The spirit of Jorrocks lives on in England's pleasant land

'I was asked what would happen to hunting. I could only answer that a ban seemed inconceivable'
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It was as if a Christmas card had come to life. Hooves clattered on the cobbles; pink-and-black-coated riders exchanged jokes and stirrup caps while the steamy breath of horses and horsemen commingled in the wintry air.

It was as if a Christmas card had come to life. Hooves clattered on the cobbles; pink-and-black-coated riders exchanged jokes and stirrup caps while the steamy breath of horses and horsemen commingled in the wintry air.

The Middleton Hunt had assembled in the Market Square at Malton for the Boxing Day meet. There was hardly enough room for the hunt, its foot followers and the locals who had come to watch, all of whom seemed to be enjoying themselves. There was no sign of an anti to disrupt the jollification. Malton is a fortunate town, in that it has largely avoided the ravages of modern architecture. If Jorrocks and John Peel had surveyed the Boxing Day meet from a distance, they might have been reassured that nothing had changed since their days in the hunting field, and to a remarkable extent, they might be right. Such a scene is balm to the soul of even the gloomiest of cultural pessimists. In Malton, at least, history is still now, and England.

The merry gentlemen and their ladies then trotted off, at a pace that was gentle on the digestion more than it was menacing to the fox. Anyway, they were going to stop outside the old people's home for further good cheer and refreshment - and at the pub in Old Malton, ditto. There was a brief, brisk chase later, but only an enfeebled fox or an unlucky one would have fallen to the Middleton Hunt on this Boxing Day. That meet was more of a Yorkshire Palio than a serious attempt to cull Reynard .

But the mood was not all jollity. There was an anxious undertone. In North Yorkshire, as in other hunting counties, a considerable portion of pub and dinner-table conversation is now devoted to legislative timetables, the Parliament Act, the European Convention on Human Rights - and the forthcoming protest march in London.

I was repeatedly asked what would happen to hunting. I could only answer that a ban seemed inconceivable; how could anyone attempt to suppress the splendid spectacle that we had just witnessed? To do so would be a profoundly immoral act, and very much against the fox's best interests.

When hunters insist that they revere their quarry, the antis always accuse them of masking cruelty in hypocrisy. The antis are no doubt sincere; they are also thoughtless. It is undeniable that over the centuries the hunter has been the fox's staunchest ally.

Years ago, there was a winning entry to a New Statesman literary competition. "Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter: jolly tasty they were too." In a similar spirit I once rose at first light on a Sussex spring morning to bag a couple of bunnies for the pot. But when I cautiously peered over the hedge into a field that was normally full of the creatures, there was none to be seen. I quickly saw why the rabbit population had decided to have a lie-in that morning: a vixen was playing with her cubs. That sight was worth a wilderness of rabbits - but it is the fox-hunters who have ensured that it is still relatively common in the countryside.

For the fox is the sworn enemy of anyone who tries to keep poultry, which includes most of the rural population. So in other circumstances, the persecution would have been relentless. Like the pine marten or the wild cat, the fox would have been driven back to remote highland fastnesses. Only one thing prevented it from suffering such a fate: the need to keep up fox numbers for the local hunts. So a slaughtered hen-house led to compensation, not extermination. The hunters have maintained the balance of nature.

So if foxes had votes, they ought to vote solidly in favour of hunting. If it were ever abolished, the second consequence - the first would be the putting-down of thousands of foxhounds - would be a drastic decline in the fox population. Anyone who cares about conserving our countryside should support hunting.

There was, of course, no need to rehearse those arguments in Malton. But my hunting friends were also aware that the strength of their case is no guarantee of victory. As I warned them, it is well nigh impossible to resist the brute force of a parliamentary majority.

That provoked an interesting response from a thoughtful young man who was by no means over-refreshed. I suspect his views are widely shared throughout the hunting community, if less eloquently expressed.

"You know,"' he said; "I've often wondered what would have happened if the Germans had overrun England. How many of us would have gone quietly and just become Nazi petty bureaucrats, and how many of us would have had the courage to resist dictatorship? Well, maybe we are about to find out."

There was no question that most of those who hunt would regard a ban as an invasion, violating their liberties and their way of life. Whether or not they would act accordingly, they would feel themselves entitled to resist this illegitimate use of government power and to invoke civil disobedience in the cause of freedom. Jack Straw, who spends many of his weekends as a popular resident in an Oxfordshire village, and who has been known to give a cheery wave to his local hunt, is well aware of all this. If it were down to him, hunting would be safe. But it is not down to him. Other factors are in play, such as the brutal forces of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

So what does Mr Blair think? I suspect that he is pulled in two opposite directions. On the one hand, he cares nothing for history or for England, which to him is a mere blank canvas for modernisation. Whenever he discovers that the canvas is already thickly layered with paint, his first instinct is to reach for the paint-stripper. He wishes that his country could reinvent itself as easily as he reinvents himself.

He also dislikes opposition, especially organised opposition. Hunters often find themselves in marquees, but rarely in Labour's big tent. They have had the temerity to resist Blairism, so the PM's instant response would be to let them suffer the consequences.

But Mr Blair may not necessarily allow that instant response to prevail. Up to now, at any rate, when he has been faced with the choice between the tribal reactions of old-fashioned Labour supporters and those of sophisticated London dinner-tables, he has usually come down on the side of the dinner-party classes.

By now, he is aware that a significant proportion of high-minded persons - including New Labourites - are unhappy about a ban. They may not be moved by Jorrocks but they are persuaded by John Stuart Mill. They believe that it is wrong for a government to use its majority to override minority rights.

It is still hard to see how fox-hunting could survive another Parliament with a large Labour majority. But it is equally hard to see how any government could ever ban it; it would be risking unprecedented disruption and a haemorrhage of public support. Any sensible minister who looked over that fence would decide, like Mr Straw, that it would be folly to jump it.

I rather suspect that my hunting friends in Malton may be able to enjoy future Boxing Day meets without having to break the law.