Simon Heffer

Good people ready to break the law

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Simon Heffer will personally flout the hunting ban, and other country folk have more radical plans to combat Mr Blair

Earlier this summer I was discussing with a pillar of county society the effects of a ban on hunting. We were at a county showground, and he pointed to the ring where hounds parade each year and are awarded prizes. 'These ****s say they want to stop cruelty to animals. We will have no choice but to put the hounds down. They can't be domesticated. All they know to do is hunt. So immediately after the ban, we bring 50 couple of them here, to this ring, and shoot them. How will the antis feel about it then?'

It was just one random, but not isolated, example of the anger and militancy spreading among country people as the government prepares to bring forward its Bill to abolish hunting with hounds. This week hearings on the subject have been held at Westminster, with experts putting their views. Field sportsmen are outraged at this stunt. No one expects the government to take a blind bit of notice of any evidence that does not support its determination to abolish hunting. The hearings are the most cynical public-relations exercise imaginable. As a prelude to the Liberty and Livelihood march through London on Sunday 22 September, they serve only to stoke up anger to unprecedented levels. The inflammatory nature of these hearings is exemplified by the preposterous statement on Tuesday by a so-called ethical expert that hunting is the moral equivalent of child abuse.

Ironically, many of those now feeling the most wrath say they have been further provoked by the march's organisers, the Countryside Alliance. The charge sheet against the Alliance is lengthy, but it starts at the presumption that many of those who run the organisation are Fabian leftists of the sort that would naturally try to reason with, rather than to take on, a Labour government. The Alliance's president, Ann Mallalieu, is a Labour peer. Its chief executive, Richard Burge, is well known for his Labour sympathies. The impression (whether accurate or not hardly matters) is that those who shape the Alliance's activities are similarly minded. Many former supporters feel that the Alliance has simply failed to represent their views effectively. There is widespread dismay at the failure to put more emphasis on the threat to hunting as a spur for the forthcoming march, in which it has been lumped in with other rural grievances. It is felt that the Alliance has shrunk from using the anger of country people to impress upon the government just how much of an affront to civil liberties it would be to ban hunting, and what an inappropriate use of government time, money and energy the whole process is. The view is that the government will not listen, and would rather maintain a course founded on ignorance and utter disregard for rural Britain. Therefore, other means must be used to push the point home. And the Bill, already through in Scotland, and subject only to a legal challenge to abolish hunting there, is taken as proof by the militants that the Alliance is simply not effective.

This frame of mind first surfaced in a salutary article in the Field - not an organ known for its militancy, or for its acts of incitement to law-breaking - a couple of months ago. The author, Elizabeth Walton, found many of those who are on what can only be described as the provisional wing of the Countryside Alliance, and retailed their views. A series of threats were uttered. The next march would not be on a Sunday, but on a weekday when it would gridlock London, 'and we've got to make the government fully aware that we'll do it as often as is bloody necessary. They can't lock us all up, can they?' Nor would there be six months' notice to the authorities of the action, nor any repeat of the Alliance's 'sit back and do nothing' strategy. Horse boxes will be taken up to London to block roads, and people will sit down in the road and block bridges; the tactics used by Greenpeace and hunt saboteurs' organisations will be used by the hunters. As one of Miss Walton's interviewees put it, 'If hunting got its arse into gear, there is no way anybody could stand against it ...what amazed me was that after the Scottish Bill the whole of the directorate of the Countryside Alliance didn't resign.'

Since the article in the Field, talk of militancy has increased. A poll conducted last week for Country Life said that 47 per cent of people were prepared to break the law, and that 63 per cent were prepared to go on hunting after a ban. Among those prepared to risk martyrdom is the 82-year-old Duke of Devonshire, who has long stopped hunting but would continue to allow it to take place on his land. For what it is worth, I fully intend, in the defence of liberty, to go out on foot with a hunt and let the police do their worst with me. As well as horse boxes, there is talk of bringing tractors and combine harvesters on to the motorways, and of blocking the approaches to all three of London's airports one morning. Militants want to snarl up Parliament Square on a Wednesday so that the Prime Minister cannot drive from Downing Street to the Commons to answer questions - he would instead have to take a network of underground tunnels believed to have been constructed during the war. And prominent antis would be targeted in the way that supporters of hunting have been over the years, with their names and addresses published as an open invitation to harassment.

The militants are taking great heart from a statement made recently by the deputy chief constable of Wiltshire, Alistair McWhirter, in which he said that any legislation to ban hunting must be 'practically enforceable'. Also, noting that those who might be disadvantaged by such a law were normally to be counted among the police's most consistent supporters, he observed that such a ban might alter that important relationship. In other words, Parliament will have to be prepared to specify what measures the police would be allowed to take against transgressors. Also, Parliament will have to accept the effect on the law-abiding classes of having their hounds, horses and equipment seized and their property entered. As far as some senior policemen with experience of rural areas are concerned, virtually no thought has been given to these consequences. With too few officers to deal with real crime, and cases such as that of Norfolk farmer Tony Martin occurring as a result, the notion of diverting them to police hunts is simply absurd.

The effects of any mass protest could be chaotic. If those prepared to defy a ban all did so on, say, the first Saturday morning after hunting was made illegal, what would the police do? As country people know, the police barely exist in many rural areas. If they set out to arrest dozens of people on horseback, what would they do with all the horses while the riders were chucked in the cells? How would they call together the hounds and what would they do with them? What would they do with foot followers? If, as is the case with most days' hunting, no fox were caught, would what the huntsmen and hounds were doing actually be an entirely legal activity? One of the problems with this law is that the last Tory government allegedly made it easier to arrest saboteurs, but hardly any were arrested, because the police lacked the resources to make the confrontations necessary. The hunting crowd have noted this: they suspect that in the event of illegal hunting, hardly anyone would be brought to book. Those who were would be martyred, probably willingly, and used as examples of the absurdity of the law. There is much talk of making 90-year-old ladies masters of foxhounds and therefore technically responsible for the illegal activity that might take place. The hunters would then sit back and marvel at the spectacle of these dear, sweet old geriatrics being persecuted.

However, it is quite clear that any programme of radical action would go far beyond hunting, and would not wait for its abolition to get into gear. It is no exaggeration to say that many people in the countryside hate the governm ent. The foot-and-mouth disaster last year showed the full extent of Labour's ignorance and incomprehension of rural matters. Enough is already enough. Whatever the government says, it is believed that once hunting goes, shooting will go. When country people hear Alun Michael -the deeply compromised minister in charge of this dZb