Photo credit: Bernard Noblett - Opening meet with the Holcombe Hunt
Fifteen years ago, the long and inglorious struggle over the Hunting Act was finally concluded. After 700 hours of mainly farcical parliamentary debate, a series of the largest civil liberty demonstrations in British history and the deployment of constitutional sledgehammers, the restrictions enforced on hunting finally came into force on February 18th, 2005.
By the end of the whole sorry process describing it as a ‘debate’ would have been overly generous. Those promoting the change in the law knew perfectly well that any arguments they had attempted to deploy had long ago been destroyed. They simply repeated, endlessly, their mantra that according to their dubious polling the majority of the public supported a ban on traditional hunting with hounds.
The Minister responsible for the Act, Alun Michael, got to the point where even he could barely summon the energy to justify what we all knew to be a simple reflection of the prejudice of Labour MPs. At one stage he simply reverted to saying that if people didn’t like the Hunting Act they could “make their feelings known through the ballot box”. That may have seemed an uncontroversial statement for a Labour Minister in 2005 when Tony Blair was about to deliver Labour’s third successive election victory, but 15 years later it looks arrogant in the extreme.
Hunting was never going to bring down a government, but in the five General Elections since the Hunting Act came into force, the Labour party has been routed from the countryside culminating in its defeats in rural constituencies across the country in 2019.
There are obviously many reasons that Labour has been rejected in the countryside, but if hunting was a “totemic issue for the Labour party”, as one of the Act’s great advocates claimed, it is equally totemic for rural voters. You might not hunt (only a small percentage of the population do), but what the Hunting Act told everyone was that Labour was more interested in class war politics than it was in the rights and priorities of rural people.
And what of hunting? I was working in the Alliance press office when the Hunting Act came into force and remember dealing with the huge media interest. The line was simple – hunting would survive, the law would fail, and good people would triumph over vindictive legislation. None of us was really clear how this would happen, or if I am honest whether it would, but one thing we were certain of was the absolute determination of the hunting community and the committed support of the wider countryside.
The intervening years have presented enormous challenges, and there remain many ahead, but we can look back with enormous pride at what we have achieved. Hunting has survived; even if the difficulties and frustrations of the Act remain, especially for those at the sharp end running hunts and hunting hounds. The Hunting Act has failed; it is difficult now to find a single person who would defend this piece of legislation which has achieved nothing for animal welfare or the countryside. And the good people have triumphed; we still meet at 11o’clock, adore our hounds and have made certain that their sound will never die.