Time for democracy

This week’s note from Douglas Batchelor, Chief Executive.

As every week goes by the temperature seems to rise on the hunting issue. In part it is a symptom of the 24/7 world we all now inhabit and in part it is connected with the lead up to the forthcoming general election.

As has long been their practice the hunters now seem to be well into their usual habit of shooting the messenger. The attacks are getting more and more personal, and they are now delivered by email, and blog, Facebook and Twitter as well as in the news and letters columns of the media. Rather than face up to public debates about why they want to chase and to kill for fun, the hunters put more and more effort into denial, and into denigrating all and any who oppose them.

This week I fully expected the hunters to try and use the report of the ‘Better Government Initiative’ (BGI) to claim that it was wrong of Tony Blair’s Government to pass the Hunting Act 2004, and I was right. That particular dead horse got very little coverage but that didn’t stop them flogging it.

Hunting presents a real issue in a democratic sense. When the majority find the practice of hunting for sport morally and ethically indefensible, to us it seems reasonable to enact that judgement in law, as Parliament finally did in 2004.

To the hunters, and apparently to the retired mandarins at the BGI as well, that isn’t how they see the political process at all. For the mandarins it is all about the scientific evidence and not about public opinion. For the hunters it is all about what they claim as their personal right to be free to do as they wish, never mind the science and the morality of it.

The same dilemma affecting the decision making process plays out with every single decision in government, regardless of its political complexion. To use the ‘Yes, Minister’ analogy, Sir Humphrey will tell the minister,

“this is bound to be a contentious decision. The opponents of the decision will quite likely seek Judicial Review in the courts if they can’t get their way in Parliament. If it goes to court you will have to show the reasonable basis on which you took that decision. To do that, Minister, I recommend that you hold an inquiry and that you then undertake a full public consultation on what you propose. In that way no one will be able to say that there was not due process when you bring forward your recommendations.”

The Party Whips will tell the minister that they have a lot of business to get through both Houses and that contentious measure will simply stuff up the progress on a load of other more important work, while the opponents of the bill play it as long as they possibly can. To put it bluntly, a contentious bill is one for the last six months before an election; until then one should play for time.

The Minister will leap up and down, bang the desk and say, “I told people I was going to do this as soon as I got in”. Sir Humphrey will say,

“Yes Minister, but that was then and this is now. I am sure the Cabinet will understand and support you in the inquiry and consultation you plan. My fellow mandarins will help with that. And of course you can hold a vote now to see if there is a will to do anything at all about the issue, because that doesn’t actually commit you to anything! However, you will be able to say that you said you would do it and you have, so now back off and wait till the time is right. I’ve got a lot of other more pressing business to deal with. So reasonable an approach minister!”

What is so disturbing about the way government actually works is that most of the decisions taken are pragmatic rather than principled. They are pragmatic in that they try to balance and almost cancel out the opposing forces with a ‘something for everyone’ approach, if they can find one. They take decisions based as much on what they think they can get through the parliamentary system quickly as much as on what is morally right. The result is that people distrust the process and the politicians and civil servants who run it. People see that lack of principle, the politics of legislative convenience and they then lose interest in the whole political process.

As a result of all this you can be quite sure that the retired mandarins would criticise the time and effort put into the passage of the Hunting Act. As they would see it, too much time was taken on it and the better solution would have been a licensing system that ministers of successive governments could have bent with the political wind of the day. That would have been Sir Humphrey’s solution; practical not moral.

The trouble with the Sir Humphrey’s of this world is that they don’t live in our real world. The Hunting Act is a classic example of that, where over 75% of the public agree with it, think it should be enforced and are against its repeal. For the vast majority of the public, hunting with dogs for sport is a moral and ethical issue and not one for pragmatism. As far as they are concerned it is wrong, and it is a crime. For Sir Humphrey, seven hundred hours of parliamentary time and the civil service workload associated with that just doesn’t compute. The fact that it was those opposed to the Act who made it take so long, doesn’t change his view, it simply leads him to say that a compromise would have been far better, whatever your principles.

For politicians the hunting issue is a grade one political banana skin. A small minority passionately want the Hunting Act repealed. The vast majority think the issue has already been dealt with and as far as they are concerned it would be nonsensical to spend more time turning the clock back to cruelty. There will be hardly a constituency in the country where hunters are a significant sector of the local vote. Typically with over 60,000 constituents the average constituency will have less than a hundred passionate hunt supporters. Even the most rural and ‘hunting heartland’ of seats will probably have less than three hundred passionate hunt supporters in it.

When candidates are looking at the realpolitik of trying to get elected, they have to balance the views and support of the few hundred vociferous hunters in their constituency against the usually much quieter 45,000 who support the Hunting Act and are opposed to its repeal. Their choice is whether to go with public opinion or with the noisy bloodsporting minority? For some candidates who have supported hunting for sport it seemingly isn’t an easy choice. Because hunting is regarded as a free vote issue, they have to consider where they personally stand on the principle of cruelty to animals for sport, as well as what their possible constituents think.

Significant numbers of candidates who have reportedly previously pledged support for hunting to the hunters are now not saying publicly where they stand on the hunting issue. Others are saying they will decide how to vote when they see the proposals. The beauty of the Keep Cruelty History website is that you can use the site to tell candidates what you think. You can tell them that you want them to support the Act and oppose repeal. As a voter you can make your views and concerns clear to the possible decision makers. That is democracy. What the quiet majority should do is take the time to make themselves heard! Hopefully politicians of all parties will then listen to what they have to say and will vote to prevent cruelty to animals for sport.

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