This week's note from Douglas Batchelor, Chief Executive.
The latest twists in the story about the passage of the Hunting Act into law are almost beyond belief.
If Tony Blair is to be believed, he didn’t understand the hunting issue until he had a chat with a hunt master, or in this case a hunt mistress, while visiting friends of friends on Elba, as a side trip to his usual Tuscan summer break.
Blair’s understanding of the hunting issue could have been written for him by the Countryside Alliance. He apparently bought hook, line and sinker the assertion that ‘hunting was a large part of our rural present’. He then openly admits to spending time seeking a way out of the political situation he had got himself into.
Even more disturbingly, he reports his conversation with Hazel Blears MP, then a minister at the Home Office, when she apparently asked him for his views on the vigorous policing of the Hunting Act and the police getting a few prosecutions under their belts. He reports her as saying, “I thought you might say that”. Not quite an admission of an instruction to pervert the course of justice, but about as close as one could get.
What Blair still seems to have failed to grasp was the political reality of what he was up against. He gets closest to it when he says, “by the end of it I felt like the damn fox”. That in essence was the whole political point: to his opposition he was the fox! To those who opposed him and all that he stood for, he was a pest that needed to be dealt with, he was a threat to the country and the countryside as they wanted it to be, and they then set out to hound him from office.
If you look at the actions of the so-called countryside lobby, they were clearly designed to remove the elected ‘New Labour’ government from office. Polling showed that over 80% of the so-called countryside marchers were in fact Conservative Party supporters. The hunting issue was just the particular stick that they chose to beat him with.
Support for and opposition to hunting have long been cross party and not a straightforwardly party political issue. Yet at the same time the hunting issue was totemic in many ways. What Tony Blair failed to grasp was that for well over twenty years the vast majority of the public have been against hunting with dogs for sport. For someone who prided himself on finding a third way, that the usually silent majority would back, the hunting issue was one he got comprehensively wrong, and which by his own admission he still does not get.
It is quite fascinating to read the relevant pages of Tony Blair’s book where he writes about his struggle with the hunting issue. Try counting the number of times he uses the word “I”. “I made a fatal mistake”, “I just couldn’t get it”, “I can’t believe it”, “if I told you the contortions and permutation I went through to avoid this wretched business, you wouldn’t credit it”, and so on and on. The arrogance of it is quite extraordinary. Cabinet government and parliament don’t feature in his decision making at all, and the whole thing revolves around what he thinks and what he decided to do. What hubris.
When he met the hunting friend-of-a-friend on Elba, no doubt he was literally a sitting dinner duck. Despite public opinion, government inquiries, and all the rest of it, one personal appeal - no doubt over a few glasses of Chianti in the warmth of an island summer sun - becomes the basis for his policy position on hunting and on that basis he then sets out to frustrate party policy, the will of parliament and the overwhelming majority of public opinion. If that isn’t arrogance I don’t know what it is!
Hunting and the freedom to chase and to kill for sport is emblematic of a particular way of life, which for most of society is already ancient history. In the UK today there are less than a dozen parliamentary constituencies where more than 25% of the electors actually live in rural areas. There are an estimated ten million people living and or working in what are called the rural constituencies, and most of them live in the market towns and larger villages. Less than 4% of them are engaged in any way in farming forestry or fishery. The lady Blair met and was won over by was no more representative of the majority in the countryside as a whole than a poppy would have been representative of a field of sunflowers.
The so-called countryside lobby does not actually speak for the majority of the people who live in or work in the countryside. Neither do they speak for the vast majority of the people who live in the country towns or for the vast majority of those who visit the countryside. The countryside lobby actually speak for that very small group, or at least a section of them, who own the vast majority of the land. Their support base is in the less than 0.5% who own and control over 80% of the land. The fact that Blair bought into their claims about unemployment and social melt down, all of which have proven to be untrue, shows the dangers of go it alone leadership.
The fact that Blair got completely side tracked on the hunting issue is symptomatic of the distance that grows between government and people, particularly Prime Ministers when in government. The Burns Inquiry at considerable expense comprehensively rubbished the countryside lobby’s claims that the rural economy would fall apart, that life as it was known in the countryside would fall apart, yet as a result of one meeting on holiday with a hunt master, the Prime Minister changed his view. It could have been the Chianti, but whatever it was, it was a serious lapse of judgement which his book reveals he still does not understand.
The whole hunting debate gets side tracked when politics gets in the way. First and foremost the Hunting Act does not ban all hunting. What it does is take the fox, deer, hare and mink out of hunting with dogs for sport. What Parliament actually banned was the ancient bloodsport of hunting. Parliament did not ban pest control and it did not ban groups of people in the countryside from getting together and riding around enjoying themselves. In essence as Blair says in his memoir, parliament achieved a “very British compromise” – no thanks to him it now appears.
It won’t be long before the Countryside Alliance will claim that “even Tony Blair” says it is a bad law. Of course that isn’t actually what he is saying, but none the less that will be the gist of their attack. What actually happened was that the parliamentary process worked despite Blair’s best efforts to scupper it, and what we got was the Hunting Act 2004.
The Hunting Act has many critics, but it also has well over 130 convictions. There are still those who argue that they should have the legal freedom to be cruel to animals for sport, but the vast majority of the general public and parliament do not agree with them.
The single most compelling comment on the Hunting Act was the comment by Lord Bingham, the leading Law Lord at the time, when he said that the Hunting Act was a reasoned and proportionate response to the issues that it sought to address.
Blair should have the grace to recognise that parliament got it right and he got it wrong.