Why MPs shouldn't care about hunting

Tally ho! Let another season of sport commence! Let Lords and Commons clash in a trial of strength, let the courts then balance the animal rights of foxes against the human rights of their pursuers, let us see our democratic polity and our ancient legal system in their full deliberative glory. The great political merit of fox-hunting as an issue is that it can be reduced to old-fashioned simplicities. Town against country, the workers against the toffs, libertarians against authoritarians, reactionaries against progressives, the cruel against the compassionate, the will of the people against the House of Lords. Our elected representatives may be baffled by weapons of mass destruction, but on hunting with dogs, they know where they stand.

Most of the arguments deployed are preposterous. Hunting is not essential to the rural economy: the official inquiry under Lord Burns found that a ban would affect at most 8,000 jobs and that their loss would be offset within a few years - bad luck for the individuals involved, but hardly on a par with the destruction of mining communities and northern industrial towns. Nor is hunting important to the conservation of the English landscape: the mist will still roll up on an autumn morning without red-coated buffoons riding through it. The English landscape has already been done over by agribusiness, as the Burns report also pointed out, while rude capitalism dictates the closure of shops and pubs, which play a far more important role than the hunt in village social life. As for the libertarian claim that the law shouldn't interfere with other people's harmless pleasures, it is nonsensical: hunting is clearly harmful to the fox.

The arguments on the other side are no more compelling. Hunting is not exclusively upper class, any more than is tennis; both sports are run by posh folk, but that is not a reason for banning either. The abolition of hunting will strike no blow in the class war. The horrors inflicted on the fox are insignificant compared with those inflicted on most of the animals we eat. There is no comparison with bear-baiting or cock-fighting (town sports banned nearly two centuries ago by country people), since there is no call in nature or farming for bears to be baited or for cocks to fight as there is for fox numbers to be kept down. No doubt it is annoying for some people to have hunters trampling through their gardens, but not as annoying as it is for others to have airports or motorways built on their doorsteps.

None of this concerns the protagonists on either side. Old Labour stalwarts and Tory romantics have had a hard time this past quarter-century. A world in which a Labour government falls in love with the private sector, denounces comprehensives as "bog standard" and takes Britain into three wars troubles those who like their politics hot, spicy and simple. Here is an issue on which they will not be triangulated; Tony Blair was wrong even to attempt it with his compromise bill, and the National Audit Office could reasonably investigate the consequent waste of public money.

Labour MPs have learnt to tolerate poverty and inequality, to refrain from even thinking about progressive taxation, to cheer the dropping of bombs and the firing of rockets. They tremble to challenge their leaders when the prospectus on the basis of which young men and women were sent to war, and the lives of Iraqi children were risked, is shown to be false. But the sight of a frightened fox going to ground stiffens their spines, so that even Charles Clarke and Peter Hain can show that they are good and true men of the left. Gerald Kaufman threatened, for the first time in 33 years as an MP, to defy the Labour whip and vote against the government on foundation hospitals - not because he thinks the NHS worth a rebellion (who cares about those old Bevanite fripperies?), but because he would wish vengeance if the government failed to abolish hunting. For poor Renard's sake, Mr Kaufman was ready to raise the scarlet standard high. How they must have cheered in the Accident & Emergency departments of Manchester hospitals, as his constituents waited patiently for medical attention.

Be clear. Only one argument matters on hunting: that it doesn't matter. It is supremely unimportant. The voters do not care for hunting, and if required to choose, would ban it, but it is not in their top 20 priorities. MPs, who rarely meet normal people, believe that bulging postbags on the subject signify mass public concern whereas, in reality, they merely signify well-organised lobby groups of fanatics. Hunting engages roughly 56,000 people in England and Wales, or 0.1 per cent of the population; it involves 754 horses, which is a similar proportion of the equine population; it grosses £13m, or 0.0013 per cent of national income.

To bring the full majesty of the legislative process (including the rarely used Parliament Act) to bear on this distasteful little industry, to engage the services of a former head of the government economic service to lead an inquiry, to use the time of highly paid civil servants to draft legislation, makes British politics look ridiculous. To be sure, a few other countries, such as Sweden, Denmark and Belgium, have bothered to ban hunting with dogs, but they do not assist America in starting wars across the world.

The two houses of parliament would do better to spend several more days debating Iraq - or Afghanistan or arms sales or schools or railways or GM foods or asylum or the decline of the English cherry or any of the other areas where government policy deserves serious questioning. If politics is the language of priorities, then our politicians have never got it so badly wrong.