Winning the argument, but losing the vote

It would be wrong to say that those days and weeks after I and others had departed from the League were comfortable.  Basically, the way in which the hard-line antis think is one of “you’re either with us or against us”; there is no middle ground. That is pretty much how they operate today, because in forcing the debate into just two simplistic positions they realise that most people will fall into their camp by default. Threats and accusations were rife.
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So trying to create a ‘middle way’ was not easy and numerous discussions took place between those who had left the LACS, which included Mark Davies, a former chief executive and more latterly the organisation’s chairman; Howard Hodges, its long time treasurer and Steve Watson, a senior LACS regional representative. Certain staff members too had also walked out when I left – not a small step, given that finding another job might not have been that easy. In addition to these experienced individuals, we were in the fortunate position of having a reasonably wealthy anti-hunting supporter, who could see the benefit in what we were trying to do – not that we were that sure ourselves. It was almost a case of believing that a ban simply wouldn’t help wildlife, so let’s explore what other option are open.

The group chose the name Wildlife Network and argued that the licensing of hunts, rather than a full ban, was a route worthy of consideration.

The media became very interested in this ‘third way’ of addressing the hunting argument – a phrase that had become synonymous with the Blair government at the time. One of those from the media was who contacted us was environmental journalist Charlie Pye- Smith. He clearly saw some merit in what we were trying to achieve and Wildlife Network commissioned Charlie to write a book. Foxhunting: Beyond the Propaganda explained the facts behind hunting, addressed some of the concerns some people have about the activity, yet stopped short of calling for a ban. Perhaps for the first time, this book laid out the possibility for some middle ground.

Since the Labour Party’s victory at the 1997 general election, speculation about a hunting ban had been growing. When a newly elected backbencher, Michael Foster, came top in the Private Members ballot and said that his bill would seek a hunting ban, that speculation reached boiling point.

Every Member of Parliament was sent a short introductory leaflet about Wildlife Network and its aims. The reaction from politicians from across the political spectrum was positive and three MPs – Labour’s Kate Hoey, Liberal Democrat Lembit Öpik and Conservative Peter Luff – showed themselves to be very willing to fight for this middle ground. In March 1998 the All Party Parliamentary Middle Way Group was launched at Westminster, with the three MPs as co-chairs and senior MPs and Peers in support. The Foster bill ran out of time later that year, but it certainly was not the end of the battle for hunting.

The Middle Way Group (MWG) proved to be an invaluable vehicle for placing information, rather than simplistic propaganda into the public domain. Meetings were held with Prime Minister Tony Blair and Home Secretary Jack Straw. Straw, who was never been in favour of a ban, set up the Committee of Inquiry into Hunting with Dogs in England and Wales under the chairmanship of Lord Burns.  After a remarkably short space of time, the Burns Report was produced and the cherry-picking started. A phrase, hunting “seriously compromises the welfare of the fox,, was taken by the antis as proof that hunting is cruel. This was strongly and publicly refuted by Lord Burns and other members of his committee.

Pressure from Labour backbenchers for government action continued to grow and in 2000 Jack Straw brought forward a bill, but this time offering three options; a ban, licensing or a form of self-regulation. Predictably, the House of Commons voted for a ban and, perhaps just as predictably, the House of Lords voted for self regulation. The ‘middle way’ option, despite receiving the most votes overall, seemed dead and officials from the anti groups certainly didn’t disguise their delight. However, that bill too ran out of time due to the 2001 general election and when Labour was returned to office, Alun Michael was in charge of the hunting issue in the newly formed DEFRA.

Alun Michael was undoubtedly a hunting opponent (his election campaign had received funding from the LACS). In a move to test the current view of both Houses of Parliament, a ‘vote of intention’ was held and while the Commons still voted for a ban, this time the ‘middle way’ option was overwhelmingly supported in the House of Lords.  This was frustrating because according to Alistair Campbell’s diary, had this vote occurred when the bill was ‘live’ the previous year, the only commitment to be included in the 2001 Labour manifesto was to have been a licensing bill. Quite how that legislation might have turned out, had it been successful, is anyone’s guess, but at the very least hunting with dogs would not have been portrayed as an illegal activity.

I’m convinced Alun Michael saw himself as someone who could resolve this argument where so many others had failed and the concept of bringing all interested parties around a table was a good one. The one stumbling block was that the coalition of anti hunting groups didn’t want to discuss hunting or the consequences of a ban, just as they didn’t want the Burn Report; they simply wanted a ban and with what they saw as ‘their’ government in power, that should be an end to the matter.  Nothing could exemplify better the way in which the antis saw their influence over the government than a letter sent to Alun Michael from the LACS chairman, “No spin, no compromise, no time wasting, please do what Mr Blair promised over two years ago and –Just do it – NOW!”

Alun Michael, conscious that the majority of the press opposed a hunting ban, organised the Portcullis House Hearings, a process supposedly designed to allow all sides to bring in their expert witnesses to address various scientific aspects of the hunting argument. This was something the antis certainly did not want and throughout the whole episode they threatened to scupper the process by pulling out if they disliked any particular step. One example was the vetoing of a wildlife expert the MWG wanted to bring in. Frantic last minute phone calls between the minister and MWG co-chairs resulted in the expert not attending in order to keep the hearings on track. At the same time, an anti hunting theologian was permitted to take part, despite not being a scientist.

Basically, Alun Michael had only one aim in mind and that was to ban hunting with dogs. The Portcullis House Hearings provided a facade to make that process appear fair and scientific.

The anti hunting organisations are always very good at stating what they dislike, but are somewhat muted when it comes to explaining what they do like, or at least find acceptable. With this high level of scrutiny, they couldn’t avoid stating what should take the place of hunting and so shooting became the ‘humane alternative’, undoubtedly playing on the public’s ignorance of the activity. Wounding, so it was claimed, was negligible.

So the Middle Way Group commissioned a study under Dr Nick Fox, a scientist and biologist with a high degree of practical knowledge of both hunting and shooting. The research would examine the wounding level of foxes that were shot over a range of legal regimes. The results showed much higher levels of wounding than those claimed by anti-hunting groups. The study was attacked by both anti hunting groups and shooters alike. Both said that they would conduct their own research, but to date nothing has been published. Despite the Nick Fox’s study being peer-reviewed and published in a scientific journal, work that has not been validated continues to be quoted by antis in the media to counter the findings; a typical example of the disregard for any view that does not suit their argument.

What took place in the last few years before the ban has been well documented; the Liberty and Livelihood march, the demonstrations, the numerous media debates. Approximately £30 million had been spent by anti-hunting groups in support of their campaign to ban hunting. A major part of the problem was that hunting had been pushed so far up the political agenda that, as far as the government was concerned, it became a matter of not losing face. The former MP Chris Mullin summed it up in his book A View from the Foothills, “This is a dispute we must win, having long ago ceased to be about the fate of a few thousand deer and foxes. It’s about who governs us. Us or them?” Other MPs were even more candid, admitting that it was about class war or revenge for the miners. So obsessed were some back bench MPs to see a hunting ban that they even threatened withdrawing their loyalty to the Prime Minister. The Parliament Act, a measure never designed for use over a free vote issue of conscience, was their “nuclear weapon” and it would indeed be used.

After some 700 hours of Parliamentary time – ten time longer than the debates surrounding the invasion of Iraq – the Hunting Act was finally passed.

 

Jim Barrington
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