It was, strangely, the left wing magazine the New Statesman which commented in an editorial on Labour MPs obsessive pursuit of hunting during the Blair era that ‘if politics is the art of priorities then politicians have never got it so wrong’. The current government, unfortunately, does not seem to have learned form that spectacular mess and as we have been warning for some time, its legislative agenda is increasingly out of touch with the concerns of rural voters, and many others in the electorate.
Putting aside for the moment questions of adherence to Covid restrictions, the current political agenda should be dominated by questions about economic and social recovery from the pandemic, and tackling the cost of living crisis which looms over millions, not least low income rural dwellers with little or no ability to mitigate rising fuel and energy prices. Then, in the environmental and rural sphere, there are the huge challenges of addressing climate change and the biodiversity crisis, not least through developing an entirely new system of agricultural support for the first time in a generation.
Yet, next week, MPs will be debating the Animal Sentience Bill, a truly pointless piece of virtue signalling legislation which has been eviscerated by many of the most serious politicians in the House of Lords including, our own Chairman and President. The Bill will, however, be presented unamended to MPs and will in all probability be pushed through with support from opposition parties. Meanwhile, we also await a date for the report stage of the Kept Animals Bill in the Commons. This Bill does at least include some sensible proposals on issues like livestock worrying, but it is also being used, as we warned it would, by animal rights supporting MPs to attack rural interests. There is even the possibility of a debate on banning trail hunting, which at this of all times deserves a rendition of that New Statesman editorial at full volume.
Arguably, however, these Bills are not the most questionable measures on the government’s agenda. Waiting in the wings is the Animals Abroad Bill which starts from the premise that neither individuals or other countries are capable of making decisions about animal welfare so the government must make them for us. It proposes to ban advertising of elephant rides, prohibit the import of foie gras and stop the import of many hunting trophies amongst other measures. Whether or not you want to hunt for a trophy from the back of an elephant, whilst eating foie gras (a not entirely impossible scenario) legislating to restrict those activities would seem about as far from current priorities for voters as it is possible to get.
If one thing comes out of the government’s current travails it should be refocusing on the ‘art of priorities’. Of course that means tackling the huge economic and social challenges of the post-pandemic world, but in rural and environmental terms it also means reconsidering its current agenda. Defra is full of talented, committed Ministers, but at present they are having to spend too much time promoting the irrelevant and indefensible, and too little resolving the challenges of the age. If that agenda does not change there is a serious risk that people will say of this government what they said of Tony Blair’s - politicians have never got it so wrong.