Of all the election promises politicians make in the run-up to a general election the one most certain to remain unfulfilled is David Cameron’s pledge to try to repeal the foxhunting ban. He has said he will give MPs a free vote on the issue, but he promised something similar before the last election, only to be prevented from doing anything by his coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, who remain firmly opposed to hunting with hounds. So does the Labour party, and so does the public. A recent opinion poll found that 80 per cent of people in this country, in rural communities as much as in towns, want to keep the ban in force. So it’s only in the improbable circumstance of an absolute Tory majority after the election in May that a repeal is conceivable, and even then it is very unlikely. It would also be a pointless waste of time.
Ten years ago, with the support of Tony Blair that he subsequently regretted, the House of Commons had wasted 252 hours debating the issue before it finally passed the bill that made foxhunting illegal. The debate was conducted against a background of vigorous agitation by its rural opponents, organised by the Countryside Alliance. A demonstration in London by 400,000 people in September 2002 was thought to be the biggest show of discontent by country folk since the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. There was much sound and fury, but to no avail, for the bill became law all the same. But luckily for hunting people it was such a messy law that it was almost impossible to enforce.
I have never quite mastered the details of the bill, but I think it basically says that you can hunt a fox to a point where it can be shot, not mauled to death, provided you do it with only two hounds; though there is nothing to stop you exercising large packs of hounds provided you don’t allow them to kill foxes. Then if a hound does tear a fox to bits, a person can’t be prosecuted unless it is shown that he has actively encouraged it to do so. And even these restrictions don’t apply to the pursuit of all animals; you can still hunt rats or rabbits if you want to.
The result is that there’ve been hardly any prosecutions, and hunting still goes on in a rather more subdued kind of way, with fewer ‘tally-hoes’ and blasts of the hunting horn, but with lots of galloping about after hounds that may or may not be chasing foxes. I live in Northamptonshire in the middle of Grafton country, and the members of the Grafton hunt are cagey about what actually happens nowadays on the hunting field. But it can’t be too boring, as hunting still has many enthusiastic and excited followers.
As I wrote in The Spectator a year ago, when Cameron proposed an amendment to the Act that would have allowed packs of 40 dogs, instead of a mere two, to flush out foxes towards people with guns who would then shoot them, the hunting fraternity has in fact won a kind of victory. Foxhunting may not be quite as exhilarating as it used to be, but it survives in defiance of the will of Parliament and the will of the people. Why should the prime minister want to stir things up and reignite the passions on both sides of the debate?
It may be that he knows no vote will take place, but that he hopes to reactivate Vote-OK, the pro-hunting lobby group that canvassed with such enthusiasm for the Conservative party at the last election, and get it to do so again this time. Also, he seems to think that it will endear him to voters in the Shires if he presents himself as a devotee of the countryside, even though the Tories have done next to nothing to preserve it. ‘The countryside is still the place I feel most at home,’ he wrote in the Countryside Alliance magazine. ‘I’m based in London for most of the week, but feel a noticeable emotional shift when I arrive in West Oxfordshire each Friday.’
‘We spend a lot of time outdoors as a family,’ he went on, ‘walking, running, gardening, cycling and riding. We all help feed the animals at the next-door farm and eagerly anticipate lambing time each year. Decisions get mulled over while feeding my muddy veg patch.’ So there we are. With Winston Churchill it was bricklaying; with William Gladstone it was tree-felling; and with David Cameron it is feeding the vegetable patch. These are the pastimes in which great decisions get made.