The main reason that Charles Clarke has now decided to impose powers of house arrest upon the British people is ‘human rights’. Even this authoritarian government would not have gone so far without the decision of the Law Lords before Christmas in the matter of the 11 foreign suspected terrorists held, without normal trial, at Belmarsh prison. Led by Lord Bingham, the judges decided by eight to one (the unsung, dissenting hero being Lord Walker of Gestingthorpe) that this imprisonment breached the Human Rights Act because it was ‘discriminatory’. Never mind that the men stay in Belmarsh only because they refuse, for fear of persecution, to return to their own countries, a situation quite different from that of any British citizen. It was still an act of discrimination, said Lord Bingham, to lock them up, while not locking up the indigenous population on similar suspicions. In saying this, one guesses, Lord Bingham was not expecting the government to follow the full, mad logic of his judgment, but now it has. To avoid the evil of ‘discrimination’, police-state powers will be applied to all of us. If ‘discrimination’ is always wrong the independence of the nation state is denied, since citizenship itself involves a discrimination, on the basis of blood, or marriage, or place of birth, or means. The same government that first fully imposed human rights in Britain is now using them as a means of taking British freedoms away.
The freedom to hunt will disappear in England and Wales on 18 February. In hunting there is a peculiar beauty in the last hour of the day. As the light declines, the temperature drops, making it more likely that hounds will pick up the scent of a travelling fox. The field has thinned out by this time, and those who remain have proved their enthusiasm by their persistence. People grow quiet, and the country round them exhales a ghostly air as the things of day begin to droop and drowse. The whole of hunting, at present, is in this mood, however great the determination for a new dawn. People are trying to savour every moment in the dusk.
I felt this strongly last week, when I stayed with Philip Naylor-Leyland, Master of the Fitzwilliam. His stepfather, Stephen Hastings, a brave SOE man in the war and a Knight of the Shires in Parliament after it, died a month ago. I was touched to find that Stephen had heard I was coming and had bequeathed me a day on his chestnut mare, Tessa. Milton, Philip’s house, very hard by Peterborough, is where hounds are kennelled — in an 18th-century pretend castle with decorative arrow slits — and it was at Milton that we met. Towards the end of a beautiful day, as we started to make our way back to the park, hounds found, pushed smartly on in search of the patchy scent by George Adams, their experienced huntsman. They hunted through a couple of big coverts and then wheeled left towards a clump of old cedars. Among the trees was the isolated church where lie Philip’s mother and, since last month, Stephen. The fox had cut right past Stephen’s grave. Was this a tribute to a former Master, or an act of defiance? In any event, slipping along the bank of the nearby stream, he escaped; a few young hounds rioted on a deer. Night fell; the fox had got the better of us.
Milton is everything that the Labour legislators dislike — old, lovely, private, owned by the same family for 500 years, the hunting, on this occasion, almost entirely on its own land. The huntsmen and whippers-in wear parallel lines of silver buttons down the tails of their coats, a vestige of household livery unique to private packs. The park, though elegant and close-cropped as a lawn, is hunted and jumped without restraint. The entire hunt is a fascinating example of the strong aesthetic sense that often lurks in people who would never think of themselves as aesthetes. The tackroom is an astonishing octagonal tower, heated by a great iron pipe that rises through its middle. I watched George and his hounds pass it in the gloaming, out under the arch of the stable block. Still in his livery, he climbed incongruously on to a bicycle, and led them off to their castle and their uncertain future.
Every possible resource, however, is being employed to get round the new law. There is talk of shooting foxes and using them as a drag, with learned debate about whether you should boil their corpses to get the best scent. One interesting loophole is that the law forbids hunting with ‘dogs’ but not with birds. Falconry continues to be permitted, and since the sport involves the use of hounds to flush game out of cover, hunts can employ this method. At Milton, where nothing is done by halves, a man is about to arrive with an African eagle, a bird of prey so substantial that it is able to kill a fox, in time for the nationwide ‘illegal’ meets on the 19th. Strange if Tony Banks and Gerald Kaufman manage by mistake to revive the most mediaeval method of hunting.
One thing that ‘antis’ like to say is that everyone can now see that it was right to ban cockfighting, and it will prove the same about hunting. The comparison should be rejected, since cockfighting cruelly pits two creatures against each other, specially adapted to inflict pain, in an artificial setting from which they cannot escape, and it has no utility at all. But was it, even so, such a brilliant idea to ban the sport? I ask because I am told that cockfighting flourishes today in the gypsy underworld, where it is the subject of heavy betting. When you ban something, you do not necessarily get rid of it. What you certainly do is to take away any incentive for self-imposed restraints. At present, the great majority of hunting takes place under careful rules of its own. If it enters the criminal underworld, all these will go, and much greater cruelty will result.
As well as imprisoning us in our houses and forbidding us our pleasures, the government seeks to control the expression of our thoughts. This column has already drawn attention to the clauses of the forthcoming Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill which will outlaw religious hatred, but a further point about this law is that, unlike in libel, truth will be no defence. Suppose, for example, you could show that some Muslim countries were persecuting Christians, you could still be punished if the court thought that by raising the matter you had incited religious hatred.
As I pored over a road atlas the other day, I suddenly realised I was exercising an obsolescent skill. How long before GPS and the like mean that no one will learn how to read a map? Ten years at most. What will the Ordnance Survey do?