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Foxhunting: have they nothing better to fight over?

Friday 04 July 2003

Our countryside commentator John Sheard despairs over this week's fracas in the House of Commons when there are so many more important issues at stake

I USUALLY enjoy a little dash of irony, that very English mode of comment which can be more deeply cutting than hours of political hyperbole. But this week, I received a press release from the Government's own Countryside Agency headed "Support the wider rural economy..."

It arrived on my desk as I was trying to make some sense out of the confused and bad-tempered row in the House of Commons when rebel Labour backbenchers over-ruled their own Government and voted for a complete ban on fox hunting.

Here was an irony that I found not one little bit funny. One of the Government's better agencies was doing its best to encourage the creation of more jobs in rural areas whilst its own politically correct, town-based MPs were desperately trying to destroy them.

Just how many jobs rely on foxhunting is a matter of fierce debate, and how people judge "the facts" usually depends on which side of the debate their prejudices lie.

It is, say the antis, only a matter of a couple of thousand and, if one only counts people like hunt servants, they are right.

But there is a huge army of ancillary trades which depend very much on hunting for their existence: farriers, saddle and tack makers, horse box makers, vets, horse dealers, tailors who supply coats, boot-makers, even the butchers who keep packs of voracious hounds fed.

Some of these trades still exist in our small market towns and their shops are one of the joys of country life. Should foxhunting go, many of these businesses or professions will go too - so we are talking of tens of thousands and perhaps even more jobs at stake.

But I don't expect Labour MPs to worry about those sorts of jobs. They are more interested in supporting public-sector trade unions in our over staffed councils (whose pension funds in North Yorkshire are, incidentally, £400 million in the red - a tab which we council tax payers will have to pick up!).

What really sickens me about the foxhunting debate is the hypocrisy of it all. For the fact of the matter is that this ancient country activity is being thrown to the wolves (sorry about the pun) as a sop whilst the Governments gets on with measures like foundation hospiotals which are anathema to the Left.

In other words, thousands of people will lose their jobs, and the countryside will lose one of its greatest spectacles, to keep the chattering classes and Old Left class warriors happy in their suburban homes.

Once again, the importance of strongly held, passionately defended country values are being ignored by townie politicians, which has been happening for years and therefore comes as little surprise. But to trivialise these views, and to use them, as a smoke screen by the Government to trick is own supporters, is taking political cynicism to new depths.

I have said before in this column that I am neither for nor against hunting and that I actively dislike horses (and some of the people who ride them). But I have a passionate belief in the rights of country folk to live as they have done for centuries.

This Government has many important jobs to tackle, like our disintegrating railways, crumbling schools and ailing hospitals. Trouble is, these are difficult tasks. Banning hunting would be easy - and cheap. So, once, again, to Hell with the British countryside...

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