Is this the last bloody Boxing Day?

'In one splendid protest, 12 men dressed in women's clothing to promote drag hunting. Boom! Boom!'
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The Independent Online

It has grown into a modest tradition, on Boxing Day morning, for the newspapers to declare that this may be the last Boxing Day to see fox-hunting in Britain. So here we are. This may be the last Boxing Day to see fox-hunting in Britain. The great push began in earnest in 1996 when, in anticipation of a Labour victory in the coming general election, the League Against Cruel Sports declared 26 December "the last bloody Boxing Day".

It has grown into a modest tradition, on Boxing Day morning, for the newspapers to declare that this may be the last Boxing Day to see fox-hunting in Britain. So here we are. This may be the last Boxing Day to see fox-hunting in Britain. The great push began in earnest in 1996 when, in anticipation of a Labour victory in the coming general election, the League Against Cruel Sports declared 26 December "the last bloody Boxing Day".

In fact, it turned out to be, so far, the last non-bloody Boxing Day. Under the Conservatives, you see, global warming was not given house room, so all the hunts in the entire nation were called off, due to temperatures so low that they made the earth too hard for horses to gallop on. Back then, across the country, 1,200 demonstrators had to go home without having had anything to protest against.

Since then, year by year, the pageantry and excitement of protest has become ever more inventive and lively. The question now is not "What will Boxing Day be without the hunts?", but "What will Boxing Day be without the hunt protests?"

For while 1996 was a washout for all concerned, the ante has been upped every Boxing Day ever since. In 1997, it was estimated that 100,000 people turned out to take part in or observe the hunts. There were also 15 protests, each attracting about 100 people. The protesters came up with all manner of jolly japes to further their cause. One group, in a rather counterproductive move for people concerned with animal rights, were alleged to have poisoned seven hounds at Baesley in Gwent. At the Garth and south Berkshire hunt, two saboteurs were held in custody amid allegations of the theft of a whip and a hunting horn. And in Winslow, Buckinghamshire, saboteurs hung a skeleton effigy dressed as a huntsman from a tree.

That was also the year of The Hunt, a 50-minute documentary shown on Boxing Day on BBC1, 1997, detailing a year in the life of the Ludlow Hunt in Shropshire. Mistakenly believing that a full and frank exposure of hunting life would assure a hysterical public, the documentary did more to incense voters than any other single piece of media coverage.

Viewers were treated to the sight of a fox being shot at point-blank range as it attempted to go to hole, and it was then thrown to the dogs to be ripped to pieces. A three-year-old hound was also shot in the head for being tardy, with its body then thrown into an incinerator. A hunter's horse was filmed dying of a heart attack, and its body was then placed alongside the corpses of some sheep, ready to be fed to the dogs over the following days.

Tony Banks, then the Sports Minister, took the opportunity to assure a revolted nation that he was "certain" that fox-hunting would be over before the next general election. How much more of a seer he would have seemed if he'd inserted instead of "fox-hunting", "my career as a politician".

By 1998, hunt protesting had become quite the modish activity, with the number of protesters leaping from a few thousand to an estimated 25,000. The big set piece this year was the handing over of some "belated Christmas gifts" to Tony Blair at Chequers. These comprised a video of fox cubs being hunted and a replica human backbone. Just in case dumbing down in Britain had reached yet more epic proportions than previously advertised, John Bryant, of Protect Our Wild Animals, declared: "The backbone was to replace the one that Tony Blair appeared to lose when the fox-hunting bill failed." Meanwhile, barricades became popular and were erected in Bicester, Oxfordshire, and Maldon, Essex, to separate hunt supporters from hunt saboteurs. What fun.

Last year, though, events became even more baroque, as 300,000 people across the country turned out to take part in some kind of hunt or anti-hunt activity. In 1999, the national sport of hunt-hunting finally achieved the sort of attention needed for an issue to really mean something. That's right. Celebrity endorsement by the spadeful. Noel Gallagher and Meg Matthews wrote to the Prime Minister in what might have been one of the final issues they agreed on. Also out in force were Paul McCartney, Jo Brand, Mark Owen of Take That, Julian Clary, Sean Hughes, David Baddiel, Marie Helvin, Colin Welland, John Gielgud, Tracey Shaw, Judi Dench, Patrick Moore and Richard Wilson.

But perhaps even more telling than the celebrity mêlée was the declaration, just before Christmas, of Ken Livingstone, then still a Labour MP, that he would introduce a Private Member's Bill to ban fox-hunting.

Opportunism knocks. In the pages of The Independent, Mr Livingstone said: "To be as helpful as possible to the Government, I chose the last possible day for the Bill's second reading in the Commons."

As history relates, Livingstone was not quite helpful enough. fox-hunting was not banned, and Livingstone had to content himself with a job in local government. Again, some odd activities were undertaken in the name of animal rights, including the spraying of a pack of hounds with gas, and the capturing and bundling into the back of a vehicle of three others in a separate incident. But there was also one splendid protest, in which 12 men dressed in women's clothing positioned themselves along the route of the Worcester hunt, in order to promote drag hunting. Boom! Boom!

These souls were not the only ones seeking to make sartorial comment. Lord Daresbury, chairman of the Masters of Fox Hounds Association, suggested that instead of banning fox-hunting, maybe a happy compromise might be the banning of red coats. "I think it is a tradition that is seen to be linked to the military use of uniform," he offered thoughtfully. Warm tweed jackets might be a less incendiary alternative. His suggestion did not really take off.

This year, of course, the build-up to Boxing Day has been more intense than ever, with further pledges for an end to fox-hunting before the commencement of next year's battery-farmed turkey fest.

This does seem rather a shame.I can't help feeling that the Boxing Day protests have only really just been getting going. For just a few years, Boxing Day has had a real purpose and a real focus. Certainly the protests have become more vivid, more witty and more imaginative as this Labour government has progressed. Given another few decades, the protests could have achieved epic proportions and perhaps overtaken pantomime as the predominant performing art for the festive season.

Certainly, the whole debate is as straightforward and formulaic as a pantomime ("Oh yes you do," "Oh no we don't."). Its attraction is its simplicity, and the simplicity with which its perceived inhumanity can be laid to rest. Still, it's an odd one. There is no doubt that what upsets people about fox-hunting is not the fact that foxes are ripped apart by dogs - that can be banned no more than the ripping apart of mice by cats. It is the fact that humans take part, assist and enjoy watching the dogs.

Maybe it would be appropriate, given that this is Boxing Day after all, to start feeling some revulsion at the fact that humans like to watch other humans inflicting death, injury and brain damage on each other in the name of sport. Once fox-hunting has gone, what possible excuse can there be for boxing?

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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