Ann Widdecombe: We have witnessed a triumph of democracy

A practice is either cruel or it is not, and it if is, then we should outlaw it

On Wednesday, the House of Commons brought Britain into the 21st century, decreeing that no tally ho will defile the countryside after July 2006. Predictably, those who want to preserve the practice of chasing an animal running in fear from a pack of baying hounds drawing ever closer to it, for sport and amusement, whinge about their "liberty" being trampled on. It is, they claim, the duty of Parliament to protect the interests of minorities.

Being in a minority can not be an absolute defence to any charge, and in this instance the charge is cruelty. What matters is not whether a majority or a minority hunt but whether it is cruel, and if so whether it is nonetheless a necessary evil. The Burns Commission found that hunting compromises the welfare of the fox. It baffles me that we needed all those learned gentlemen to engage in so much earnest consultation to determine that very simple fact.

Causing fear to an animal is cruel, and causing prolonged fear is wickedly cruel. Chasing an animal until it can no longer outrun its pursuit and then letting it be set on by a pack of dogs is scarcely the hallmark of civilisation, but an argument could be made for tolerating such ungodly conduct if there was no other way of controlling the fox population. Yet Burns found that only six per cent of all fox destruction is done by hunting which means that 94 per cent is already done by other means. In other words hunting is a most ineffective form of pesticide and there is no utilitarian, let alone moral, argument for its retention.

If we let minorities carry on with any sport regardless of its ethicality, then we would never have banned bear baiting, cockfighting or badger baiting. A practice is either cruel or it is not, and if it is, then it should be outlawed.

There was much talk in the debate about affronts to democracy. On the contrary, what we saw was a triumph of democracy. A manifesto commitment was turned into law by a large majority in the directly elected House, despite a long, powerful and obstructive campaign against it.

The biggest affront to democracy was the violence of the protesters in the square outside and the invasion of the Chamber inside Parliament, which resulted in the public gallery being cleared and remaining cleared for the rest of the day. It is bad enough having a screen between us and the people without the sort of antics which mean it is not safe to have them there at all.

There was also the tired old argument about jobs being lost. Yes, there will be some unemployment, although with an 18-month delay most people will receive vastly more notice than is normal when losing a living. However, even if the numbers were much greater and the notice much less, job losses do not constitute even a remote reason for failing to implement a ban. If we abolished crime, thousands of police would lose their jobs. If we abolished ill-health, all the doctors and nurses would be out of a job. Would anyone seriously propose that we keep crime and illness just to keep people in work? If hunting is wrong, then it cannot be maintained just to save jobs.

Future generations will probably look back in disbelief that hunting should have survived into the 21st century. Yet, depressingly, many of the supporters of this so-called sport have claimed that the ban is part of a class war. Opinion polls have consistently shown a majority of the public in favour of outlawing hunting. Do a majority of Britons wage a class war? Am I, who was almost a lone voice crying in the wilderness for repealing the removal of hereditary peers from the House of Lords, waging a class war?

It is a sad state of affairs when Parliamentarians can not recognise that there is such a thing as honest conviction on the part of those who disagree with them. Tony Banks, who has led the campaign for the Labour side, fought a huge battle on behalf of bears mistreated in China. Was he waging a class war against the communist regime there?

Of course crude, conscienceless, politics did intrude. Mr Blair saw to that by insisting on a delay of two years, later reduced to 18 months, for implementation. I have no doubt that the motive was to spare himself electoral embarrassment and to leave him free to call an election next spring without the papers being full of countryside protest and harrowingly exaggerated accounts of hounds and horses facing death in their tens of thousands. Or was it to give himself another chance, delayed until after the election, to fudge the issue yet again? After all, he has played cynically with this measure for seven years.

Finally there was genuine concern that the Parliament Act should be used, and to some extent I share the unease. Yet the Act was designed for just this eventuality -- a large majority in the elected House being thwarted by the unelected House.

On Wednesday the elected House prevailed, and so did decency and kindness and moral discernment.

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