A needless confrontation with a rural lobby hunting for headlines

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Members of Parliament understandably lost no time in placing the incursion into the House of Commons by pro-hunting protesters in the gravest historical and political contest

Members of Parliament understandably lost no time in placing the incursion into the House of Commons by pro-hunting protesters in the gravest historical and political contest. But it is not necessary to share the exaggerated judgement of Sir Stuart Bell - "Not since Charles I came to this House has there been such an invasion" - to regard what happened yesterday in Westminster as a pernicious flash of mob rule and an affront to our democracy.

This was the first time in living memory that anyone had penetrated the floor of the House. The safety of our elected representatives was threatened. A debate was suspended; a vote placed in jeopardy. Armed guards were positioned around the Chamber. When was the last time we witnessed anything similar in Western Europe? During the attempted coup in Spain more than 20 years ago, perhaps.

Yesterday's invasion was not of this seriousness. The culprits were summarily ejected; the debate resumed and the vote was taken. The ban on hunting was passed by a big majority. To this extent, the disruption failed. The invaders did not change the course of history, nor did they subvert democracy.

But this was not their prime purpose. Their purpose, as became evident early in the day, was disruption for its own sake. A sufficient minority of the demonstrators in Parliament Square were so hell-bent on violence as to make violence inevitable. This was the last stand of the militant pro-hunting lobby against a law they detest.

That the purpose of the protest was essentially limited to nuisance, however, does not make it innocent. This was the third time in six months that the security of Parliament has been breached. First Greenpeace scaled the tower of Big Ben. Then a militant campaigner for fathers' rights dropped purple flour on the Prime Minister from the almost glassed-in public gallery. Now the hunters. London is supposed to be in a state of heightened vigilance against terrorism. Whatever additional security measures have been taken, they are clearly not working. There must be some way of keeping MPs safe - not just from terrorists but from headline-seeking hooligans - that falls short of armed guards in the Chamber.

But blame does not attach to the protesters alone. There is something tragic in the fact that the most urgent, and the most tempestuous, piece of legislation on Parliament's return should not be about judicial reform, changes in the health service or even the mounting violence in Iraq and the future of our troops there, but about fox hunting.

How this subject has managed to arouse such excitement among MPs normally noted only for indifference to the affairs of the countryside and to animal rights is one of the curiosities of our time. It may not be a pursuit that is easy to defend. But it is not, according to opinion polls, a question that the majority of the population regards as particularly pressing. Nor is it one of the most urgent animal welfare issues. Even a delayed ban is an illiberal solution to an irrelevant problem.

So why allow a minority activity to become a totemic cause of confrontation between town and country? Why make it into a Bill that dominates the agenda and becomes the one litmus test of power between the Prime Minister and his backbenchers? It would be cynical to suggest that Labour MPs prefer debating hunting to debating Iraq - still more cynical, perhaps, to suggest that this preference suits the Prime Minister quite well. But the regular return of the hunting Bill at key junctures in the parliamentary timetable permits just such a conclusion.

A stronger prime minister, one not hobbled by the Iraq débâcle, might have buried this Bill long ago. A wiser one would never have allowed his party near it. Now we have a single sectional issue conjuring up the spectre of anarchy on the streets of Westminster. The tactics of the militant hunting lobby are utterly contemptible. But so is political weakness that cuts a fanatical minority so much slack.