Let the focus groups decide

Arguments about fox-hunting are rather like those about boxing. In both cases, the concern for the victim is largely spurious. Sports other than boxing, notably motor racing, have higher death rates; while footballers, according to some accounts, suffer at least as much as boxers from long-term brain injuries. Likewise, foxes will die horrible deaths, many of them from shotgun wounds, whether or not they are chased by fat men in silly clothes. It may also be reasonably argued that far greater suffering is inflicted on chickens, calves and other animals we breed and kill for food than is ever inflicted by huntsmen on foxes. On boxing as well as hunting, facts and figures are not likely to be persuasive. Your position comes down in the end to a moral, even an aesthetic, judgement about the human dignity of the participants and spectators, rather as, for many, the clinching argument against capital punishment was the likely effect on the hangman's soul. Is it right for people to enjoy a sport where the primary purpose is for one contestant to knock the other senseless? And is it right for people to enjoy a pastime where the primary purpose - since the most successful hunts are thought to be those where the chase lasts longest - is to prolong an animal's terror? In other words, the issue is not the effect on the fox, but on the hunter.

In fox-hunting (as in boxing), what makes the sport so attractive to some people is precisely what makes it so repulsive to others. If you doubt this, read Roger Scruton's On Hunting, published last year. "Hunting," he writes, "lifts me out of my modernist solitude and throws me down in a pre-modern herd - a composite herd, made up of horse and hound and human, each sharing its gift of excitement and giving its all to the tribe." For Scruton, hunting is a kind of mystic homage to man's hunter-gatherer origins, recalling a time when humanity was one with nature. From the outside, hunting can look primitive and barbarous; to the participants, who would not use exactly those words, that is the whole point of it.

The paraphernalia of hunting is thus as odious to the modernising Blairite as to the diehard Bennite. Scruton's book, indeed, contains ample material to stir the antipathy of either. He explains that the formal dress enables people to "show their respect for rules, offices and hierarchies, and recreate the image of courtliness . . . it is a rebuff to the modern idea of equality". More shocking still, in view of the passions aroused by the right-to-roam bill, Scruton reveals: "The farmer who forbids the rambler is very likely to permit the hunt . . . notwithstanding the fact that the hunt does far more damage than a quiet walker in an anorak. For the rambler . . . does not 'belong'. The farmer needs to justify his ownership to his neighbours, to those with whom he lives as one possessor among others. Hospitality extends to them, since they enjoy the same ancestral title to that territory from which his portion has been carved."

Nobody suggests that this mumbo-jumbo constitutes in itself a reason for banning hunting, as Tony Blair has indicated that the government will now move towards doing. But it does help to show why the pastime has become so unpopular, even among many country-dwellers. It exudes not just cruelty but also arrogance and exclusivity. It is hardly surprising that, even among country-dwellers, a majority supports its abolition. It is against the spirit of the age. It offends our sensibilities, just as bear-baiting and cock-fighting offended the sensibilities of an earlier generation, and fishing will no doubt offend the sensibilities of some future generation. Just as nobody now considers the ban on cock-fighting to be an intolerable infringement of liberty, still less an interference with traditional country pursuits, so in a century or so nobody is likely to feel aggrieved by a prohibition on galloping after foxes.

So for once Mr Blair may well be right to be guided by the focus groups. Liberal democracy, to be sure, should protect the rights of minorities against majorities. But that does not necessarily include the right of a minority to carry on in public an activity that a large majority passionately considers both cruel and degrading. Mr Blair should be coldly calculating. Does the pro-hunting lobby feel strongly enough to mount a prolonged campaign of protest that could embarrass him politically? Or do huntsmen, deep in their hearts, believe that their pastime, however social and enjoyable, is not truly humane? Equally, does the anti-hunt lobby, which must include many natural Labour supporters, feel strongly enough to switch votes if it doesn't get its way? This approach may well be criticised as cynical and opportunist - but only by those who do not truly believe in democracy.

This article first appeared in the 19 July 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The transport row: who is to blame?