Why we should have a free vote on whether to repeal the fox hunting ban

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August 19, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith

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This week, Barney White-Spunner, the Chairman of the Countryside Alliance, threatened David Cameron with the withdrawal of helpers in the 2015 election in the constituencies affected by the Fox Hunting Ban if Cameron did not carry out his promise to hold a free vote on it in Parliament over the next few months.

Quite apart from the fact that in most of those constituencies, a fox could win for the Conservatives, such is their majority, so those missing feet on the ground may not matter, you may think that Cameron may not be quite so willing to go ahead with this vote. If you are, as he is, still so open to accusations of ruling in favour of the rich and landed gentry from which you come you are unlikely to want to be seen to be talking about, let alone campaigning for, a repeal of thee fox hunting ban. Yet I would like to argue that there is a point of democratic principle here that Cameron, should he have any guts (and his defenestration of Michael Gove suggests they are waning) should use to have that free vote as soon as he can. Precisely BECAUSE he might lose the election.

I am not about to argue in favour of fox hunting. I am well aware of the arguments against hunting and killing an animal for sport. I am also aware that many who know more about these things than I say that other ways of dealing with these pests (snaring, poisoning, trapping) are far more inhumane. None of this is part of my point. My point is that the legislation that led to the banning of fox hunting, and the process that led up to it, was one of the most illiberal acts of Parliament there has ever been.

Without any convincing evidence that fox hunting causes abnormal suffering to foxes, and therefore no evidence to contradict the fundamental liberal democratic principle by which we are supposed to operate in this country that everything should be legal unless there is an extremely good case why it should not be, a whipped vote was held in 2003 that resulted in fox hunting being banned.

The Labour Party, most of whose MPs represent urban communities, and who spied a nice opportunity to bash a pastime that it was assumed was only carried out by rich white folk. I would suggest that any similar pastime or ritual, had it been carried out by any other ethnic minority (and I mean any) would never have been touched. It was an opportunity for what seemed like painless class warfare, taking advantage of the timidity of almost any Conservative MP to be seen to be standing up for what, if you know little about it, looks like a barbaric hobby. There has rarely been a better example of the tyranny of the majority over a minority, but we all stood back and let it happen because of who that minority were.

That minority has turned out to include a far wider variety of social classes than was understood, when you include supporting industries and many participants. But that’s still not the point. In a whipped vote, as it was at the time, the large Labour majority simply voted for the ban, and so it came into being. Any government can do that (even though despite their large seat majority only 40% of the electorate had actually voted for it at a previous election).

Cameron promised a free vote on this before the 2010 election, but has backed away from that, with people around him commenting that the Liberal Democrat coalition partners wouldn’t stand for it. This of course is a silly argument, as in a free vote not a single Liberal Democrat MP would be forced to vote for a repeal of the ban.

But if I were a true LIBERAL Democrat, I would take a much closer look at this ban and how it came about, and think very carefully about whether it really represents the democracy we say we are, and the democracy we want to be.

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