Move to ease fox hunting ban stirs UK political storm
LONDON (AP) — Fox hunting is back on the agenda in Britain, and it’s getting bloody.
Prime Minister David Cameron’s government has stirred up a political storm by announcing a vote to loosen a decade-old ban on the divisive blood sport.
As animal welfare activists staged a noisy protest outside Parliament Tuesday, the government abruptly scrapped the vote, scheduled for Wednesday, when it became clear it was headed for defeat.
But the issue, far from being resolved, has unleashed a maelstrom of British divisions, pitting city against country, upper class against the modestly off and now English lawmakers against Scottish ones.
“The government has backed down,” said protester Brian May, the guitarist in rock band Queen. But, he cautioned, “we have not yet won the war. There’s no room for complacency.”
Fox hunting, in which groups of riders follow a pack of hounds trained to track down and kill foxes, is a centuries-old sport that has long divided Britons. Opponents consider it a cruel pastime reserved for the rich, while supporters say it is an important rural tradition and an effective form of pest control.
Britain banned the sport in 2004 after a long and acrimonious battle that saw hunting supporters clash with riot police outside Parliament.
Cameron’s Conservative government, which has strong rural support, last week announced a vote on what it called “technical amendments” to the hunting ban in England and Wales.
Opponents called the proposal — which would allow a pack of hounds to flush a fox out of hiding but not kill it — an attempt to legalize hunting by stealth.
Celebrities including May, Ricky Gervais and Sadie Frost urged lawmakers to keep the ban. Paul McCartney said bringing back “cruel and unnecessary” hunting would cost Cameron support.
In a further twist, the separatist Scottish National Party announced Monday that it would oppose the changes — even though the party had promised to vote only on issues that affect Scotland. Opposition from the 56 SNP lawmakers and other anti-hunting legislators meant the government, which has a 12-seat majority in the 650-seat House of Commons, would almost certainly have been defeated.
SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon said the party had decided to vote because Cameron was out of touch with English public opinion — and to “remind the government of how slender their majority is.”
Ironically, the government’s proposal would make the law in England and Wales the same as that in Scotland, where a pack of dogs can already flush out a fox so that it can be shot.
The hunting defeat gives the government extra incentive to pass promised reforms barring lawmakers from Scotland — which has a separate Edinburgh-based assembly with broad powers — from voting on bills that only affect England.
The plan, dubbed English Votes for English Laws, is controversial. Sturgeon said it would make Scottish lawmakers “second-class citizens in the House of Commons,” and some English legislators have also warned the government not to rush through a major constitutional change.
A vote on the English votes proposals had also been planned for this week but has been postponed until September at the earliest.