New Labour goes hunting for a cause
Just when you thought it could go no lower, the UK government puts foxhunting at the top of its agenda.
Yesterday (27 February) prime minister Tony Blair told the UK House of Commons that his government would be judged not on petty scandals like the Stephen Byers affair, but on ‘the issues that really matter’ and ‘the things that actually concern people in this country’.
Now we know which ‘issue that really matters’ he had in mind: foxhunting. The New Labour government is to attempt to reclaim the moral high ground by allowing MPs another vote to ban hunting with dogs.
It is truly pathetic that, of all the ‘things that actually concern people in this country’ which the government could have moved to the top of the agenda, it should plump for this little piece of tokenism. Whether you think of hunting as a legitimate country sport, a practical means of pest control, or an offensive act of cruelty to some animals, one thing it definitely should not be is the top political issue facing parliament at the start of the twenty-first century.
In 2001 MPs voted overwhelmingly to ban hunting, but the bill was opposed in the House of Lords and was abandoned by the government to save time before the general election. The Scottish Parliament recently voted to outlaw hunting north of the border.
Now the revival of interest in a ban at Westminster is being reported as a side-effect of the latest government scandal, over the war of words between transport secretary Stephen ‘liar’ Byers and ‘resigned’ civil servant Martin Sixsmith. On last night’s evening news, BBC political editor Andrew Marr reported that Labour MPs who had backed Mr Byers in the face of calls for his sacking were demanding some radical action on hunting in return. The Guardian took the same line this morning (28 February), headlining ‘New move to outlaw hunting: Blair rewards MPs for supporting Byers’.
If this is true, it is a sign of how far politics has sunk – not in terms of sleaze but, more importantly, in the sense of lowered horizons. A government grasping for a principled issue that can give its party a clear sense of purpose and direction can come up with nothing more meaningful or ambitious than a free vote on foxhunting. And backbench Labour MPs supposedly chomping at the bit for some radical action to galvanise their supporters will apparently settle for being allowed to ban a minority pastime.
How did radical Labour politicians of the past manage to miss the importance of banning hunting with dogs? What was Stafford Cripps doing, banging on about fighting fascism in Spain in the 1930s when he could have been campaigning against foxhunting in Scotland? Why did Nye Bevan spend so much time messing about with the creation of the National Health Service in the 1940s, instead of worrying about the welfare of the fox population? And the last generation of Labour MPs to enjoy a big parliamentary majority, in the 1960s, should surely be embarrassed that they only helped to liberalise the law on abortion, homosexuality and other piffling social affairs, instead of tackling ‘the issues that really matter’ like a ban on hunting.
If, as we have argued on spiked, the obsession with sleaze confirms the death of politics with a capital P (1), then the focus on foxhunting reveals that New Labour has no idea how to resuscitate it.
It is even more telling that, for all the huffing and puffing, the government does not really want to force through a ban at all. Blair and other senior ministers would much prefer to cobble together a compromise with the Lords, whereby hunting continues under a tight system of regulation. Even on this ‘soft’ issue, New Labour lacks the courage of its rhetorical convictions. That is why it has several times promised a ban before, only to rein back as the first fence looms large (2). With the balance of forces clearly favouring those seeking a ban, we wait to see if New Labour can muster the nerve to press home an attack on the hated huntsmen this time around.
spiked is not ‘pro-hunting’, but we oppose a ban on foxhunting as an attack on liberty. Even if the government goes through with it, the question that ‘really matters’ will remain: what kind of party believes that the way to revive interest in politics is through a row about how best to control vermin in the countryside?
Mick Hume is editor of spiked, and is speaking at the spiked conference After 11 September: Fear and Loathing in the West, on Sunday 26 May at the Bishopsgate Institute in London. See here for full details.
(1) This sleazy obsession is a scandal, by Mick Hume
(2) See Why hound hunters?, by Mick Hume
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