On the hunt for trouble

THE sight of riders warming their hands on a stirrup cup with their horses stamping and snorting in the cold Boxing Day air has been commonplace in villages all over England for generations.

Unlike Scotland, where fox-hunting was limited to a handful of hound packs in the Borders and Fife, there are hundreds of hunts in England. This forms a social and economic base to rural life from the edge of the Yorkshire Dales to the Cotswolds.

If the Labour-led Scottish Executive was shocked by the opposition which rose up from the countryside against the Scottish ban, it will be nothing to the fury that will spur the countryside in England into action.

A ban on hunting, as proposed by the House of Commons this week, would spark a rift so deep in England that not a single Labour MP representing a rural consistency would be safe at the next election.

The government, aware of the sensitivities of the situation, proposed a compromise but the best intentions of ministers were swept aside by a tide of anti-hunting sentiment which registered a decisive vote in favour of a ban.

The hangover from Monday’s vote has left three major political headaches. Thanks to the dismal timing - the Commons breaks up two weeks on Thursday - these issues will be left to hang in the air throughout the summer.

If Holyrood was supposed to be a testing arena from which Westminster MPs could learn, it has abjectly failed in the task. The MPs appear to have learnt nothing from the failed experiment in Scotland.

First, how would such a ban be policed? Illegal hare-coursing is carried out frequently in the east of England - where the local constabularies turn a blind eye to it. In England, where fox-hunting is taken as an allegory for the rural way of life, several hunt members would gladly spend time in prison as a martyr for their cause.

"Even if the total ban comes through, people will ignore it," a Countryside Alliance spokesman said yesterday. "Crime in the countryside never seems to have bothered the government before, judging by their policing standards. I don’t see why they should take such an interest now."

The second problem with the Westminster standoff is what the ban says about the government’s priorities - and very few outside the world of professional politicians place much importance to fox-hunting.

Again, the fracas which accompanies Scotland’s ban illustrates the problem. It was a poor tribute to devolution that, when Scotland was recovering from foot-and-mouth and plunging farm incomes, Holyrood’s rural affairs committee was worried about foxes.

Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, has watched and then repeated the Scottish Parliament’s mistake. He has placed fox-hunting as a priority ahead of hospital reform - purportedly the flagship policy of his government.

The third problem is the presence of 27 Scottish Labour MPs who marched through the division lobbies to enforce a ban on hunting in England - even though their English counterparts had no say in the Scottish process.

This is the classic definition of the West Lothian Question, as defined by Tam Dalyell. The Scottish National Party did not vote on this basis; neither did Peter Duncan, the lone Conservative MP in Scotland and newly-appointed shadow Scotland Office minister.

But Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs had no such problems - voting on both sides of the debate. Of the paltry 11 Labour MPs who voted against the bill, two represented Scottish constituencies: Robin Cook, the MP for Livingston, and Tommy McAvoy, for Glasgow Rutherglen.

In this way, the future of hunting in England and Wales is being affected by MPs whose constituents have absolutely no interest in it. And this, if nothing else, will rouse the fury of English hunt supporters.

There is one final legacy which Mr Blair will have to deal with over the long summer months: the idea that the fox-hunting ban has let Labour’s mask slip, and that it has awakened the spectre of a 1970s-style class war.

The Scottish hunting "ban" was passed into law to the accompaniment of cheering and banging of desks in the parliament chamber as Labour and SNP MSPs celebrated a victory over what many of them regarded simply as "toffs with red coats".

The cheer did not come from loyal commitment to the welfare of the fox. This was the cheer that, at long last, Scotland’s new parliament had got one up on the rich.

It is a sad fact of politics that, for many elected left-of-centre members, their dislike of the rich is stronger than their desire to help the poor. For people brought up in this school of politics, banning fox-hunting is a goal of almost totemic status.

It exemplifies the idea of knocking the rich off their perch - a task which Mr Blair has now given as much importance to as helping the poor by reforming hospitals.

Perhaps it was a genuine concern for animal welfare which drove Lord Watson, a Labour MSP, to his one-man mission to ban fox-hunting in Scotland. If it was, his mission has failed.

It is ironic that the lord who set out to become the scourge of fox-hunters is now emerging as their saviour. His haste to expel the redcoats may now end up making the devolved Scotland their last refuge.

Fox-hunting has survived because Lord Watson’s botched legislation to "ban" hunting with hounds left loopholes so large you could ride a team of horses through it. And several Scots do - every month.

Some hunts are still riding with hounds to "flush out" foxes. This generally involves hounds picking the scent, chasing the fox, pursued by the hunters until the fox breaks cover and is dispatched by a marksman.

The fox is still killed - but by the bullet, not by the dogs. It is hard to see how the new situation is better for welfare than the old.

As a result, more foxes are being killed in Scotland now than before the ban. This is because marksmen have a much higher success rate than the hounds.

One legal challenge has been launched against the act, by the Scottish Countryside Alliance, and two complicated criminal cases have been brought against people accused of breaking the anti-hunting law.

For those still employed by the hunts in Scotland, the future is bleak, as it is for the hounds that will almost certainly be shot if there is no work for them to do.

One powerful complaint which candidates in this year’s Scottish election heard many times on the doorstep was a grievance at the Scottish Parliament’s obsession with so-called minor issues, hunting being one of them.

Yet despite all this, and the continuing opposition to the ban in rural Scotland, Westminster MPs appear determined to follow the same path.

Mr Blair could perhaps see this coming when he prepared his compromise to license hunts through dedicated committees. But the stunning collapse of this compromise on Monday night has changed everything - both for the Prime Minister and the hunting debate.

He now faces all-out war with the countryside. And Scotland may well end up being the last fox-hunting part of Britain.

This is a mess for England which Scottish MPs - from Liberal Democrat and Labour benches - helped to create. This point will not be lost on countryside campaigners, who are still preparing for their final battle.

COMMENT: TRUST OF RURAL COMMUNITY SACRIFICED

Nigel Henson

THIS week we have witnessed the kind of spectacle which can only further erode the public’s respect for our politicians and for parliament. In the House of Commons the minister responsible for the Hunting Bill, Alun Michael, cast aside all pretence at finding a principled and rational resolution of the hunting debate and tossed the government’s bill to back-benchers ravenous for some political red meat.

In capitulating to its restive back-benchers, the government has jettisoned more than three years of careful consultation and evidence-gathering funded by the tax-payer. Worse still, it has sacrificed the trust of the rural community on the altar of political expediency. As the government could find out to its political cost, ordinary rural people in England and Wales are in no mind to become the trophy scalps of Labour back-benchers’ ideologically motivated fixation.

Westminster should not ban hunting in England and Wales for exactly the same reason that the Scottish Parliament should never have banned hunting in Scotland: a hunting ban is unworkable, ineffective, vindictive, divisive and discriminatory; it is bad for the physical landscape, for wildlife diversity and conservation, for the countryside’s human communities - many of them the most remote and disadvantaged - and, crucially, for the welfare both of the hunted species and of the other animals involved.

The ineffectiveness and the harmful effects of the hunting ban in Scotland have already begun to show, but a ban would leave an even greater scar on the countryside south of the Border, where there are well over 300 registered packs of foxhounds, harriers, beagles and other hounds, and up to 150,000 owners of terriers and lurchers who regularly hunt.

There is no public mandate for any bill which bans hunting. Yet, to make way for this destructive and half-baked bill, the government has already pushed back important legislation on hospitals and pensions. This waste of parliamentary time is a betrayal not only of the decent rural minority who would be directly harmed, but of the vast majority of the electorate both north and south of the Border, to whose own lives and problems this divisive bill is supremely irrelevant.

The House of Commons has voted to ban hunting on the basis of prejudice and discrimination. We remain confident that the House of Lords will amend the bill to reflect principle and evidence, acting in the best interests both of animal welfare and of rural communities.

If it is to prove to the electorate that it is still committed to a "just and tolerant society" the government would do well to heed the peers’ advice.

Nigel Henson is the Countryside Alliance’s director of communications

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