Today Sara and I went to the Fernie Hunt Meet at Great Bowden. This is the traditional Boxing Day event, but the Hunt doesn’t meet on a Sunday, so the event was held over until the 27th. Great Bowden, site of the Fernie Hunt Kennels, is close by Market Harborough, where Emma and I have our UK office.
It wasn’t possible to hunt, because the frozen weather has left the ground hard as a rock. But the Boxing Day Meet is such a fixture in the local calendar that it went ahead anyway, with the Huntsman and the Joint masters mounted, and of course the hounds. And as usual, hundreds of supporters and spectators came to take part, and the Shoulder of Mutton on the village green did a roaring trade in mulled wine (and coffee).
I was rather glad that no one asked me about the Conservative Party’s position on Hunting, because reported in today’s press was a deeply disheartening message from James Paice MP, who is the Conservative MP for South East Cambridgeshire, and Minister of State ( Agriculture and Food), Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. He has dismissed the prospect of any repeal of the hated Hunting Act in 2011, saying that with so many issues on its plate, the government cannot give the hunting issue sufficient priority to justify parliamentary time. And in the report I read, there was no assurance that repeal would come at all.
“Priority” is a pretty thin excuse, since most people believe that the repeal could consist of a two-line bill, or a one-line clause in a longer bill, and should take very little time. To be fair, I don’t think many people in the hunting fraternity expected repeal next year. That is perhaps not simply because all reasonable people recognise that increasing the Overseas Aid Budget and urgently building more wind farms are vastly more important than rural concerns, but rather because the Conservative Party has been busy lowering expectations on the hunting issue. Some might think that the Party had cynically managed the hunting question to gain the support, and the votes, of the Countryside Alliance and of the 400,000+ people who marched in London to oppose the Ban in 2003. Now that the Party is in government, suddenly the issue looks less important.
But the government knows that radical steps need to be taken early in a government, or they end up in the long grass. The argument starts to be “We can’t look at this divisive issue in the run-up to a General Election”.
I personally feel deeply ashamed of the delay. I have seen over the years the degree of support the Conservative Party has received from hunt supporters. Sometimes these people are natural conservatives. Some are largely apolitical, and are campaigning simply for their sport, trusting the promises that the Party has made. Just one example: I remember going up to Scarborough & Whitby in the 2005 general election to support my former MEP colleague, now MP, Robert Goodwill. We were canvassing in the dark, and in some of the most appalling weather I can remember. Howling wind and torrential rain. And the group campaigning consisted (so far as I can remember) of me, and Robert, and a bunch of hunt supporters. Frankly the weather was so bad that by myself I might have given up and gone home, but I kept going because the hunt supporters kept going.
We owe them one. We have made a clear promise, and we have to fulfil it. I for one won’t feel able to hold up my head at countryside events until we do.
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