Seize the day, save the vermin

What made foxhunting into a 'totemic' issue for the Labour backbenches?

Josie Appleton

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Topics Politics UK

On 30 June, the House of Commons rang to the unfamiliar sounds of political passion.

Labour MP Gerald Kaufman called on ministers: ‘Today is the day – if we don’t seize this moment it will not come back.’ Former sports minister Tony Banks suggested that the credibility of the government was at stake in the evening’s debate, which was a ‘highly political matter’ that had become ‘totemic in many regards’ (1). What subject could so ignite the House?

Whether to effect a full or near-full ban on the minority practice of hunting foxes with dogs. Prime minister Tony Blair had put forward a ‘third way’ proposal that would allow a small number of hunts to be licensed – so long as they could prove that the hunt was necessary to control foxes, and that hunting was the least cruel method of control. One expert estimated that this stringent requirement would reduce the numbers of foxes killed each year from some 80,000 to 100 (2). But in last night’s free vote, ministers voted by 362 to 154 for a full ban on the sport. Rebels included more than 300 Labour MPs, and seven members of the cabinet.

It is worth asking how the question of vermin control achieved such ‘totemic’ status in the Labour Party. Aside from those who partake in the sport, foxhunting is of little interest to the general public – in one poll, only two percent said that they thought foxhunting was the most important issue facing the government (3). Foxhunting is practised by a tiny minority of people, and causes no harm to the rest of society. The move to ban it is petty and censorious; people should be at liberty to choose their pastimes, however strange or distasteful they may appear.

But the foxhunting issue has always been about more than preserving the vermin. Moves began within the Labour Party to ban the sport back in 1997. Blair added his support in July 1999, when he pledged on the BBC’s Question Time to ban hunting before the next election (4). Over the past few years, the foxhunting issue has trundled on and on, as a whole gamut of different concerns were placed upon it.

New Labour’s original interest in hunting was about a symbolic attack on the old elites. As a traditional minority pastime, enjoyed by a largely rural and upper-class constituency, foxhunting was set up as an emblem of everything Blair’s ‘New Britain’ was trying to get away from. The concern was less with foxhunting itself than with drawing a line under the past, attempting to stage a swift strike showing that a new era had arrived. Not surprisingly, this sparked a reaction from the old elite. Labour bills to ban or license hunting were foiled by the Tory Opposition in 1998, and by the House of Lords in 2001.

Preventing the old elite from practising one of their favourite sports is a pretty lame and mean-spirited way of trying to establish authority. The fact that foxhunting has remained an issue for Blair’s whole government is down to the domination of gesture politics in New Labour. The fact is that New Britain has been more a matter of symbols than substance – and Blair has reached for the foxhunting card at times when he needed to establish a bit of zest or purpose to his government (see New Labour goes hunting for a cause, by Mick Hume).

But the foxhunting issue has been given a longer life by Blair’s vacillation. What was meant as a quick populist gesture ended up sparking mass demonstrations organised by the rural campaign group, the Countryside Alliance – and these demonstrations ended up being a focus for dissatisfaction with Blair. Rather than banning hunting and finishing with it, as was done in Scotland, the past six years have been marked by a messy series of government committees, consultations, reports, alternatives and compromises.

At the government’s request, in 1999 Lord Burns chaired an inquiry that eventually concluded that foxhunting ‘seriously compromises the welfare of the fox’. In 2000, then home secretary Jack Straw put forward a bill with five alternatives, including a full ban, a more limited ban, or local referendums. By 2002, the government made it clear that a compromise of licensed hunting was its favoured option (5). Since then, a Commons Committee formulated the recommendation that went before parliament on 30 June.

The end result was a disingenuous compromise bill that satisfied no-one. It was, in effect, a ban that dared not speak its name. It is ludicrous to demand that foxhunting be useful for the surrounding countryside and the best option for the welfare of the fox. Of course, foxhunting is bad for the fox. Hunting is a sport, which means that its main justification lies in enjoyment and culture. And, as a representative from the Campaign for the Protection of Hunted Animals noted, applying the ‘utility’ and ‘welfare’ test to hunts around the country would be a ‘bureaucratic nightmare’.

Meanwhile, far from drawing a line between New Labour and old Britain, the foxhunting debate is now showing up the divisions within the Labour Party itself. All the rank-and-file’s sense of alienation from their leadership, their dissatisfaction and disappointment with the current state of New Labour, has become focused on the foxhunting issue. Blair has not lived up to his promises, they accuse – he is delaying and frustrating rather than delivering. As Banks put it, ‘The credibility of the government is beginning to centre on whether or not we are able to effect a total ban’ (6). Labour rebel Gerard Kaufman said that he couldn’t understand why the government wanted to ‘alienate the Labour Party further at such a delicate time’ (7).

This is the latest in a series of rebellions against government bills – on everything from the war on Iraq to foundation hospitals. These are more about the benches expressing their dissatisfaction with the leadership, and letting off steam, than they are about asserting an opposition to Blair (see Permanent rebellion, by Josie Appleton). It is telling that foxhunting rebels pose the issue in terms of being ‘let down’ by Blair, complaining that he has failed them. The rebellion on foxhunting seems as lacking in guts as the compromise bill itself.

In the 30 June Commons vote, the government withdrew its compromise motion minutes before the debate was due to end. Rather than face a humiliating defeat, the government preferred to throw its hands up and allow the vote to go its own way. Some have sought to place a positive gloss on the issue. After the vote, a government source said: ‘this shows that the government is listening to the Labour Party. That will help us in the weeks ahead.’ (8) The leadership was forced to give the backbenches their moment of self-expression, and perhaps hoped that this would lessen rebellions on other upcoming debates.

The foxhunting issue has a few more furlongs to run yet. The Bill may now have to return to a Commons standing committee, as it was substantially altered in debate; then there could be further discussions in the Commons before it faces the hostile environment of the Lords. Some have speculated that the government may eventually have to use the Parliament Act to force it through.

This is a gloomy prospect. The animated state of the foxhunting debate is becoming a sign of the deathly state of British politics.

Read on:

Rural recognition, by Josie Appleton

New Labour goes hunting for a cause, by Mick Hume

(1) ‘Seize the moment’ rallying cry to anti-hunting MPs, Nicholas Watt, Guardian, 1 July 2003

(2) MPs warned against ‘wrecking’ foxhunting bill, Nicholas Watt, Guardian, 30 June 2003

(3) Hunting ‘not key issue’, Patrick Wintour, Guardian, 17 June 2003

(4) Timeline: Labour and hunting, Guardian

(5) Timeline: Labour and hunting, Guardian

(6) ‘Seize the moment’ rallying cry to anti-hunting MPs, Nicholas Watt, Guardian, 1 July 2003

(7) MPs warned against ‘wrecking’ foxhunting bill, Nicholas Watt, Guardian, 30 June 2003

(8) MPs back total ban on foxhunting, Nicholas Watt and Michael White, Guardian, 1 June 2003

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Topics Politics UK

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