Leading Article : Beware of the anti-hunting roundheads in full cry

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Tally ho! Hear those hunt sabs muttering; see those red coats fluttering. See the steam of hounds rising. Hark to the bark of Olde England saddled up. Yes, trussed up in hats and hair-nets, the fox-hunters are preparing for their annual, traditional Boxing Day meet. The Christmas ritual of chasing small wild animals across the countryside and screaming as dogs tear them to death is about to begin.

But this could be the last year for this risk-taking, fence-taking, life- taking sport. The aristocrats should be quaking in their riding boots: the roundheads are coming. The urban moralists of the New Model Labour Party have their hearts set on stopping the cavaliers in full charge.

Keen to clamp down on anti-social practices of all sorts, Labour plan to reduce the drink-driving limit, and warn us of the dangers of not sending our children to bed on time. And yesterday the party confirmed that it will hold a free vote on hunting if it is elected next year. Given the views of most Labour MPs, that probably means that a strong Labour victory would be followed in quick order by a ban on hunting. If there is an undercurrent of melancholy as the hip flasks are emptied, and the horns are prepared, it won't be surprising.

It is easy to understand where Labour are coming from. There is something revolting about the idea of killing for pleasure. No matter how much the hunting lobby bray about the thrill of the chase and the skill of the riders, one simple fact remains: the end purpose of this sport is death. Killing for food, killing for protection, killing to manage the countryside; all these are essential and we shouldn't be squeamish about them. But the idea that people could be so proud of enjoying the kill is rather repellent.

Tradition is no defence. The fact that families have been playing such games for centuries doesn't justify their heirs continuing to hunt today. For centuries people have been doing all sorts of appalling things - including badger baiting, cockfighting and working ponies until they dropped - that we have now made illegal. Compassion about animals isn't a fad for flaky urbanites, nor is it simply squeamishness; it is a measure of a society becoming gentler and more civilised. This newspaper wouldn't hunt.

But would we therefore ban it? We would not: the prospect of the state intervening to ban an activity where the harm to others is not overwhelming, troubles us deeply.

For a start, the cruelty case against fox-hunting is not clear cut. Foxes are not as fluffy as they look. Basil Brush and Roald Dahl - author of the children's classic, Fantastic Mr Fox - may have helped the little vermin weave their way into our affections, but they are predators which have been controlled for centuries by farmers and landowners, rich and poor. The anti-hunting lobby needs to make a more convincing case that other methods of slaughtering foxes are genuinely less cruel than hunting, before the arguments for a ban become overwhelming.

We should reflect, too, on our own hypocrisy about animal welfare. Fox- hunting, most of us hate. But what about fishing? Anglers across the country clearly get great pleasure from their sport, although the purpose again is to maim or kill, sometimes without actually catching anything to eat. Similar arguments about needless cruelty should apply to fish as to foxes. But, funnily enough, few saboteurs are ever seen charging along the canal banks, screaming slogans at raincoated anglers. Is it a class thing?

We are on equally tenuous ground with the food we eat. Many of us happily condemn blood sports while condoning the needless cruelty against animals that goes on for the sake of our dinners. Chickens don't have to be kept in such vile conditions to deliver us eggs and white meat. But so many consumers still prefer to turn a blind eye to the pain that is caused, for the sake of a cheaper shopping trolley.

The truth is that we single out fox-hunting among all these animal welfare issues because we loathe the lifestyle and the traditions that go with it. Hunting remains the preserve of a tiny, predominantly wealthy, minority. At a time when the royals and their aristocratic entourage are more out of touch with the real world than ever, the majority of the population are impatient with their rituals, their power and their privileges. Prince Philip's clueless remarks about shooting and cricket bats only rammed home how detached they are. And stories of Prince William's enjoyment of stag hunting disappointed many, for they forced the country to recall that he wasn't simply another cheery, baseball-hatted youngster; he was one of them.

But none of this is really the point. Britain is full of people who do things others strongly disapprove of: pornographers and gas-guzzlers, boxing enthusiasts and stone-cladders, conceptual artists and sado-masochists, motocross manics and urban skateboarders. But before we leap in to call for a ban, we need to be absolutely sure that the offence is so great that the power of the state is needed, and that the curb on individual freedom is warranted. After a lot of thought, we decided that this case had been made for a handgun ban, after Dunblane. But the libertarian argument which lost that one is not insignificant. We should be very careful, very edgy, about taking away the pleasures of minorities to salve the conscience of the majority.

New Labour should concentrate on the harder, more important things: political reform, more efficient public services, fairer taxation. If its MPs want to take on the aristocracy, then let it be through the abolition of the House of Lords. The roundheads took too many liberties away - and what happened to them in the end?

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