Why the hunting ban must be defended

Labour is right to expose the Tories' plan to reverse the ban.

In the column that led to his sacking as editor of the Today programme, Rod Liddle wrote that while voters may have forgotten why they supported Labour in 1997, they would remember once they saw the sort of people campaigning for fox-hunting.

Seven years on from that column, and exactly five years on from the hunting ban, Hilary Benn is hoping that Liddle's prediction is still correct. In a piece for today's Guardian, he mounts a vigorous defence of the ban and attacks the Tories' plans to reverse it.

Over at the Telegraph, David Hughes is distressed that the Environment Secretary can't find anything better to do with his time than reopen the hunting debate. But it wasn't Benn who reopened the debate, it was the Tories.

The party's inappropriately named "animal welfare spokesman", Andrew Rosindell, has pledged to make the repeal of the ban a priority for a Conservative government, and David Cameron has promised to give Tory MPs a free vote on the matter. Had the Tories accepted the ban, there would be no need for Benn to have written the piece.

The argument for the ban on hunting foxes with hounds is complete on the grounds that a humanity that inflicts terrible cruelties on other species is not very well placed to reduce cruelty within its own ranks. Thus, Cyril Connolly was almost entirely wrong when he described animal love as the "honey of the misanthrope". As Christopher Hitchens once noted:

[I]t will be found that people who "care" -- about rainforests or animals, miscarriages of justice or dictatorships -- are, though frequently irritating, very often the same people. Whereas those who love hamburgers and riskless hunting and mink coats are not in the front ranks of Amnesty International.

Benn's decision to make the ban an election issue is also good politics. Fox-hunting is one of the controversies that has encouraged anti-Tory tactical voting in the past and it could do so again. If Cameron really does want to reverse the ban, he should at least have the decency to tell us why.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.