Sorry Reynard, it's a human right to hunt

Foxes may see Tony Blair as a friend, but Labour is in danger of trespassing on a traditional freedom
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The Independent Online
Tally ho! Yoicks and jorrocks! Today sees the opening of the hunting season. The sabs are dusting down their anoraks, the hunters their pinks, as a new round of bloody confrontation begins. Both sides had better get the most fun out of it they can, for this could be one of the last hunting seasons ever.

As the hounds' breath steams in the brisk autumn air and the MFH drains his stirrup cup, unspeakable old England is on the hoof again, galloping across the country, in the scenes that grace the plastic table-mats of a thousand country pubs. Some 20,000 foxes will be torn apart by ravening hounds. Whether it is pity for the foxes or class hatred of the toffs, 70 to 80 per cent of the public tell pollsters that they want it banned, and so does Labour.

The British Field Sports Society offers a heap of statistics in support of their bloody pleasures: more than 30,000 are employed in hunting-related work, and would lose their jobs; 75 per cent of farmers would instruct (why they have a right to "instruct" I don't know) their MP to vote against any change in hunting laws; more people than ever take part in hunting, 250,000 last year; direct expenditure on blood sports (sorry, country sports, like country-fresh eggs) exceeds pounds 1.4bn, though this is a weasel figure as it includes fishing. The countryside is conserved, with copses, spinneys and hedgerows created expressly for covers and jumps. Traditional farriers, saddlers and harness-makers are kept in business. Somewhat spuriously, they claim all this ritual is in aid of pest control.

Against them is the newly invigorated 70-year-old League Against Cruel Sports, which now sees its prey within millimetres of its slavering jaws. A Private Members' Bill to ban hunting and other cruelty was introduced by the Labour MP John McFall, (who also attempted to deliver a petition to Downing Street dressed as a fox, but was barred "in order to maintain the dignity of the street and its surroundings"). As the Bill proceeded, pounds 750,000 of anti-hunting advertising, paid for by a host of animal charities, deluged the press. MPs each received hundreds of pro-forma letters from constituents (most were duplicated coupons torn out of newspapers.)

The Bill was in committee yesterday. Without government time it will fail, but it has concentrated the minds of both sides as the prospect of a Labour government draws nearer.

A new group of Labour-supporting hunters, Leave Country Sports Alone, headed by Baroness Mallalieu and John and Penny Mortimer, inserted a controversial pro-hunting leaflet into last December's Labour Party News, which caused an outcry. Banning hunting has adorned every Labour manifesto since 1979. Tony Blair sent out a host of letters answered in his name in response to angry Labour Party members: "Mr Blair was not consulted in advance about the insertion of this particular leaflet and as a consequence of this, he has ordered a review of the procedures ... The position of the Labour Party on this issue is firm. A Labour government will make parliamentary time available for a free vote on the abolition of fox- hunting, deer- hunting and hare-coursing with dogs. Tony Blair's position is that he is opposed to these forms of hunting and he would vote for their abolition."

Polls of MPs indicate that on a free vote the House of Commons would ban hunting by a narrow majority. If Labour wins the next election, many more anti-hunters will be returned.

Good people of the left have always been anti-hunting, anti-hanging and anti-harassing gays (as if these things had anything in common), along with anti-boxing and pro-cannabis. These are the bonding issues that blood the membership of the bien pensant, all of them involving fundamental questions of rights in a society with no Bill of Rights. But rights also involve giving rights to people to do things you do not like, and would not want to do yourself. Personally, I am no more likely to ride to hounds than to buy a ticket for a folk-dancing festival or a wrestling match. But I have no wish to stop other people enjoying these curious pursuits. I am not consumed with class hatred of the hunters, nor am I particularly shocked by humans engaging in blood lust as a sport. I feel no greater pity for foxes than for the millions of battery chickens we eat every day, whose life is undoubtedly worse. And I would miss the breathtaking spectacle of the hunt chasing across the skyline.

Rights, say the animal lobbyists? What about the rights of foxes? But animals have no rights. Rights are human attributes, linked to responsibilities, derived from social contracts between fellow human beings. Rights only exist where there is a two-way moral obligation. (Some huntsmen absurdly point to the fox's sadistic pleasure in profligately killing scores of lambs or fowl for fun, as if this "immorality" were a justification for humans killing foxes for sport. But this is a very silly anthropomorphic argument, since nothing a fox does is either good or bad: he is neither an "innocent" victim nor a "guilty" killer.)

We have some obligation as moral beings not to be gratuitously cruel to animals. Personally, I don't much like the killing of foxes, but since I think we are less cruel to foxes over their lifetime than we are to chickens, or most farm animals that end up in abattoirs, only vegans have a coherent position on hunting. On a points system of cruelty, taken over a whole lifetime, we are probably far crueller to farm animals than foxes, despite their bloody end. The fact that foxes are inedible makes no difference, since we only eat meat for pleasure - lentils and pulses will do just as well or better. Presumably, new Labour is not going to ban meat.

No, it is not the hunting that Labour would ban, but the huntspersons. They want to remove the right of a certain upper class of person to enjoy themselves. For instance, they would allow packs of hounds on foot in upland areas to flush out foxes for (humble) farmers to shoot as pest control, but not (posh) hunting on horseback.

What other social groups who engage in arguably inhumane methods of animal slaughter would Labour dare to ban? We know they have reasssured the millions of anglers with a ridiculous Charter for Anglers. But what about kosher butchers? Or halal meat merchants? They wouldn't dare, and anyway it wouldn't be such fun. Labour can reverently invoke the hallowed right of people to practise their religion. But for non-believers, or indeed animals, human religion merits no more respect than the right to enjoy sport. Sport certainly inspires as much passion: read Surtees and Sassoon for obsessional enthusiasm.

If Labour were to make hunting a criminal offence, it would trespass on the rights of a small, if eccentric bunch of people. It would also signify something sinister at the heart of new Labour that ought to send out sharp warning signals: either it displays an authoritarian mentality that doesn't understand rights, or it betrays a deep cynicism in wooing the animal rights vote at any cost.