How the hunting debate went from a view to an overkill

Click to follow
The Independent Online

This is a strange moment of history. Politics and politicians are agreed to be, by and large, dull. No one can understand, or greatly cares about, the euro. Northern Ireland has gone on too long and the health service is ramshackle. Ideas and ideals are in short supply. The only subject that rouses huge emotions and flaring tempers is the peripheral question of fox hunting.

This is a strange moment of history. Politics and politicians are agreed to be, by and large, dull. No one can understand, or greatly cares about, the euro. Northern Ireland has gone on too long and the health service is ramshackle. Ideas and ideals are in short supply. The only subject that rouses huge emotions and flaring tempers is the peripheral question of fox hunting.

To the urban politician it's a bloodstained sport, unhealthily enjoyed by toffs on horses. To thousands of honest, decent, law abiding country dwellers of all classes it seems a natural part of life, an exciting pursuit and a decent way of controlling foxes; the prospect of it being turned into a crime by MPs who eat meat and tolerate abattoirs, and the undoubted cruelty of kosher and halal butchery, seems to them an idea snatched from the wilder shores of political correctness.

This weekend the Blair government dealt with this highly emotive issue with the all skill and political finesse that it showed over Welsh devolution and the choice of a mayoral candidate for London. In short, we were confronted by a muddle fuelled by panic, and one in which principles have been lost in the haze of party expediency.

First of all, the Government spent £1m on the Burns Committee. I appeared before Lord Burns, who seemed courteous and fair minded; although his report may rely heavily on statistics, which are not much help on emotive issues. However, Lord Burns is likely to suggest that hunting should be confined to certain remote rural areas and kept away from the suburbs. This can only mean that it's not unnecessarily cruel but merely objectionable to certain sections of society. Having spent all this time and money you would expect any reasonable government to continue to allow hunting subject to certain disciplines and restrictions.

But logic and fairness are replaced by complex political considerations. The Government's popularity is fading. Mr Blair was impolitely treated by the Women's Institute, which has many country members. The grassroots supporters and the unhappy backbench MPs, who have long been expected to do nothing but obey the call of their pagers, must be placated and given a sop.

So, before anyone has a chance to weigh up or even read the Burns Report, a government bill is announced which makes a total ban on hunting a possible alternative. And this is to be done to stop those backbench MPs sabotaging the Countryside Bill, which contains provisions about rambling, by adding an anti-hunting amendment.

The same backbench Labour MPs, it should be remembered, are the ones who turned out to vote for a dotty anti-hunting bill presented by Michael Forster (it would have sent you to prison if your dog, while out for a walk, chased a rabbit and then changed its mind and chased a hare). The next week, when the subject for debate was a bill to help deprived children, only a handful of them bothered to turn up.

What is depressing about all this is that an act, intended to have huntsmen, Masters of Foxhounds, Pony Club girls and the many thousands of enthusiastic foot followers branded as criminals fit to be handcuffed and dragged off to overcrowded prisons, is to be kicked like a football in a party political game round the corridors of power until, I profoundly hope, some sensible person calls "time" and we hear no more of it.

The test of democracy is not that majorities should always get their way but the extent to which minorities, with different values and ways of life, are respected. Labour backbenchers are eager to protect the rights of ethnic and sexual minorities. What is sad is their lack of tolerance for country people, whose values they don't try to understand.

It's a sure sign of a closed mind and the adoption of yobbo politics when a speaker uses the word "liberal" as a term of abuse as Mr Hague does. A Labour government should rejoice in this word, the dictionary definition of which is "open minded", "not prejudiced" and "favouring individual liberty". Recent political developments, such as the restrictions of jury trials and shifting the burden of proof, have led to doubts about the present Government's respect for individual liberty. Such doubts can only be increased when a bill, giving an opportunity to its backbenchers to criminalise honest and honourable people, is announced without a proper public consideration of a report which is said to contemplate, with equanimity, the continuance of hunting. As it is, this rushed announcement points to the Government's greatest weakness, a mistaken tendency to tell us all how to live our own lives.

The writer is a barrister, playwright and novelist

Comments