Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Vote Tory, get fox-hunting?

The basic answer is yes. Should there be a Conservative government- a majority Conservative government- then there would be a free vote on the ban. It would, in all likelihood be overturned. 75% of people support the Hunting Act including 59% of Tory voters according to the League Against Cruel Sports. So does this make sense for David Cameron?

Hunting itself is clearly cruel. I don't think the pro-hunting lobby do themselves any favours when they deny that- as one caller did on BBC Five Live for a good 15 minutes or so this morning. She also accused anyone against her of being 'fanatics', 'living in cloud cuckoo-land', and everything else under the sun. It seems that pro-hunting voices are not intending a charm offensive any time soon.

But they have a better point when they ask whether this cruelty is greater than the alternatives? Farmers have a right to protect their livelihoods and if a fox risks that then they have to take action. Is it better to snare or poison foxes? Equally, the anti-hunting question, which isn't about class warfare at all, 'do we want to live in a society where people inflict cruelty on animals for fun?' is an equally legitimate one. Neither of these questions has an easy or neat answer. It's a classic rights v rights issue: the rights of the hunters v the rights of the fox. That type of discussion ends up becoming very heated and polarised very quickly.

The question is why David Cameron would want to resuscitate this issue. The argument that the legislation is not working does not seem to be particularly relevant. Anti-hunters feel that following the recent High Court case, the legislation is now clarified. So it's not a practical motivation, it's a moral or political motivation. Whichever it is, do the politics make sense?

On the face of it no. But of the 75% who support the Hunting Act (and we have to also assume that a portion of those who do not support it are nonetheless anti hunting) for how many is it a key issue- the type that would sway their vote? I would have thought very few, particularly in a recession. Whereas there is a base motivating element to this.

Those who are engaged or live in areas where fox hunting persists will be strongly motivated by the prospect of a repeal. This means they will vote, donate and organise for the Conservative party at the next election. And don't think this is just a rural v town issue. There are many marginal constituencies that are both rural and urban. So in that sense there is something to be said for the issue. In fact, David Cameron has already benefited from support from huntsman. Members of the Heythrop Hunt have campaigned for him in Witney.

More broadly there is a slightly more intangible political price to be paid for supporting an overturn of the ban (and that is what a free vote is, make no mistake.) It plays into the image of David Cameron as being slightly apart: not a 'normal' Briton. Should there be a picture of him fox hunting like the infamous Bullingdon Club picture then that will play very badly indeed. The days of 'born to rule' deference are long gone and anything that sets him apart in the context of economic hardship will not play well.

How the politics play will ultimately depend on how these forces interact: base mobilisation v image degeneration. As the politics are so messy, my guess is that this is more of a moral issue for him. He believes in fox hunting. But expect this issue to rear its head more and more in the run up to an election even though most people are not overly concerned by it. There is just too much mileage to be had out of it.

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