Peter Oborne

Now ministers are trying to win their case by dividing the bloodsports lobby

Now ministers are trying to win their case by dividing the bloodsports lobby

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Events are now moving very fast. By this time next week, the Bill to ban hunting will have received royal assent. The fight to halt this oppressive piece of legislation is moving away from Parliament, into the courts and, probably, on to the streets.

The government is preparing with great care for the looming battle. According to trustworthy accounts from rural communities, the police have already started work setting up a network of informers. They are offering cash. I know of one huntsman who was visited by a police officer and offered ‘a formal arrangement so that you won’t need to cover any expenses’. There is plenty of evidence that approaches like these are being made all over the country.

Meanwhile, the government has stealthily assumed extra power so that it can extirpate hunting when the time comes. The Civil Contingencies Bill, which gives ministers the ability to act outside the law to confront ‘emergencies’, is ostensibly designed to confront the terrorist threat. But it has been carefully drafted so that its most sinister provisions can also be used to target huntsmen. From this point of view, the relevant part of the Bill is clause 22, which grants sweeping competences to prevent the ‘disruption or destruction of plant life or animal life’. Once this legislation is in force, ministers will have unlimited powers at their disposal — including the right to break up meetings, seize property and prohibit movement along public roads — for use against country people as well as al-Qa’eda terrorists.

But the government is not merely preparing the way for what may turn out to be a violent confrontation with rural communities. Ministers have worked hard at winning their case by dividing the bloodsports lobby. Here they have used the tried and trusted New Labour techniques of ingratiation, flattery and backstairs deals.

The key target has been the remarkably gullible leadership of the venerable British Association for Shooting and Conservation, which claims to be the ‘national representative body for country shooting’. It would be ungracious not to acknowledge the skill and assurance with which the rural affairs minister Alun Michael has detached BASC from the wider Countryside Alliance. The moment critique came in the late summer of 2003, when Labour MPs forced the Bill to ban hunting upon Tony Blair. While this insurrection was flaring up publicly, BASC was privately arranging an exemption for terrier work to protect game and driven birds.

BASC selfishly negotiated this arrangement without reference to the wider countryside, a lamentable omission which meant there was no comparable arrangement so that farmers, for instance, could protect their lambs from predators. At about the same time as this private deal, Michael reaffirmed the government’s assurance that shooting will in all events be saved.

This guarantee carries no weight, and BASC’s complicity with the campaign to ban hunting will do the organisation no good. Michael is a low grade, and easily dispensable, New Labour operative who has already broken his word to the countryside on a number of occasions. But even if Michael were a man of outstanding integrity, his word would still be valueless. He is in no position to deliver on any promise. The domino theory, beloved of Cold War warriors in the 1960s, applies here: once anti-bloodsports campaigners have eradicated hunting with hounds, they will shift their focus at once to the — much less defensible — sport of driven game shooting. The BASC has been lulled into a classic strategic error. By separating itself from the broader Countryside Alliance, it has exchanged the illusion of short-term gain for the certainty of long-term defeat.

This week the Hunting Bill was still being debated in the House of Lords. It is due to return to the Commons at the start of next week, and must receive royal assent by the time Parliament is prorogued on Thursday. Details were unclear as The Spectator went to press, but it looks as if ministers are once again at work with a sophisticated strategy to cause dissension among the pro-hunting alliance. The key figure in this operation is the Downing Street chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, who is offering to broker a last-minute ‘compromise’ deal. Downing Street would promise to secure a future for hunting to continue on a heavily licensed basis in return for the immediate cessation of stag-hunting and hare-coursing.

This looks like an insidious move. Though a handful of hunts might be saved, the vast majority would be closed. Even if the Countryside Alliance can be persuaded to betray hare-coursers and stag-hunters, it is by no means certain that the government can deliver its side of the bargain. Labour MPs will in all probability insist on a total ban, whatever promises the Prime Minister makes.

If they do, Speaker Martin will at once sign a certificate authorising the use of the Parliament Act to override the House of Lords and force through the ban. The Countryside Alliance will, of course, challenge this procedure. A professional huntsman, a farrier’s wife and John Jackson, chairman of the CA, are all on standby to apply to the High Court for a judicial review of this application of the 1949 Parliament Act. Senior lawyers have waited 55 years for a test case of this controversial and probably unsound legislation. The human rights lawyer Sidney Kentridge, who acted for the family of Steve Biko, the anti-apartheid activist found murdered in his Pretoria prison cell almost 30 years ago, has been hired to lead the way. This legal challenge, of great constitutional importance, will be followed by a separate High Court challenge claiming that the hunting ban fundamentally infringes the European convention on human rights.

It is curious that at a time of war, with public services in crisis, and just months before a general election, a British government should be ready to waste so much time and energy targeting a minority activity like fox-hunting. And yet the abolition of this ancient sport, which has played such a rich role in our history and literature, will go down as one of the most notable acts of the Blair government. When every other piece of legislation of the last six years — the pusillanimous attempts at health reform, the failed programme of regional referenda, the gambling Bill — are forgotten, this assault on the liberties of the British people will still be remembered, and can never be forgiven.