For as long as I can remember I have always cared about animals, so it was natural for me to join organisations campaigning against cruelty. It was in the early 1970s when I became a member of the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS).
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It was shortly after I joined that I wanting to become a more active member and this led to demonstrations at hunt meets and then to contact with the hunt saboteurs. The saboteurs tended to view the LACS at that time as rather old-fashioned and weak compared to the more dynamic direct action they took against hunts. My first outing, against what was then the Tickham Foxhounds, was a revelation and it shattered my illusions about hunting folk being rather foppish pushovers. The Tickham was a tough farmers’ hunt, something I came to realise very quickly on that day.
Sabotage had a limited affect on a certain number of hunts, but to really end all hunting there had to be political action and coming back to the LACS, firstly as a committee member and later as a staff member, meant that I could support that route. During my 15 years as an employee of the LACS, I promoted the anti-hunt cause at shows, at meetings, in radio and TV interviews and at political conferences. For seven of those years I was the organisation’s Executive Director.
I was always of the opinion that to argue against an activity, one should, if possible, witness it. So rather than sit behind a desk and write propaganda, I followed hunts – all sorts of hunts. It was a valuable experience and initially designed to allow me to debate at a more knowledgeable level. Another side of the job was to convince politicians, at both national and local level, to ban hunting. However, it was obvious that only one political party – the Labour Party – was ever going to pass the necessary legislation. Consequently, all efforts were directed to ensuring the issue of hunting was raised at every opportunity, even in inner city areas that have never seen a hunt.
The majority of LACS committee and staff members were Labour (something that would appear to be the case up to the present day). There was a limited amount of work with the Liberals, but the main effort focussed on the Labour Party. So it was in 1979, a general election year, that the LACS agreed to give the party a large donation of £80,000, a sum that would be equivalent to well over a third of a million pounds in today’s money.
The Conservatives came to power that years, but the furore caused by the donation certainly wasn’t settled amongst LACS members, with some starting legal action to reverse the decision. The case rumbled on and came to a conclusion shortly before the 1983 general election. The court found that £30,000 of the full amount, which had been given for the promotion of animal welfare, was legitimate, but that the remaining £50,000 was not within the rules governing the LACS and therefore had to be returned…and this just as Labour was at a low point and needed every penny for the forthcoming election.
The League committee was determined to give the money back one way or another, but how could this be done? Simple. Money was given to local parties requesting the abolition of hunting was something their parliamentary candidates should agree to and that the demand for a ban was also put in their election addresses. It’s no surprise that some of the most vociferous anti-hunting politicians during the passage of the Hunting Act had taken money from the LACS for their election campaigns, despite many representing inner city constituencies and having no real connection with hunting or indeed the countryside. Candidates who perhaps had no interest in the hunting debate had to agree to support a ban and, in effect, “nail their colours to the mast” – a phrase that would come back years later. Nevertheless, the die had been cast and all that was needed was the Labour party to take power at some future date.
It was in the last few years of the then Conservative government in the mid-nineties that doubts about the whole concept of banning hunting started to bother me. I was still opposed to chasing a wild mammal and killing it for what I thought was just a sport, but questions began to arise in my mind and the minds of some colleagues too. Just what would happen to the fox, deer and hare after a ban? Would something worse take hunting’s place?
While this and related matters were occasionally discussed at committee meetings, the usual response from half those present, if they weren’t presenting some wishful thinking as to the future of these animals, was to react with disgust that the very idea of advocating something other than a ban. Questioning the central belief that hunting was somehow the worst thing that could be ever done to wild animals was akin to heresy. Licensing? “Keep that thought to yourself”, was one comment I distinctly recall. “We want hunting to remain as cruel as possible, otherwise we’ll never get a total ban” was another response from a committee member.
By then, the general view tended to be one of realising that there was going to be a Labour government and the LACS was on track to see a hunting ban, so why on earth rock the boat now? The only trouble with that position is that in the fight to ban an activity that had raged for so long, the very reason it had been fought – animal welfare – had been forgotten.
In two interviews for articles in The Field magazine, I tried to square that circle, but without success. My comments, especially one about “pillars of society” being involved in hunts, only served to infuriate the more extreme individuals in the LACS. Internal staff problems only added to the difficulties. Some of the letters I subsequently received from certain individuals betray any notion that these were people truly motivated by compassion. Some were laughably over the top, stating that I should be “hung, drawn and quartered.” or that “I should spend the rest of my life with the lovely Rosemary West (a convicted murderer) in her Gloucestershire terrace.” Other letters were a little more threatening, saying that I should, “watch my back.”
I left the League office for the last time on 15th December 1995 and it would be untrue to say that those last few months I spent at the League were not upsetting, frustrating and aggravating. But above all, they were revealing, because in stepping outside a body like the LACS, one that’s based on writing and believing it’s own incorrect and hyped up propaganda, it’s possible to see more clearly the type of people with whom you have been working. More importantly, it provides an opportunity to fully examine exactly what could be done in the interest of animals, which is fair to country people and is workable.
However, that last thing the LACS wanted was a former chief executive suggesting that there might be a better way to improve animal welfare that didn’t require a hunting ban. So even after my departure, some at the League still wanted to keep up the pressure. A story was given to a national newspaper that I had misappropriated LACS funds by falsifying my expenses. What those behind this move didn’t realise was that I had kept all my receipts, going back years, and when presented with this evidence, the League backed down. However, that move was indicative of the blinkered LACS mind-set – pretty much anything was justified in the anti-hunting cause, so attack your enemies (and of course I was now one) any way possible.
When asked why I have changed my mind, my answer is always, “I haven’t. I still feel as strongly about animal welfare as I did when I first joined the LACS. It’s just that now I see we were aiming at the wrong target.”
It would have been very easy to walk away from the whole hunting argument, but, along with former League colleagues, we decided to explore if there was indeed a middle way. That is the next chapter.