September 22, 2004 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Outfoxed by Labour

A most un-British spectacle broke out in the House of Commons Wednesday of last week. As a people, Britons are better know for resolving political disputes with barbs of finely honed wit than with fisticuffs and bloody noses. The issue at hand, however, was such that passions could not be contained. And what was this matter of life and death? Not the war in Iraq, which is stretching the British military thin, not the National Health Service, not the future of Britain in the European Union. No, it was -- believe it or not -- fox hunting.

Outside the Houses of Parliament, where the Labour Party bill to ban fox hunting was up for a vote, a motley crowd of thousands had gathered, ranging from plain country folks to tweedy ladies and more glamorous, upper-crust types. According to news reports, the crowd at first did nothing more damaging than throwing plastic bottles of Evian water and Harvey's Bristol Cream sherry (a terrible waste, by the way). But soon the scuffle with police soon turned nasty, and the violence got out of hand. Several young men broke into the parliamentary chamber and started fighting with officials until security staff tackled them and wrested them to the ground.

In the end, the Labour government prevailed, and the ban was voted into law by 339 to 155 votes. Hotly debated from just about the moment Labour took power in 1997, the ban on fox hunting is now set to take effect in July 2006. A compromise solution has been proposed in the House of Lords for licensed foxhunting, but it's future is far from certain.

At this point, it is tempting to feel that only a great satirical poet could do justice to these events -- Alexander Pope, for instance, who in the 18th century wrote a entire epic poem, "The Rape of the Lock," about a silly scandal over a gentleman who had snipped a lock of hair from a socialite lady and caused an almighty uproar in polite London circles.

But there is more to the fox hunting issue than satire would allow. This is not just about sandal-footed, animal-hugging activists, on the one side, and toffee-nosed, pink-coated hunters, on the other. What has recently become clear in public statements, is that Labour activists regards this as payback to conservative Britain for everything from the crushing of the miners' strike under Prime Minister Thatcher in the early 1980s to preserving traditional British values.

Now, Prime Minister Blair is said to have exclaimed to the man who first proposed the fox hunting ban, "Oh for goodness' sake. I thought you were someone who concentrated on things that matter." But he soon found it very useful. For Mr. Blair, fox hunting became a bone tossed to the angry leftwing of the Labour Party, which has been widely disillusioned with the prime minister's stance on the war in Iraq and his government's business-friendly economic policies.

As Labour MP Tony Banks was quoted in The Sunday Telegraph as saying, "This issue is not a matter of great significance in animal welfare, but it has become totemic." Or in the words of another Labour MP, Dennis Skinner, "There is not a subject under the sun that is better suited to the Labour Party, for raising its morale in constituencies, than the ban on fox hunting."

The rural world they have in their sights is not multicultural or politically correct, and its bastions are to be found in small-town Britain and the countryside, dotted with pubs named things like "The Fox and Hound." It is very old, solid, decent, and has a lot in common with Middle America, the red states for election purposes. Urban Labour types, city dwellers in multicultural environments, have little understanding or sympathy with it whatsoever. In this they resemble East Coast, big city America.

Clearly, this is all about politics and not animal welfare. In fact, Britain's foxes don't stand much to benefit from the ban, which is sure to be broken anyway. According to a Blair government-sponsored study of the fox population conducted in 2000, British foxes would need to be destroyed if they were not hunted to protect livestock and prevent over-breeding. If the foxes were asked, would they really prefer to be gassed, shot or trapped? Given such options, taking their chances against the dogs, which often fail to catch their prey, might sound quite good. 
 
Helle Dale is director of Foreign Policy and Defense Studies at the Heritage Foundation. E-mail: helle.dale@heritage.org.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in The Washington Times