There is no doubt in my mind that it’s in the national interest for the Conservative Party to form the next British Government. As I’m a Conservative member this is no surprise, but truthfully I’m pretty sure I’d vote for the party even if I didn’t share its broad ideology. There isn’t a great deal of choice. None of the opposition parties give the impression of being competent, stable and large enough to plausibly form an effective Government. The Labour Party, the only arithmetically realistic alternative to the Tories, is an embarrassing mess. Its leader doesn’t hold the confidence of the vast majority of his own MPs, let alone the wider British public. But this doesn’t give us an excuse for complacency. We should endeavour not to score own goals. And on no issue has the Conservative Party scored an own goal so blatant, and so unnecessary, as on fox hunting. Our party’s commitment to facilitate the reversal of the 2004 Hunting Act is electorally nonsensical, and morally dubious.
Earlier this month Theresa May announced that if, as looks highly likely, the Conservatives form the next Government there will be a free vote in Parliament on repealing the 2004 Hunting Act, which banned the hunting of foxes with dogs. Dogs can still be used to flush foxes out but, in theory at least, they shouldn’t participate in the kill. The previous Conservative Government called a free vote on watering down this law, but backed off when it became clear that the SNP would (somewhat hypocritically) vote on an issue which only affects England and Wales. May has made her personal support for fox hunting abundantly clear, asserting that ‘personally I have always been in favour of foxhunting’.
Electorally this pledge is kryptonite. We’re going into battle with the most extreme opposition in modern history, and we’ve decided to do so with a seriously overweight albatross tied around our neck. A recent poll showed that 84% of the British public support retaining the current law, including 82% of people living in rural areas and 73% of Conservative voters. That’s the sort of majority many dictators would be impressed with. Britain remains, to its credit, a nation of animal lovers and fox hunting is about as popular as giving every new born baby a good slap. There are times when responsible parties have to advocate unpopular policies in the national interest. Undermining animal welfare legislation is not such an occasion, and this subject has become an embarrassing distraction from far more important issues.
Moreover none of the arguments which have been made in favour of fox hunting make a great deal of sense. Broadly I’m aware of three, which I’ll categorise as ‘tradition’, ‘rural economy’ and ‘pest control’. The first of these, the traditionalist argument, is just plain silly. The assertion is that as fox hunting in something like its present form has been taking place in England since the late 1600s, it should be preserved for the sake of continuity and tradition. The problem with this of course is that there’s almost no immoral behaviour, no matter how repugnant or unjustified, which couldn’t be defended in some part of the world in the name of ‘tradition’. If you’re prepared to sanction behaviour based solely on the fact it has taken place in the past you arrive pretty quickly at a form of moral nihilism. And given the various actions which have taken place in the British Isles throughout its long history, you’re opening one hell of a Pandora’s Box.
The second argument, that it benefits the rural economy, is little better. If you were to legalise any activity which could turn a profit Britain would have child brothels within the fortnight. Not all activities which create profit should be legal, in the countryside or anywhere else. Moreover given that a strong majority of people living in the countryside oppose fox hunting, it’s hard to imagine it’s been doing much to prop up local economies. The final, and to my mind most convincing, argument is pest control. Foxes are, in certain circumstances, undoubtable a pest. For a very good reason they’re chicken farmers worst nightmare, and they’ve clearly been causing disturbances in some urban areas. As such, in certain circumstances, there’s a strong case for controlling their numbers. But I’ve yet to meet anybody, environmental expert or not, who believes the most humane and decent way of achieving this is to tear them to bits with dogs. When controlling is required I’m sure we can devise less barbaric methods than this.
There are several Conservative Party policies which I disagree with, but only one which makes me curl up with embarrassment. That’s the pledge to hold a free vote on modifying the 2004 Hunting Act, in what is clearly an effort to undermine it. For the life of me I can’t imagine what the Conservative Party, or the country, stands to gain from this. It will trigger an intense and bitter debate about a matter of trivial importance, and one which promotes the worst possible stereotypes about the Conservative Party. The policy is deeply unpopular, and will attract attention away from more pressing matters, for very little possible gain. Quite simply the Conservative Party’s ongoing infatuation with fox hunting has become a self-damaging indulgence, and one which for the sake of the people whose lives are improved by competent Conservative Government needs to be dropped.