Tony Blair has deserved praise for his commitment to the building of democracies in parts of the world where political debate has more commonly been conducted via the shredding machine. But it is to be hoped that citizens of Iraq and Afghanistan, now learning how parliamentary systems can work for the greater public good, did not have their eyes on Westminster on Monday night. Their first questions, at the sight of vengeful Labour backbenchers tearing into the government's Bill on hunting with dogs, would have been, 'Where is he, this great champion of democracy? Why has he ordered his minister to drop the carefully built compromise on fox-hunting, and why isn't he here to explain himself?'
For some, Monday night will have come across as a great victory for people-power. There is little question that the outcome of the vote which was held – a thumping majority for the total abolition of hunting – reflects the views of the majority of MPs. It is just that the vote held was not the one advertised, and not the one around which the preceding debate was conducted. In effect, the government dropped its own Bill and replaced it with a rebel amendment. And all the while, the Prime Minister did not deign to visit the House, but remained in Downing Street, tucked up on the sofa watching the highlights from Wimbledon, or whatever.
Perhaps Mr Blair will claim to have been doing his patriotic duty by cheering on Tim Henman – and given the relative numbers of Britons interested in the issue of hunting with dogs and the fate of our only credible international tennis player, he may well have made the calculation that the public will barely have registered his strange political manoeuvrings on Monday night. Yet his con-trickery ought not to go unremarked. While the rural affairs minister Alun Michael talks about obeying the 'will of Parliament', the fact is that the government has, at a stroke, abandoned the conclusions of its own extensive consultation processes on the issue of hunting. This is not so much democracy as a brutal exercise in elective oligarchy – and one which, to judge by the cries of 'remember the miners' emanating from the government benches on Monday night, is inspired by issues far removed from the welfare of the fox.
Now that the government has committed itself to the total abolition of hunting with dogs, taxpayers and consultees have a right to ask what the Burns inquiry was all about. A considerable amount of public money was spent sending Lord Burns and his fellow inquirers up and down the country in search of the facts on hunting. Hundreds of farmers, huntsmen and other interested parties gave their time to co-operate with this even-handed exercise. Lord Burns's conclusions did not flatter the hunts, pointing, for example, to the logical inconsistencies of huntsmen who claim their sport to be essential for the control of vermin and yet construct artificial earths to encourage the population of foxes in areas they like to hunt.
Yet neither did Lord Burns put his weight behind the prohibition lobby. While it is true that being hunted by hounds 'seriously compromises the welfare of the fox', he found, so do other forms of pest control. In uphill areas especially, a ban on hunting with dogs would lead to more foxes being shot and thus to their increased suffering. Besides the interests of the fox, he argued, there were other valid objections, not least of which was the 21,000 to 25,000 jobs which would be lost as a result of a complete hunting ban.
Following the Burns inquiry, the government constructed a compromise which would allow hunting to continue in certain areas under licence. While many will reasonably stand up for their right to hunt without a licensing scheme, the Prime Minister deserved credit for handling an emotive issue with some vague regard to the wider issue of liberty. Following Monday night's vote, that credit has gone. To pursue a complete ban –invoking the Parliament Act to dismiss opposition from the Lords, as Mr Michael has promised – is to overrule the system of checks and balances to which Westminster legislation has long been subject. It is hard to equate the Mr Blair of Monday night with the Prime Minister who three years ago incorporated the European Charter of Human Rights into British law in a promise to protect British citizens from arbitrary and disproportionate legislation.
Given the chicanery and cowardice that has surrounded the passing of this Bill, it is not surprising that feeling against it is now very inflamed. It was always going to be difficult to criminalise thousands of people engaged in a pursuit that is as old as man. Now, understandably, there is a growing will to revolt, and to continue to hunt in defiance of the law. Under any normal circumstances, such conduct would be unthinkable. But this is no ordinary piece of legislation. Not only is it a nauseating infringement of liberty, but this law is being made with such parliamentary treachery and intellectual bad faith that it frankly deserves to be broken.