The mark of a civilised society is its tolerance of unpopular behaviour

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This is a significant moment. The debate was continuing as this leading article was written, but the trend in Scotland against fox-hunting seems clear and unequivocal, and it will not be long before it is banned there.

The Scottish Parliament, it hardly needs saying, is entitled to deal with this issue as it sees fit. That is what devolution is all about. So no one should quibble about the right of the Scottish Parliament to legislate in this manner. One can quibble, however, about whether this is the right legislation to pass, since this daft action offers a foolish precedent for the rest of the United Kingdom.

It was the wrong decision for exactly the same reasons that it would have been a mistake for Westminster to pass such legislation. All parliamentary debates on fox-hunting represent an unwelcome distraction from the really serious problems – hospitals, schools, public transport system and crime – that our elected representatives should be concerning themselves with at this stage in our history. If it was tried at Westminster, the pro-hunting lobby would once again gum up the legislative works and much more important bills would be lost.

It seems absurd that MPs and MSPs should be seen making such a minor issue a matter of such priority. Moreover, as a move to promote animal welfare, banning fox-hunting comes a long way short of other measures that are less emotive but that would be of far greater use in preventing the suffering we inflict on animals. We have only to think of the appalling conditions that exist in factory farms, the scandal of battery and broiler chickens and the resumption of the live export of livestock to the Continent to conclude that legislators both here and in Europe would be better occupied dealing with these cruelties. Banning fox-hunting is little more than an irrelevance when it comes to the wider cause of animal welfare.

Worse than that, however, it is a deeply illiberal impulse. Fox-hunting is a strange, faintly ridiculous, pastime that a majority of the public oppose (although the level of opposition seems to vary depending on the question that is asked). However, that does not mean that it is a part of the role of government, the House of Commons or the Scottish Parliament – even if acting on the wishes of a majority of the electorate – to ban those things that they disapprove of. The unpopular behaviour of a minority, however baffling or bizarre that behaviour is, should be tolerated in a civilised society, so long as it does not impact on other people. Different minorities among us regularly indulge in drunkenness, adultery and gambling. But we would think it absurd as well as impractical to outlaw these activities.

There is no doubt that the success of the movement against hunting in Scotland will give a substantial fillip to its counterpart south of the border and will reignite the argument at Westminster about a ban. It may well be that, once again, Tony Blair will find it expedient to raise the profile of the issue as a deliberate ploy to take the heat off the Government's woeful failure to deliver improved public services.

Indeed, amid intense and deserved scrutiny of Labour's links with business, the time may seem particularly ripe for ministers to engineer a a row about hunting to take our minds off incidents such as Lakshmi Mittal's lobbying of Number 10. And, as William Hague found to his eventual electoral cost, all such moves tend to push some of the most unattractive and eccentric pro-hunting elements into the unwilling arms of the Conservative Party.

Banning hunting, as the debate in the Scottish Parliament shows, is as much about class and politics as it is about animal welfare. Holyrood has made a mistake.

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