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The fuss over fox hunting


© St. Petersburg Times, published June 25, 2000

LONDON -- It's been a bad couple of weeks for Prime Minister Tony Blair. First he gets booed in the middle of a speech to the Women's Institute (a cross between the Junior League and the Eastern Star, with a membership larger than the Labor and Conservative parties combined). Then he saw the Tories surge to within three points of Labor, according to the latest poll.

And now he has to contend with the fractious issue of fox hunting.

Whole gangs of Wellington-booted, head-scarfed country types are invading London to protest, and the government fears riotous clashes with rival gangs of vegans in Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals T-shirts. It could be ugly.

Blair's government is finally about to make good on a vague election promise to allow a free vote on a bill to ban hunting with dogs in England and Wales. The bill might as well say it bans hunting with dogs, horses, red coats, riding crops, claret cups and upper-class accents, because it's specifically aimed at fox hunting.

Government whips will not be putting the heat on MPs, forcing them to toe the party line. This is just as well. Though most Laborites are anti-hunting, there are a number of high-profile apparatchiks, such as Sports Minister Kate Hoey, who are pro. Equally confusing, there are many anti-hunting Tories. It is, as everyone says piously, a vote of conscience.

It's also a vote of economics, tradition and regional identity. A recent report commissioned by the government found that between 6,000 and 8,000 jobs in rural England depend directly on hunting. Pro-hunting forces say another 12,000 jobs in "hunting-related services" would be endangered. Pro-hunters say the sport is a part of English tradition. They argue that foxes do huge damage to farms -- stealing chickens, molesting sheep and generally being a nuisance -- so hunting is a good way to keep fox numbers down.

This fight is not really about fox hunting -- only a tiny number of people in Britain actually hunt -- but about the fatal split between the rural and the urban. Country-dwellers who despise fox hunting nonetheless oppose the bill because they feel the Blair government, overstuffed with uptown London sophisticates, does not understand them or care about them. Small farmers are going bankrupt, while agribusiness is allowed to plant genetically modified crops next to wild areas. Ancient woodlands are ripped up to make way for new roads (servicing the suburbs, which are Labor's new power base). And the Labor mantra of "modernization" sounds like a call for the nation to discard its rural past.

Even with Blair's huge majority, the outcome of the hunt ban bill is not assured. The House of Lords will do its damnedest to scupper the bill if it gets out of the Commons. Last year, 250,000 members of the Countryside Alliance marched on London. This year, the protest could be even larger.

"This is a battle for the soul of the nation!" yelped one pro-hunting campaigner. A Labor backbencher replied, quoting (more or less) Oscar Wilde: "It is not: Fox hunting is merely the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible."

-- Diane Roberts is a Times editorial writer.

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