Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Article excerpt

Lord Whitelaw now lives in retirement. Here is the story of his last contribution to public life. It occurred when John Major took the odd decision to stand against himself, as it were, for the leadership of the Conservative party in the summer of 1995. Willie Whitelaw made it known that he very much wanted to see Major. His wish was granted. `Prime Minister,' he said, `there's one thing I want to tell you. I know you'll laugh . . . I know you'll laugh, but I'll say it anyway. This is a very difficult time. When you win the leadership election, you'll probably find that you'll need to appoint a new chief whip. When you do, just bear one thing in mind. Just one thing that's very, very important. Make sure that he is in favour of foxhunting.' Possibly Mr Major did not think much of this advice, although he did give the post to the prohunting Alastair Goodlad. But, not for the first time in Willie Whitelaw's career, there was something behind the apparently idiotic thing he said, some intimation of a truth that cleverer people tend to ignore (and I do not just mean the interesting historical fact that the idea of the 'whip' in Parliament derives from the hunting-field). I am thinking about it this week as Sunday's Countryside March approaches. Foxhunting is important for Britain and for politics. All decent politics in this country ought to be both liberal and conservative. That is to say, politics ought to respect people's freedom to choose and particularly those habits of choice which they have developed over a long period. Whether or not you personally approve of hunting, you are being illiberal and unconservative if you try to ban it by law. This is a subject worth marching about, even if you don't know your brush from your mask.

The fact that so many MPs could have voted for a ban on hunting shows that the landed interest has finally been defeated as a national political force. In many ways, this is very sad. But there has been a healthy result as well. For years and years, supporters of field sports were told not to make their arguments in public. The theory was that the mass of people would not understand, and that it was better to persuade the powerful behind the scenes. Under Conservative governments, this worked, but it allowed the case for hunting to atrophy. When the boot moved to the other foot, it looked at first as if the game was up. Of course hunting is barbaric, New Labour said, so let's get rid of it: we are the masters now. But then something very interesting began to happen. The argument is taking place, and as it does so, the apparently lost cause turns out to be very defensible indeed and the case against it full of holes. Mike Foster's introduction of his own Bill was one of the worst parliamentary performances on an important subject ever seen. Suddenly, people who know start to explain why hunting is not cruel and not snobbish, why it is environmentally sensible, why it matters in country life; and it turns out that a lot of people are prepared to listen. Whether the government will do so it is too early to say, but the prospect of the biggest gathering in London since VE Day ought at least to give it pause.

Attending the business breakfast with which the Prime Minister launched the contents of the Millennium Dome on Tuesday, I wore a Countryside Rally badge. …

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