Leading Article: Parliament in pursuit of the wrong priorities

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The Independent Online
Put Baroness Tallyho on television, and most people are filled with an uncontrollable desire not just to ban hunting, but coursing with lurchers, beagling and the wearing of waxed jackets and green wellies. Not to mention a sudden conviction that the House of Lords should be abolished outright - hereditaries and lifers alike. But then something strange happens. Listen to Linda Righteous put the case for banning hunting, and we are suddenly filled with an equal and opposite conviction: Leave Country Sports Alone. Let archaic toffs and their followers dress up and charge about the countryside. They may be horrid to foxes, but we do all kinds of horrible things to animals and no one promises a free vote on compulsory vegetarianism.

The argument about fox-hunting, then, is a case of the unappealing in debate with the illogical. Emotive agitation and disingenuousness rear up on both sides. But clear it all aside, and certain simple facts stand out. First, fox hunting is a ghastly business - not so much because the killing of foxes is offensive, or even the tearing apart of them while still alive (even though both of these things are repulsive), but the fact that this is organised by people as a sport. The idea of taking pleasure in the kill, and of primitive practices such as "blooding", are nasty supplements to the business of controlling the fox population. If hunters donned black puritan gear for the chase and staged a decent funeral for the sad but necessary death of the fox, perhaps there would never have been such a fuss. Instead they dress like the squirearchy and have a good time. Making a sport of killing animals is wrong, and that is why the vast majority of people in this country disapprove of it.

But it does not follow that hunting should be banned. Many other activities of which most right-thinking people disapprove are nevertheless permitted to happen. Public opinion and this newspaper regard boxing as an utterly abhorrent pastime, which pretends to ennoble crass and brutish behaviour. That does not mean it should be banned. Controlled more tightly, perhaps, but the threshold above which legislation is required should be set quite high.

In the case of hunting, there needs to be a compelling reason, over and above public distaste, for legislation. True, the law can be used, and should be used where practicable, to prevent needless cruelty to animals. But the arguments about animal cruelty in relation to hunting are less clear-cut than anti-hunting campaigners allow. They seem curiously oblivious to the drawbacks of the main alternative, which is shooting. (Poisons and traps being more cruel and dangerous than hunting.) It would be better if all foxes were killed cleanly, but many opponents of hunting will also be most enthusiastic in support of Labour's determination to ban pistol shooting as a sport, and keenest to restrain the culture of guns.

The analogies drawn by both sides of the argument are faulty. Those who are against hunting always mention cock-fighting and badger-baiting, once good clean fun, now illegal. But the point about those "sports" is that they were organised solely for the amusement of the humans involved. Some foxes have to be killed because they do not have natural predators, other than man. Equally, the argument about the amount of stress suffered by foxes or stags is specious. That argument swung the National Trust against hunting on its land, but you only have to watch BBC wildlife programmes from the comfort of your armchair to know that life in the wild is no picnic.

On the other side, the claim by the hunt-followers that a ban on their sport will lead inevitably to a ban on fishing is absurd. If the pressure for a ban on hunting is sustained by public opinion, this country has some way to go before the majority adopts the full vegan manifesto. Nor are we illogical in this: only the fundamentalist mentality would fail to recognise a sliding scale of degrees of cruelty. Morally, setting a pack of dogs on a fox is worse than hooking a fish.

We should not be afraid to make these relative judgements, because then it becomes clear how far down the scale and how debatable cruelty to foxes lies. In this there is no absolute stance.

If there is a case for further legislation to stop needless cruelty to animals, then there is a case for requiring all pork, poultry and eggs to be free range.

But once the question of priorities is opened up, we arrive at the real issue here. Of all the important things on which Parliament could be spending its allegedly tightly-constrained time, banning fox-hunting is one of the least significant. Our preferences would be for a Freedom of Information Bill (an ideal opportunity for a backbencher), but many others suggest themselves.

That is the tragedy of Mike Foster's choice of Bill: having come top of the ballot for valuable private member's time, he will entangle his government in an unnecessary diversion from vastly more important matters. On the eve of yesterday's pro-hunt rally, the Prime Minister was trapped in the Commons into restating his opposition to fox-hunting - one of his less convincing personal convictions. As a result, he alienated unnecessarily a relatively harmless minority group and was forced to squander some of the precious fund of goodwill upon which his government will need to draw in future. And for what? The salvation of some widely populous wild dogs, and the gratification of a popular desire to see country toffs cut down to size. It's not really worth it, is it?

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