by Ian Moss
The traditional Boxing Day argument about fox hunting started yesterday morning. It’s a great argument because it happens every year, on the same day, and that day just happens to be a day when not much else is happening.
For the booze sodden, housebound, tired and emotional journalist it is the Christmas present that keeps giving. Every year just before you knock off for Christmas you can ask the prime minister’s official spokesman, “are you going to repeal the hunting ban?” The spokesman can say, “we have no plans to” and there you are – that’s your Boxing Day copy phoned in. It basically writes itself, with a quote from the League Against Cruel Sports, a quote from the Countryside Alliance, and it could probably be done by a fancy piece of sentence generating software knocking out 1000 words on the top line message of “people are in favour and people are against and here is a picture of a bloke on a horse”.
With fox hunting I always feel slightly disconnected from the debate, in that I don’t have the strong feelings against hunting that characterise people’s position in support of the ban. However, I am also convinced I don’t have any feelings at all in favour of hunting.
That’s where the cold, hard, rational logic kicks in for me. I can understand totally why people get very worked up against fox hunting. I don’t personally, but I can see why people do. What I can’t understand is why people get worked up in favour of hunting. Try as I might, once it has been pointed out that the pastime involves randomly picking on an animal to chase to have it ripped to death with dogs, I can’t see that as being something a decent person would get very involved in defending.
I have a relative by marriage that would never march for poverty, or unemployment, or war, but will march on London from Stoke on Trent to defend the right to kill foxes with dogs. That seems weird to me. Actually, all marching seems weird to me – I never quite saw the point of it and it was usually cold and often wet – but I digress. The thing is I find everything about hunting odd.
The clothes, the horns, the dogs, the killing all adds up to something I wouldn’t want to do. I even find the phrase, “ride with the hunt” rather curious. It infers some sort of passive activity that reveals a certain inner mania. “Well, I was all dressed up and sitting on my horse, trotting along and suddenly there was a hunt. So I thought, hey I’ll ride along with that”. Mainly I don’t think the phrase describes what is actually happening. It feels to me that you are not “riding with the hunt”, in fact you are part of the hunt.
I was in favour of the legislation when it came in, not an enthusiastic supporter but someone that saw it might be a reasonable thing to do. I figured those with strong feelings against hunting had a point and so we should get on and ban it and then spend some energy on more difficult questions of the day. Hunting to me is one of those things that once it has been said “you can’t do this anymore” I look at it and think “OK, I understand, you are probably right”.
I think that is basically how other people should view it – it’s wrong, so if you did do it, stop now and move on to something else. Get another hobby. Take up paintballing or polo or, if you need the blood lust, ride round your house on a scooter killing spiders. Even if you still like the dressing up and riding on a horse in a gang thing it is pretty easy not to break the law – just ride following a scent and lay off the fox-ripped-to-pieces section of the day.
If you really want to see some fox/dog fighting action get someone to dress up in a fox suit to act that out with some people in dog suits. They could also sing and tell jokes. It would be a nice ending to a bracing Boxing Day ride in the countryside.
The Daily Mail yesterday mentioned in passing in its report today on the Boxing Day hunt that the RSPCA recently took out a private prosecution against two members of the Heythrop hunt. The hunt has probably no recognition at all for most normal people but in media land it is “famous” because David Cameron has “ridden with it”. The article mentions two facts – that the case cost £327,000 and the fines on the two people were £1000 and £1800 plus costs.
The hunt itself was fined £4000 and paid £15,000 in costs. I assume the Daily Mail slipped these facts in, against its usual backdrop of supposition and comment in order to make the reader think the costs to the RSPCA were wildly out of step with the punishment. Subliminally we should thing “why are the RSPCA spending all that money.”
There has, I understand been some controversy around the RSPCA doing this. But if people like those from the Heythrop hunt can’t help themselves but to break the law, then as a society we have to sigh, shrug our shoulders and enforce it. That will cost money to someone. The hunters had been told to stop it and they wouldn’t. No good reason, just that they weirdly are only in it for the fox killing and probably don’t think my idea of singing blokes in dog suits would give them the same buzz.
The RSPCA is therefore not only well within its rights to spend some of its large income in pursuing people illegally killing animals; it is in my view totally correct in doing so. It is clear that some people, even as adults, can’t help themselves but break simple rules that have been laid out explicitly and so they need to be punished. Even if the costs outweigh the scale of the punishment in pure cash terms.
In the justice system I sometimes think it would be nice to have a punishment of “being sent to your room” in this case, every Boxing Day so that they couldn’t do it again. That would be the best way of saving the RSPCA the money. I’d have a big old fine as well to sharpen the incentives of course. However, the idea put about every year that because lots of people want to break this particular law Parliament should some expend energy on trying to repeal the Hunting act is not an idea I have much sympathy with. Given how patently obvious it is that those that get worked up about hunting are right to do so, I can’t see how Parliament should spend any time thinking about repeal a law which seems to be a perfectly reasonable one to expect sensible people not to break.
What is worth getting worked up about though, is how we get a nice quick, cheap way of working out whether someone had broken the law or not and assigning a proportionate punishment. Why were the costs so high to the RSPCA? That would seem to me to be the thing to put good minds to work on. It is a debate worth having not just in this context, but in the context of the whole justice system, which is ludicrously expensive and inefficient. Why isn’t there a fast track system for justice in such instances?
I would go further. Why do judges sit in big draughty courts in parts of town with expensive real estate addressing an almost empty room? Why do solicitors and barristers often sit in Magistrates’ courts waiting all day without the proper papers about the case so they can defend their client adequately? Reform of the justice system is an issue where we have barely started to make any inroads to make it more efficient. That debate is difficult though, and doesn’t involve a picture of a bloke on a horse on a slow news day.
Ian Moss has worked across government and is now in public affairs