Leading Article: Drop the humbug about hunting

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"DADDY, do most people think fox-hunting should be banned?" Yes, dear, according to a Gallup poll this month two-thirds of grown-ups in Britain think it should be. "And do most Members of Parliament think hunting should be banned?" Yes, dear, last November they voted by 411 to 151 to ban it. "Oh, good, so it is against the law now, then." Well, not exactly; you see, there are some even more important people, called the Cabinet... "And they don't think hunting should be banned?" Er, it's a bit more complicated than that: 18 of them say it should be banned and two say it shouldn't. "Oh, don't they say what they mean, then?" Not all the time.

"Daddy, is Tony Blair in the Cabinet?" Yes, he is the most important one. "And what does he think?" Well, a girl of about your age wrote a letter to ask him, and he wrote back saying, "I do think hunting is wrong and I will vote in favour of a ban in the House of Commons." "But that doesn't mean what I think it means, does it?" No, I'm afraid not, dear.

Let us translate the Prime Minister's words into plain English for his 11-year-old correspondent, Roseanne Mills: "I do think hunting is wrong, but not so wrong that I want to pass a law against it, and I will vote in favour of a ban in the House of Commons, so long as it is a purely symbolic gesture." Thus amplified, Mr Blair's position suddenly becomes a perfectly reasonable one. So what is going on here? At one level, he is making a cold political analysis about the sorts of issues which can sway floating voters in all the rural and semi-rural seats which Labour won for the first time last May.

One reason for the double-talk is that he does not want to admit that he and the Cabinet care more about the strong views of Barbour-jacketed Middle England than the weak views of the majority, with the rights of foxes coming a rather distant third.

Another reason why the Prime Minister is reluctant to level with Ms Mills and the rest of us is that he does not want to undermine the charade of representative democracy which assumes that we send our MPs to Westminster to exercise their judgement on our behalf. The issue of fox-hunting has been presented as a "free vote", a matter of tender consciences and open government, but the truth is that a free vote of the legislature stands only by permission of the executive. This is a tricky one for a Labour Party which inveighed against the dictatorship of the executive over the legislature in the Thatcher era, when all manner of measures were railroaded through that would not have been supported in, say, a secret ballot.

It turns out, then, that all the fine talk about free votes is cover for hard-nosed calculation of party political advantage. But where Mr Blair has lost the plot is in thinking that the voters would object if he spelt out what is really going on. The Government's position has now become so double-dealing and demeaning that it is doing more damage than if the Prime Minister simply told the animal rights movement he disagreed with them. Having raised expectations among the pro-fox legions and thoroughly confused his own backbenchers, the Home Secretary this week declared: "I do not see a role for Government. We do not have a mandate for it." These are, to stay with the world of wild mammals for a moment, weasel words.

Jack Straw is pedantically right: the Labour Party has no formal mandate in the sense that its manifesto promised only a free vote. But that just takes us back to the previous layer of double-talk. How much more of a mandate does the Government really need than public opinion, a vote of the Commons and the publicly-expressed personal views of its own members?

Because the Government has not been straight with people, yesterday's fizzling-out of Michael Foster's Bill is not and cannot be the end of the matter. The pro-hunters still feel threatened, and the pro-fox lobby still have their righteous tails up.

It is time for Mr Blair to make some tough choices, say what he means and mean what he says, and trade some short-term popularity for long-term credibility. He should say that he does not like fox-hunting. It is objectionable that people should take pleasure from the tearing apart of one animal by another, and some of the subsidiary practices such as the "blooding" of children are little short of barbaric.

But he - or whoever drafted that letter to Ms Mills - should avoid describing fox-hunting as "wrong": as one with a strong ethical basis to his politics, such language gets him into difficult territory. Why will he vote (albeit ineffectively) to outlaw hunting? If adultery is wrong, should it be legislated against? If abortion is wrong, should it be illegal? On the next countryside march, expect to see placards proclaiming "A huntsman's right to choose". And if hunting is "wrong", how much more or less wrong is the greater daily brutality of abattoirs and intensive farming?

The important point is that it should be possible to disapprove of things without trying to have them banned. If our first response to things we do not like is to seek to ban them, we will soon find ourselves living in an illiberal society, and we will have failed to reach a mature understanding of representative democracy.

So the House of Commons came to the right conclusion yesterday, by in effect declining to criminalise one particular method of the necessary culling of foxes. But it would have been better if the Government had been prepared to talk about the need to balance conflicting priorities and to protect minority views in a democracy.

Instead of hiding behind pious sentiments, while justifying their contrary actions to themselves as cold political necessity, it would help if politicians were prepared to give us the real reasons why Mr Foster's Bill died yesterday. They should not be afraid to make the argument in public about the need to balance conflicting imperatives and to protect minority views from the tyranny of democracy. Even an 11-year-old could understand it.