Hunting ban will not end problems

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WHEN Lord Watson’s bill to ban fox hunting is passed later tonight, it will mark something of a coming of age for the Scottish parliament.

For the first time, Labour MSPs will be able to look their Westminster counterparts in the eye and say: "We have managed to achieve something that you haven’t."

The Scottish parliament has gone its own way before - on tuition fees and elderly care - but both of these issues have been clouded by compromise, fudge and indecision.

This is the first time the parliament will have made such a symbolic and dramatic statement of intent: making Scotland the first part of the country to ban a practice which has existed for centuries.

The passing of the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Bill will represent a major and spectacular victory for the anti-hunt lobby but it will have been achieved at considerable cost.

Large swathes of rural Scotland now claim to feel isolated, betrayed and disenfranchised and dozens of people who rely on hunting for their livelihood are facing unemployment, many almost certainly without compensation.

On top of this, the ban on hunting is likely to be subjected to lengthy, expensive and acrimonious challenges through the courts, some of which could take years to resolve.

Is a ban on fox hunting worth all the pain, heartache and division it will undoubtedly cause?

The anti-hunt lobby claim it is, arguing that chasing foxes to their death for fun has no place in a modern Scotland.

The pro-hunt lobby, on the other hand, claim it is not, insisting that the legislation will criminalise law-abiding people and decimate jobs without saving a single fox.

The arguments on both sides have been well rehearsed during the past two and a half years since Lord Watson introduced his bill, and no doubt many of them will be repeated in the Scottish parliament later today. However, no-one is actually sure what form the bill will have when it is passed.

It has already been approved in principle by the parliament, rejected by the committee which examined it in detail, approved by the parliament again and then amended by the committee.

This afternoon it will be amended again and passed by the parliament again.

But the problems - and there will be many - will not be over with the passing of this bill.

First there is the difficulty over enforcement.

The bill now contains so many exemptions and provisos that it will still be possible for people to go out with dogs, flush out a fox, wound it with a rifle and then set the dogs on to it to kill it - and not be breaking the law. The bill will also make it legal for people to go out with dogs to kill foxes on foot but not on horseback.

Then there is the question of compensation which has forced the executive to break its position of neutrality over the bill, and get involved.

The Scottish executive had refused to take sides all the way through the bill’s progress through the parliament. But last night, a spokesman for the executive made it clear that ministers - including the First Minister, Jack McConnell - supported a controversial amendment on compensation tabled by Labour MSP Karen Gillon. The spokesman also admitted that executive officials had helped draft that particular amendment.

This admission provoked a furious response from countryside campaigners, some of whom promised to blockade main roads in Edinburgh tomorrow morning if MSPs refused to back a more generous compensation scheme.

The dispute centres on three amendments. Two, from Lib-Dem Mike Rumbles and Tory Alex Fergusson, would force the executive to compensate anyone who loses their livelihood as a result of the bill, whether they were directly involved in hunting or not. If passed, either one of these amendments would cost the executive up to 100 million.

Ms Gillon’s amendment, however, would give the executive discretion to issue compensation in strictly exceptional cases - leading to fears that ministers would not compensate anybody.

If this happens, farriers, grooms and stable hands who find themselves out of work but without any compensation will almost certainly take the parliament to court.

At heart, the fight over the bill comes down to a fundamental disagreement between a rural minority which is largely supportive of fox hunting and an urban majority which is not.

Simple demographics and democracy mean that the majority view will win through. However, the damage done to rural-urban relations will be severe.

One woman, a hunt supporter, rang The Scotsman yesterday to appeal to the news paper to do something, anything, to prevent the bill going through.

"We are under attack. Our whole way of life is being undermined by people who don’t understand," she said.

It is this fear that has fuelled the massive opposition to the bill in the countryside, a groundswell of popular opinion totally out of proportion to the small number of people who actually hunt.

Although the anti-hunt lobby is loathe to admit it, the fight against hunting has been fuelled by a cosy and convenient class prejudice which bears little relation to reality.

Fox hunting in Scotland actually attracts vets, farmers and gamekeepers as well as businessmen and landowners yet the popular perception of hunting is still that it is a blood sport enjoyed by "toffs in red coats".

It is this suspicion that the bill really has less to do with preventing animal cruelty than with class-based prejudice, that has stoked the feelings of grievance in the country and helped mobilise such an army against the bill.

As one pro-hunt MSP put it: "If the parliament really wanted to stop animal cruelty it would move against the battery chicken farms all over the country which are far worse than any hunt."

Probably only a few hundred enthusiasts in Scotland hunt, yet tens of thousands have signed petitions, written to MSPs and taken to the streets on their behalf.

Rural campaigners lit more than 200 beacons across Scotland last night in an attempt to convey the strength of feeling in the countryside.

More than 500 pro-hunt demonstrators from around Britain are also expected to meet at Kelso Racecourse today, together with hundreds of horses and hounds, before heading to Edinburgh to protest outside parliament during the debate.

Campaigners say this is because the rural population as a whole feels threatened by the bill, and, by extension, by the Scottish parliament. However, the bill has an equally strong symbolic importance for the anti-hunt lobby. Victory tonight will mark the end of a campaign going back decades and the start of a process they hope will result in a nationwide ban.

The lasting legacy of today’s proceedings will not just be court cases and legal wrangles. It looks like resulting in a damaging rift between urban and rural Scotland which could take generations to heal.

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