesn't hurt someone, it may not be working. What is much less clear is whether fox- hunting, of all things, is the right issue on which to squander so much capital in a knock-down fight with the self-styled countryside lobby. Especially when the Parliamentary Labour Party could just be falling into the trap of sacrificing a much better - and more distinctively left wing - cause to its obsession with protecting foxes.

When Michael Meacher - who has proved to be as successful a minister as he was an unsuccessful opposition politician - announced a robust policy on the ramblers' "right to roam" on designated areas of heath, moor and woodland, Labour backbenchers were palpably, and rightly, delighted.

It wasn't merely that they expected him to announce exactly the opposite: an abject climbdown in the face of opposition from the country landowners. It was also that he was acting in an honourable tradition that went back beyond the enthusiasm of that passionate Munro-bagger John Smith for walkers' access to the wilder British countryside. Indeed, it was business left unfinished by the Attlee government, which had been forced to water down the more radical elements of its own Countryside Access Bill in the face of an election.

As great a triumph as Meacher scored, however, it needs a bill to be enacted. And it is already clear that this isn't going to happen in the next parliamentary session; John Prescott's mega-department will probably be allowed only one bill, on transport. Naturally, the authorities point out that work is already going on to designate appropriate sections of countryside to which access can be guaranteed when a bill is passed. And that will take time, bill or no bill. And they point out that a bill could still be introduced later in the Parliament. True - in theory. But it will get more rather than less difficult. It was the Thatcherite Lord Young who wisely remarked during the 1980s that it was almost impossible to introduce a truly radical measure in the last two years of a parliament.

What has this got to do with fox-hunting? Well it is impossible not to wonder whether the Government will really be prepared to take on the vested interests of the countryside on two fronts. Interestingly, the Countryside Alliance has already begun in its propaganda to link the two issues, arguing that they show a dual assault on those interests. These are people who haven't even begun to argue yet with the ferocity they can command.

Faced, as an election approaches, with a strident campaign (backed by the organs of the landowning classes, such as The Daily Telegraph), there is a real risk, even if ministers do not yet appreciate it, that having decided to ban hunting, the Government will shelve the right to roam.

Which will mean it will have made the wrong choice. I happen to agree with Oscar Wilde's description of fox hunters as the "unspeakable, pursuing the uneatable". But that doesn't mean a ban would be worth a penny candle beside the cause of liberating for those who like to walk some of the wilderness that ought to be their treasured heritage. Like the 90 per cent of the outstanding heatherland of the Forest of Bowland in Lancashire, owned by the Duke of Westminster and littered with ugly "Keep Out" signs. Or the 600 acres of South Midland countryside between the Pyrton and Shirburn Hills, which is part of the estate owned by the Earl of Macclesfield, who has been quoted as saying he doesn't like urbanites on his land because of their "loud voices" and that the freedom to roam is "absolute bollocks".

Compared with banning fox-hunting the right to roam is a cause to be proud of, a testament not only to the campaigners who trespassed and fought for it, but to the thousands of industrial workers who for a century or more poured off the weekend trains from Manchester and Sheffield and Leeds into open land in which to breathe clean air, and feel a freedom denied them in the city. A specifically Labour case, in other words. And one for people rather than animals. If there has to be a pact with the countryside lobby let it be this: you have your fox-hunting. Let us have our right to roam.

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