Boxing Day always reminds us of the issue of hunting with dogs. Sara Scarlett, in Liberal Vision on Boxing Day, called the ban on hunting with dogs illiberal. I don't agree with that. I see the issue as split into two parts. One is about human rights and freedom. The other is about animal welfare. If it were just a question of freedom, I would have no problem at all. Hunting with dogs would be to me like Morris dancing. I have absolutely no wish to do it, but if you want to dress up in funny clothes and parade around the countryside flaunting your silliness, I will defend and indeed celebrate your right to do so. But it is not just about freedom, it is also about animal welfare, and there we have a problem. Nobody has a right to be cruel to animals - in my opinion. Other people might think they do, in which case that has to be debated. As it stands we have a long tradition in this country of legislation to prevent cruelty to animals in all sorts of ways. Hunting with dogs cannot be exempt from that tradition. It is, of course, open to debate as to whether hunting with dogs is cruel or not - many maintain that it is not. For me a pursuit designed to take as long as possible (otherwise it would not be any fun) is designed to cause maximum fear in the animal pursued. I'll concede that it is debatable, but that is where I stand. And I will not for a moment accept that an argument so based is illiberal. The animal kingdom is part of our concern as well as the human.
Sara raises some other powerful issues, notably the issue of rural poverty, and the issue of unintended consequences. Both of them are valid and deserve our attention. Sara suggests that in terms of animal welfare the act has been counter-productive. The claim is disputed in the comments, but let us accept it at face value for the moment. She also claims that jobs have been lost and the rural economy has suffered. The claim is again disputable, but let us for the moment accept it. Both these issues are not the result of the act per se, but of the way in which it was couched and implemented.
The Hunting Act stands with reform of the House of Lords as showing up Tony Blair at his worst. Not in terms of class war, or in terms of doctrine, but in terms of ability to get things done. Blair's ability to bring people together and to forge a consensus was one of his greatest political strengths. He did a brilliant job on the Labour Party. He was undoubtedly very good at it. His weakness though was that he *needed* to find a consensus. He failed to recognise with both hunting and the House of Lords that there were people who would make a point of disliking any move for reform, and he failed therefore to move as quickly or as decisively as he could have done.
The fact that the Hunting Act was never accepted in some quarters is not Tony Blair's fault (though some of its weaknesses are), but that fact is at the root of the issue of any backlash on animal welfare. Rather than accept the spirit of the legislation, those responsible resort to indiscriminate tactics such as poison, while failing to look at control measures in a professional and calm sighted manner. Perhaps the Act could have provided funding for better methods; that might have prevented some of the current cruelties. But my point is not that the Act should not have happened, but that it should have been better drafted.
The issue of rural poverty is, I think, a non sequitur in terms of animal welfare. If rural poverty is an argument against preventing hunting with dogs, then urban poverty ought to be an argument against preventing bear baiting, or dog fighting. It isn't. If a loss of jobs was demonstrable at the time of the Act, then that situation could have been ameliorated by funding for rural improvement, either in the Act or by other means. Again, the issue is not that the Act should not have happened but that it should have been better implemented. In any case, either way, Liberal Democrat policy to lower taxes for poor people, whether urban or rural, is better and more coherent policy than either Labour or Conservative offerings. It is a far better way to move against rural poverty than bringing back hunting with dogs.