Sean O'Grady: There can be no middle way in the face of cruelty

'If we fail now to ban fox hunting, animals will die in circumstances that shame a civilised society'
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The Independent Online

It's always good to know where people are coming from, so I should declare now that I am a card-carrying member of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, of the League Against Cruel Sports and of the Liberal Democrats.

"Headbanger" might well be your instinctive reaction, and you might be right, of course. Self-diagnosis of that condition is notoriously difficult. But I have always thought of myself as quite a reasonable-minded, rational sort of person who just happens to take the view that hunting foxes, hares and deer with packs of hounds is cruel.

I also think, equally rationally and uncontroversially, that on the whole we should ban animal cruelty. You don't see much bear-baiting these days, and we prosecute people who shoot cats with air-rifles. Quite right, too, most reasonable people would say. You see? Animal welfare isn't just for headbangers.

The problem for those of us who oppose fox hunting and who are also by nature pragmatic is that a very tempting compromise is being dangled in front of our furry little noses. "Banning fox hunting is not on," our opponents seem to be saying, "but we can offer you a middle way, a compromise. We'll introduce strict licensing of fox hunting for a start, and if you really, really want, we'll throw in a ban on hare coursing and deer hunting as well. There. A reasonable compromise; otherwise you'll end up with nothing."

Well, it does sound tempting, but something tells me not to buy this deal. It's a very, very old chestnut. Or loaf of bread. You want a full loaf, but, when push comes to shove, wouldn't you rather have half a loaf rather than no bread at all? Are you, in other words, a headbanger or a realist?

Mostly, I am a convinced half-a-loaf man, almost to the point of becoming ideological about it. A half-elected House of Lords, say, is certainly better than one that is wholly unelected and worth supporting as an interim solution. If the Government spent half of what it really should on the NHS to raise it up to European standards, that would be welcome progress, too.

Fox hunting, though, is different. Much of this is simply down to tactics. If we allow the so-called middle way to triumph on the grounds that it represents at least some progress, and that some animal suffering will be prevented, then we risk killing the issue off for the rest of the parliament, if not longer. "The issue is settled" will be the response to those who want to continue the fight, and I fear much of the impetus would inevitably go out of the campaign. The Government would claim that its manifesto commitment had been discharged. The Tories, we can be sure, would not have any interest in reopening the issue, so our only hope would remain, as so often in the past, getting a Private Member's Bill through Parliament, something that has failed so many times before.

In practice, as well, one suspects that any system for regulating fox hunting would be a haphazard affair and that many of the cruel old habits would continue. Hunts would still leave out food for fox cubs to artificially boost the population and the terrier men will still be up to their tricks.

Not only that but "accidents" will still happen, with hunts trespassing over people's land and hounds being run over when they cross roads and domestic pets being killed by the packs. And the system of fox hunting will still mean that the fox is likely to be torn apart alive. A better definition of cruelty I doubt it would be possible to find. If hare coursing and deer hunting are not part of the deal, then such a compromise would be even more worthless and contemptible.

No, this is the best opportunity we have yet had to end fox hunting with a good clean break of its neck, and we would be insane to pass it up. If we fail at this point then, yes, some animals will die in disgusting circumstances that are shaming to a civilised society. But we will have lost none of the impetus and shown that the will of the people expressed through the House of Commons has been frustrated yet again.

Anti-hunting MPs must hold their nerve and reject the middle way. At least the fight will go on, with even more outraged passion and commitment; it could still be won in this Parliament. It has already been won, with surprising ease, in Scotland. Accept the compromise, and we will be lumbered with the middle way for decades, with all the suffering that that implies. Inertia would set in; a bogus "consensus" that would be difficult to dislodge. It would be a far worse situation.

There is another way. The Government should use the Parliament Act to force through a ban on fox hunting and and ensure that the will of the people, expressed at general elections and in countless Commons votes, most recently on Monday, is enacted.

If being pro-democracy and anti-cruelty makes me a headbanger, then maybe I am. I rather think that, if so, we must be a nation of headbangers. We should be proud of it.