Fox hunting has been a live issue in British politics for over a decade. Since the then-Labour Government voted in a ban on the sport in 2004, the issue of fox hunting has repeatedly resurfaced. Most notably with widespread support from Tory leadership for a fresh vote on the issue. Theresa May has made no secret of the fact that a repeal of the ban on fox hunting has her full personal support. Likewise David Cameron’s Number 10 issued a statement in support of a free vote on legislation it described as “difficult to enforce” and “an unnecessary drain on police resources”. Support from the top has meant this has been an issue mentioned in every single manifesto from 2005 to 2017. Most recently, May promised a free vote for MPs on the issue, only to scrap this election pledge in the first Queen’s Speech of the new parliament. By omitting any mention of fox hunting, the government fueled rumours that they were shying away from the pledge, whispers confirmed yesterday when news broke that there will be no vote on the issue for at least two more years, the length of the current parliamentary session.
In reality, this is legislation that offers minimal impact in most people’s lives. The vast majority of the population, including May herself, have never hunted, and likely never will. For those who do, the Masters of Foxhounds Association, the main lobbyist for the sport, speak in brash terms about the minimal affect the ban really has. It’s a pastime steeped in tradition, but viewed by most as archaic and outdated. But the real effect is vastly outweighed by the political one, and it is precisely for this reason that fox hunting is such an issue. Conservative commitment to the sport goes back to their roots, it has become symbolic of the ideology. Tory support places emphasis on the tradition and heritage of the sport, and as May said in her recent interviews on the issue, it’s a pragmatic way of dealing with the fox population. Controlled culling, dealing with a persistent pest issue, whilst also preserving the traditional pastime of many rural communities.
Despite Cameron’s 2015 promise for a free vote within this next parliament (then believed to run from 2015-2020), and May’s electoral promise of a free vote if a Conservative victory was achieved, the issue has again been shelved. With a fragile government supported by the DUP seeking to steer parliament through the next several years, divisive issues like fox hunting have to make way for policies more likely to curry full party (and even better), cross party support. May’s government need credibility, and popularity. Credibility comes from comfortable navigation of high profile parliamentary votes, and thus a free vote on the much covered fox hunting became a quick casualty in the bid to avoid damning defeats in the early years of her new tenure. Popularity comes from presenting legislation that has widespread national support. Recent polls indicate some 64% of the population agree with maintaining the ban, and only 1 in 10 supported the Tories manifesto pledge regarding it. Fox hunting simply does not have the grassroots support, especially among the younger demographic (which May desperately needs to win over), and as a result the issue has again been parked.
The Tories have had, for over seven years now, a two-minded approach to fox hunting. Testing the water with high profile public promises of support for the sport, and reversal of the 2004 ban, only to park the legislation, shying away from the issue. The Conservative leadership, by dint of their political outlook, want to support fox hunting. It fits naturally with their ideology. But in the face of a need to stabilise three new governments in seven years, during turbulent economic and political times, foxhunting has been a repeated casualty. Such an awkward relationship with the issue will continue, the natural support for it, but the electioneering populist distancing from it. No vote has been promised for two years, but we ought not to be surprised if we do not see one for a while longer than that.