Magazine article The Spectator

Mr Blair Could Have His Own Problems with the Liberal Elite

Magazine article The Spectator

Mr Blair Could Have His Own Problems with the Liberal Elite

Article excerpt

It was a cynical attempt to manipulate the most backward elements of public opinion. But with an election coming up, this is a politician who will try any stunt to distract attention from his party's failures in vital policy areas. A lot of high-minded persons were dismayed, including members of his own party, but he is quick to dismiss such elitist views. No, Tony Blair is determined to play the fox card and to go on playing it right up until polling day.

So will it prove to be the ace of trumps, or only the two? The PM may find, as William Hague could also do on crime, that silent majorities are easier to identify than to mobilise. For years, Tories canvassing the rougher areas of their constituencies have found that they can guarantee an enthusiastic response if they are seen with the party's favourite stand-in girlfriend, Laura Norder. Working-class Labour supporters always warm towards Laura. But most of them go on voting Labour.

Mr Blair might have a similar experience over fox-hunting, for he could face three related problems. The first is that most of those who want to ban hunting do not regard it as an important question and are more concerned about health, transport, crime, et al. It seems unlikely that those issues will play well for the government over the next few weeks, and if Labour ministers seem to be devoting all their energies to hunting while the NHS cannot even bury its dead, there could be trouble.

The second is that many of those who support hunting do care passionately about their sport. They may be outnumbered in the opinion polls, but they will turn out at the polling-booths. When Liam Fox was a Tory candidate in the Borders, some of his younger female supporters were keen to make plays on his name. Dr Fox thought that he had better keep an eye on them, lest over-enthusiasm be carried to excess. He allowed badges saying 'I am a Foxy lady', but banned `For Fox sake vote Tory'. In the hunting shires, they will be less fastidious. They will be happy to proclaim their love of the fox, as they try for the twentieth time to explain to some ignorant townie that if foxes had never been hunted, they would now be an endangered species. If there had been no incentive for farmers to conserve foxes over the last four centuries, the fox might now be as rare in the countryside as the wild cat or the pine marten.

That brings us to Mr Blair's third problem: the liberal elite. A reassuring number of people in this country still believe in the liberty of the subject. They might never dream of going hunting; they might suspect that they would not enjoy fox-hunters' company - there they would almost certainly be mistaken - but they think it wrong to criminalise the pleasures of others unless there is an overwhelming reason for doing so. Anxious about the countryside's future, they are ready to entertain the hypothesis that those who live and work there might understand it better than outsiders do. They are particularly unimpressed by outsiders in leather shoes who have just consumed a battery-chicken burger while the family moggy is out hunting for songbirds.

There are plenty of such hypocrites on the Labour benches, eager to reassure their constituents that there is no threat to coarse fishing; why should there be? It is not a toff's sport. Over the next few weeks, the Labour party will be displayed at its worst, full of MPs who are not interested in the arguments because they know that they have got the votes; full of class hatred. This could be exploited by the Countryside Alliance. …

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