Magazine article The Spectator

Appeasement Has Failed, but the Battle for Fox-Hunting Isn't over Yet

Magazine article The Spectator

Appeasement Has Failed, but the Battle for Fox-Hunting Isn't over Yet

Article excerpt

This is the weekend of the Grand National meeting, when Aintree racecourse hosts what remains emphatically the greatest horserace in the world. This year there will be extra entertainment: the rousing sight of a pack of hounds let loose on the course. It will be the first of a series of such manifestations at country shows and rural events throughout the summer - part of a campaign to defend a way of life left lethally exposed after last month's Commons vote to ban hunting. This `summer of discontent' will culminate in a second countryside rally, most likely to be held in late September, in time to make maximum impact ahead of the Queen's Speech.

This programme of extra-parliamentary agitation represents a radical change of approach from the leadership of the Country-- side Alliance. Ever since the great rally of four years ago established its existence, the organisation has worked alongside, not against, the government. It has moved forward on the basis of quiet meetings and private assurances from ministers and their advisers. The leadership of the Countryside Alliance has taken the mellow view that all problems are capable of being resolved when men of goodwill come together. It has worked along worldly and pragmatic lines. It has held back the 'hotheads' who wanted more direct and brutal action.

It now turns out that the Alliance leadership got it catastrophically wrong. Whether the Alliance was deliberately duped by Downing Street during those relaxed meetings between old chums is unclear. But beyond dispute is the fact that its trust in the good faith of the Prime Minister and his government was hopelessly misplaced.

This became woefully apparent in the week of 18 March. First, there was the matter of the vote itself. Both the Prime Minister and Alun Michael, the countryside minister, voted for a ban rather than the `middle-way' option they privately claimed to countenance. Second, government spokesmen threatened to invoke the Parliament Act in the event of obstruction from the Lords - an unprecedented and even unconstitutional act of aggression.

If the week of 18 March was pivotal for the future of fox-hunting, it was decisive for the Countryside Alliance leadership. For weeks before the vote John Jackson and Richard Burge, chairman and chief executive of the Alliance, were warned that it was no longer realistic to deal with the government by negotiation. They rejected those warnings. The tone of their daily emails to Alliance activists during those weeks - as an Alliance member I have been receiving these plaintive missives pretty well daily - recalls the famously complacent coverage of German foreign policy in the Times newspaper in the aftermath of Munich. With increasing desperation they insisted that all was well, that a deal was in the offing, and that everything was proceeding according to plan. They insisted that negotiation was the key and dismissed as naive those who wanted to demonstrate the power of rural sentiment by mobilising a major rally in Parliament Square on the day of the vote.

A week before the vote, pro-fox-hunting MPs met the Countryside Alliance leadership in Portcullis House. The mood was angry and mutinous, but Jackson - a top-class lawyer who chairs the betting group Ladbrokes was adamant that everything was under control. He gave pitying replies to MPs who cautioned that the government would never be able to deliver on its promises. When Michael Ancram warned that the government might use the Parliament Act, Jackson contemptuously dismissed the suggestion. …

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