Boris Johnson launched the Conservatives’ general election Manifesto over the weekend. The primary focus was on spending plans and Brexit (in line with other political parties), but nine little words have seen significant comment from pro-wildlife campaigners. At the bottom of page 43, ending a brief section titled ‘Stewards of our environment’, was the short and unqualified statement: “We will make no changes to the Hunting Act.” (That’s the statement in full, and the bold highlight is from the manifesto.)
The Hunting Act
Before looking at what that means, a quick recap. The Hunting Act 2004 came into force in 2005 and it banned the hunting of wild mammals (including foxes, hares, deer, and otters) with hounds. It was brought in under Tony Blair’s Labour government and the Conservatives have vowed to repeal it ever since.
In fact every Conservative manifesto since 2005 has pledged a free vote on overturning the hunting ban. But Theresa May’s calamitous showing at the polls in 2017 was partly blamed on her support for fox hunting. Then leadership candidate Jeremy Hunt was pilloried for speaking out in favour of foxhunting earlier this year.
Hunting, as many organisations and some Tory supporters have pointed out, is a ‘toxic issue’. It is hugely unpopular with voters. Despite the efforts of pro-hunt lobbyists it’s not something any political party will go near. While some manifestos ignore the issue completely, not a single party manifesto comes down in favour of it.
How has this move been reported
If the Hunting Act is not something any political party will go near, is this reflected in the way the ‘No changes’ pledge has been reported though? Not exactly. One widely-quoted comment comes from the Daily Telegraph, the right-leaning newspaper.
It’s Chief Political Correspondent wrote the following:
The Conservative Party completed a break with its historic support base in the countryside by dropping its longstanding [pledge] to give MPs a chance to repeal the fox hunting ban.
The party’s general election manifesto contained a simple statement that a new Tory Government “will make no changes to the Hunting Act”.
The dropping of the commitment marks the end of a gradual move away from the party’s association with fox hunting.Christopher Hope, Chief Political Correspondent 24 November 2019
That hardly sounds like support for the stance taken by Johnson, or an acknowledgement of the loathing most people feel for lawbreaking and animal cruelty. It’s more a sigh of regret, with wistful nods to a ‘historic support base‘ as the party moves away from it’s ‘association‘ with foxhunting.
But does it matter what the Telegraph says? The line is in the manifesto, there will be ‘no change to the Hunting Act’. If that includes removing the option for a free vote on fox hunting that is undoubtedly a change in tone from the Conservatives. But what does it actually mean in practice?
The reality is that 191 fox hunts still operate, going out more than 10,500 times a ‘season’. Enforcement is lax, and not spread evenly across police forces. Foxes are still being hunted and the pro-hunt lobby group the Countryside Alliance (which represents hunting’s views, but most certainly not the views of everyone who lives and works in the countryside) regularly talks about ‘business as usual’.
The Hunting Act was riddled with exemptions as the legislation made its way through both the Commons and the Lords, and modified through testing in the courts. So-called ‘trail hunting’ remains a huge problem, with hunts claiming to follow scent trails – a lie that has been disproved on innumerable occasions. Hunts carry around tethered and miserable-looking birds of prey, as there is an exemption to flush animals to birds like eagles. They can even use dogs to flush animals to be shot.
Perhaps more importantly, hunts repeatedly use the excuse that while out ‘exercising their dogs’ a fox happened to run out in front of them, was chased by the pack (despite ‘valiant efforts’ by the hunt to control them), and killed. There is nothing currently in the legislation to remove that excuse. It’s one of the reasons pro-wildlife groups have made repeated calls for a ‘recklessness’ clause to be added to a strengthened Hunting Act.
The Hunting Act undoubtedly needs toughening up. Is that likely if the Conservatives get into power as expected? No, because in reality a “no changes to the Hunting Act” pledge says that there will be no changes to strengthen it or help to enforce it either. No extra funding. No removal of exemptions. No ‘recklessness’ clause. Which essentially means that hunting will continue as it does now.
Too cynical? That view is actually widely reflected on social media, especially amongst pro-hunting supporters. They see the move as ‘real politique‘ (it will, they say, make no difference to rural Tory voters but might persuade some loathed ‘townies’ to vote Conservative). They blame Carrie Symonds (Boris Johnson’s partner) for turning the party away from its traditional supporters, but (with a shrug) admit that it’ll make little difference on the ground. They absolutely do not see this as the end of the argument.
What did we actually need?
So how do we here on The War On Wildlife Project view this announcement from the Conservatives?
Anything that makes the Hunting Act safer from the dwindling number of pro-hunt MPs is, of course, to be welcomed. But a far bigger step would have been qualifying statements that the Hunting Act would be both strengthened and enforced. That the police (all police across all forces) will be instructed to crack down on wildlife crime. That foxhunting is an outdated and cruel ‘tradition’ that will never be supported again. That the Conservatives are not just temporarily distancing themselves from its minority pro-hunt ‘support base’ but doing so for good.
Actually doing something about the ‘business as usual’ model of hunting would make a statement far more convincing and powerful than pledging – in effect – to do absolutely nothing.