A merciful end to a bloody and prolonged argument

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The ban on fox-hunting in three months' time should be welcomed as a blessedly quick end that will put this prolonged saga of indecision out of its misery. Fortunately, it seems unlikely that the legal challenge to the ban will succeed, either on the basis of the Parliament Act or on that of the Human Rights Act. Hunt supporters in the House of Lords have demonstrated their detachment from reality by rejecting the compromise offered by the Commons that would have delayed the ban. So much the better.

The ban on fox-hunting in three months' time should be welcomed as a blessedly quick end that will put this prolonged saga of indecision out of its misery. Fortunately, it seems unlikely that the legal challenge to the ban will succeed, either on the basis of the Parliament Act or on that of the Human Rights Act. Hunt supporters in the House of Lords have demonstrated their detachment from reality by rejecting the compromise offered by the Commons that would have delayed the ban. So much the better.

The unacceptability of hunting can be summed up in two words. Blood sports. The core issue is simple: hunting inflicts unnecessary suffering on animals. As the dispassionate Burns inquiry found, where the fox population needs to be controlled, there are usually kinder ways of doing so. The arguments against a ban are largely diversionary. The traditionalists say it is part of their way of life. Well, so were slavery, violence against women and the hand plough. The liberals say there are worse cruelties against animals perpetrated in intensive farms and abattoirs. So there are: let us deal with these too; that does not excuse the cruelty of hunting.

Tony Blair is widely blamed for the fact that such a second- or third-order issue should have taken so much legislative time. In fact, he was trapped between two unusually intransigent groups: the anti-hunting majority in the Commons and the pro-hunting majority in the Lords. There was never going to be a "third way". If the Prime Minister had understood that earlier, the struggle could have been resolved by now in favour of a ban, possibly phased in over a longer period.

As it is, there will be a more serious problem of adjustment than was necessary for those few thousand people who depend on hunting for their livelihoods - although the blame for that lies firmly with the Lords. There will also, of course, be problems of enforcement. David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, sounded rather lukewarm yesterday about the prospect of the police chasing after people on horses in the countryside to find out if they are chasing anything. Rightly so; most people would rather the police concentrated on threats to human life and limb.

However, that a law might be difficult to enforce is never an absolute argument against having a law in the first place. Laws have an important role in expressing the minimum values of a society. That is why, for instance, it would be right to ban smacking although the ban could not always be enforced in people's homes.

No one emerges from this long-running and unexpected story of the New Labour era with much credit. The anti-hunters have been reluctant to acknowledge the depth of attachment felt by their opponents. The pro-hunters have fought a disastrous campaign, and have been counter-productively obdurate to the end. Both sides have played up class divisions. The Prime Minister has dithered in between. But finally, by imperfect means, democracy has worked. Cheer. Move on.

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