Rural Im and Governmental Cynicism: Politics and Hunting in Great Britain

By Foster, Charles | Contemporary Review, November 2004 | Go to article overview

Rural Im and Governmental Cynicism: Politics and Hunting in Great Britain


Foster, Charles, Contemporary Review


ON 15 September 2004 the British House of Commons passed a motion that would have the effect of banning hunting with dogs. It has happened before in Great Britain, but the House of Lords has always blocked the proposed legislation. The Lords will try to do so again: the wiser heads there, unruffled by party political considerations, will again reject the Bill. But this time it is different. The Blair government has announced that it will invoke the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949 to force the Bill onto the statute book without the Lords' endorsement. England and Wales will join Scotland and Nazi Germany as the only countries to have banned hunting. It is a disaster for the countryside, for Parliamentary democracy, for the conventions which have regulated the business of Parliament, and for the peace of mind of decent Britons.

There are no words to describe the cynicism with which this has been done. Blair has a massive majority in Parliament--a majority which has enabled him to rule like Nero, with contempt for Parliament. We have had rule by executive, undebated order in the UK for seven years. But occasionally a scrap has to be thrown to his back-benchers to keep them quiet. The scrap, this time, was the countryside.

The countryside is demographically irrelevant. Blair doesn't need it to keep in power. His backbenchers are overwhelmingly urban. Their constituents don't know about the countryside, and generally don't care. For a long time now the countryside has effectively been disenfranchised. It has been ruled by the voters of the cities. A mature democracy should be able to deal with this without abuse of the minority, but sadly we don't have one of those any more.

One of the (often misunderstood) ways in which the ancient and laboriously evolved British constitution protected minorities was by having an unelected second chamber--the House of Lords. The Lords have consistently defied their tweeded, landed stereotype by being strenuously independent. When government has got high-handed, and threatened to squash the individual, the Lords have stood up for the little man. By sending Bills back to the Commons, the Lords have brokered those apparently impossible compromises which, more than anything else, have characterised English political history.

Blair hates independence, and hates anyone who gets in his way. The Lords have been his principal target ever since he took power. He has weakened them by some extra-Parliamentary skulduggery which would have made even Henry VIII blush, but even in their truncated form the Lords have refused simply to rubber-stamp Blair's assaults on basic liberties. Piqued, he has whipped out the Parliament Acts to deal with what he sees as the Lords' disobedience--actually their discharge of their obligation to take a long, dispassionate view of legislation.

Deployment of these Acts is a straightforward abuse of Parliamentary procedure. The Acts were designed to ensure that, in relation to matters of supreme national importance, the Lords could not frustrate the will of the Commons. Not by the widest stretch of the most elastic imagination could a bill on hunting with dogs be classified that way. This is important. Being prepared to use the Acts like this means that Blair can dispense entirely with the Lords. Parliamentary procedure frustrated his plans to hamstring them completely, but that unfortunate consequence of Parliamentary procedure can be circumvented by the abuse of another device of Parliamentary procedure--the Acts. Since he is prepared to do this, there is nothing that he cannot do: his ranks of craven, sycophantic backbenchers will not cavil at anything he says.

The most frightening illustration of the cynicism of the Labour Party came in an interview given to the BBC Radio 4 Today programme by Alun Michael, the Minister of State for 'Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality'. Why, asked John Humphrys, was the Party prepared to use all necessary measures to get this legislation through? …

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