Me? I would put children ahead of foxes every time

'I'd far rather see the rights of parents to assault their kids curtailed than worry about the pretty foxes'

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I make the score following the Queen's speech, civil liberties 0, Jack Straw 4. The Bill to limit the right of trial by jury in certain cases is to return, and I'm sorry about that. In addition (should there be sufficient time), we are to see another Bill curbing,
inter alia, not only the ancient English and Welsh rights to wander the streets with an open booze bottle in our hands, but also the even more venerable right of neglectful parents to allow their 12 year olds to be out and about after 10 pm.

I make the score following the Queen's speech, civil liberties 0, Jack Straw 4. The Bill to limit the right of trial by jury in certain cases is to return, and I'm sorry about that. In addition (should there be sufficient time), we are to see another Bill curbing, inter alia, not only the ancient English and Welsh rights to wander the streets with an open booze bottle in our hands, but also the even more venerable right of neglectful parents to allow their 12 year olds to be out and about after 10 pm.

However, I'm told that such measures have worked in Leamington Spa and Ayr respectively, substantially cutting crime, and there is such a thing as right to be protected from the antisocial behaviour of others. So I'll give Jack the benefit of the doubt on these, though I shall be pretty fed up if, when enjoying a tipple at a pavement café next summer, I find myself grabbed from behind by an over-zealous member of the constabulary and marched off to a cash-point machine.

Yobs, however, don't have many friends, so most attention will be focussed on the fourth potential limitation, the three-choice Bill published later today, that could ban hunting with hounds. In some ways it is unfair to link this to Jack, since this entirely novel multiple-choice way of letting Parliament decide something will come without the Home Secretary's own preference stamped on it. I do not know whether he is in favour of option one (let hunting continue much as it is), option two (regulate it a bit, so that the foxes enjoy it more), or option three (ban it outright). But the smart money, given votes taken so far this parliament, must be on option three.

My old friend, columnist and wannabe MP Boris Johnson, writing in another place yesterday, took the Government to task for introducing such a trivial bill at a time when, among other terrible things going on, the Middle East was imploding. Perhaps he felt that Mr Blair would have served the nation better by promising to introduce an Arab-Israeli Peace Bill (offering MPs three choices of desired outcomes for that troubled region).

Many will sympathise with Boris's view. In 20 years' time, I believe that we will look back on this country's treatment of children and wonder how we ever allowed them to be hit and bullied in the name of firm parenting. So I would far rather see the rights of parents to assault their kids curtailed, than worry about the pretty foxes.

And we will now be forced to endure the recommencement - despite the Burns Report - of all those circular arguments about whether shooting is kinder than ripping to bits, and how many part-time jobs indirectly rely on folks who will not go riding unless something dies at the end of their exercise. Well, if we must, we must. But MPs should bear in mind that there is only one question that really matters here: should the protection of foxes from an unpleasant form of death outweigh the protection of citizens to continue to enjoy a pastime that is extremely important to them?

There is always a line to be drawn here. We have, over the years, progressively outlawed such treatment of animals as we have considered to be cruel. Badger-baiting and dog-fighting are now strictly illegal, punished with fines and imprisonment, and forced underground. The use of animals in circus acts is now far more circumscribed than it was 10 years ago. Remember those seaside chimps with their teeth removed? We have, however, decided - up till now - to permit hunting with dogs, with guns and with fishing rod and line. We also allow the rearing of animals for meat in factory conditions. Only the most active vegetarian member of the animal-rights lobby can look at themselves in the mirror and claim to be pure; the rest of us are - to some degree - tainted by cruelty to animals.

It is perfectly legitimate for us to say that we wish to shift the line; but, since there are no absolutes, it is also right to consider what we force our fellow citizens to forego. Yesterday morning Baroness Mallalieu, the Labour hunter, spoke of people for whom hunting was a "second religion". My first reaction was that they ought to get a life. But on second thoughts, I realised that many enthusiasts - from football supporters to battle re-enactors - follow their pastime with a passion that others reserve for politics, career or romance. Why should hunters be any different?

They aren't. Lady Mallalieu may be guilty of exaggeration when she promises that the "largest ever civil liberties demonstration in Britain" will descend on the capital next spring. Bigger than the suffragettes? Grander than the Chartists? More terrifying than the Peasants' Revolt? I also have a suspicion that grand remonstrances are last year's fashion. Getting people to one big demo was always hard enough, but persuading them to do it year after year, when the novelty is less attractive, is a much taller order. Nevertheless, an outright ban will be resisted ferociously by the relatively small number of people who love hunting. It will create real and deep-seated resentments that will last for many years.

True, the curbing of hunting with hounds will be supported stoutly by the relatively small number of people who believe that it has (to quote the League Against Cruel Sports) "no place in a modern society". But I suspect that most of us (including the majority of city-dwellers), though we would rather people didn't set dogs on to foxes and think that those who enjoy it are a bit strange, don't actually care that much.

Any more than we really care about conditions in the abbattoirs that supply the meat we so happily consume. Or worry about angling. In which case, I wonder how morally justified MPs would be in imposing the semi-apathetic will of the many on the few? Why go to the lengths of criminalising perfectly good citizens, if most of the polity are unconcerned?

Despite the efforts of the Countryside Alliance, there is every sign that the political attempt to identify hunting with all other rural issues - from post offices to housing - has begun to fail as the debate has become more sophisticated. And there probably isn't much mileage in forming a united front with al fresco boozers and pre-teen delinquents. So the chances are that, within months, there will be legislation on the statute book to ban hunting.

I hope I'm wrong. There is always an alternative available to people in a democratic and tolerant society. It is called persuasion. It is open to the animal rights people to argue with hunters, to distribute leaflets putting their case, to highlight incidents of undue cruelty, to picket hunts, to shout slogans, to appear on TV and radio or to take ads in newspapers. Not liking something is not always sufficient reason for banning it, and in any case - as the Queen's Speech has shown - there's always plenty of banning to do just to protect us from each other.

Don't alienate your fellow human beings unless you really have to. And we don't. So, for God's sake, let's leave the bloody hunts alone.

David.Aaronovitch@btinternet.com

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