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Fox hunting is back on the agenda. Don't overreact.

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It is being reported, by The Independent and others, that Theresa May plans to hold a vote on fox hunting when parliament returns after the general election.

In fact, the headlines thus far have been slightly misleading. ‘Theresa May plans to bring back fox hunting,’ was the first I saw, though it has since been amended. For what Ms. May has actually said is that she intends to hold a free vote on the issue, but that she would be happy to see the ban repealed.

This isn’t quite a ‘plan’ to bring it back, though it will undoubtedly be portrayed as one by supporters of the ban. The Prime Minister was perhaps understating the level of vitriol and hysteria generated by this topic when she said that ‘[t]his is a situation on which individuals will have one view or the other, either pro or against’, but that really is the key quote.

For fox hunting – to which I am, for the record, ardently opposed – is one of those subjects guaranteed to provoke long-running and emotional arguments, arguments which will take place in the media, grabbing headlines and important spots in the news agenda. It is, to reuse a particularly fine phrase from Christopher Hitchens, a ‘weapon of mass distraction’.

The same was true of gay marriage, which David Cameron put to a vote in 2013, to wide acclaim and much outrage. Now, regardless of what one thinks of the substance of the motion, it cannot fairly be argued that gay marriage, or fox hunting for that matter, is more than a marginal issue. It affects very few people. It is highly unlikely that Cameron cared much about the outcome, just as Blair almost certainly didn’t care about the outcome of the first fox hunting bill.

The point of announcements like this is to steer the debate away from important matters. Like the Fellowship storming the Black Gate, its purpose is to distract the Eye of Sauron and allow serious business to take place beyond the glare of the public. (Actually, this analogy is slightly flawed; one suspects Ms. May would be more keen on building Mordor than destroying it. Sauron, after all, was a strong and stable leader.) It is also a way of reassuring voters on the political right that their concerns and interests are being taken seriously.

Which is why, though it is obviously right that we take a view on the matter, it is vital that we do not become obsessed by it. It is designed to undermine our vigilance, so vigilance is what we must strive to maintain. You may well think that fox hunting is evil (and I’d be inclined to agree with you), but it is likely intended to hide some contentious policy announcement which will have far more serious effects.

The New Labour ban is the consummate example of such a tactic, for it was mooted a number of times between 1997 and 2004, always seeming to fail due to a lack of parliamentary time. I suspect that this was both convenient and deliberate for the Blair government, as it gave it the ability to reignite the row whenever it chose. It also formed part of the pretext for expanding the House of Lords, which had been accused of blocking the ban, and formed part of the justification for Tony appointing so many of his cronies.

So, I say again, do not become consumed by the row, however strongly you feel about the issue. Keep an eye out for other policies that will be relegated into the lower tiers of press coverage, as they are likely to be more serious.

Finally, I cannot close this piece without a word on the opposition. For this vote, should it come to pass, is largely Labour’s fault. As a rule, the sort of tactic May would seem to be pursuing is impossible if the government has a weak majority. Whilst it is going to a free vote, she will – and has – let it be known that she supports one side, and some indirect pleasure, largely the hope of patronage, will compel a number of Tory MPs to vote according to her preference. Thus, the government will have an unofficial view on the matter.

If the government is weak, it would not risk defeat in a free vote on such a trivial issue, for the opposition would be able to convince the voters that the government has been defeated. Theresa May is able to pursue this plan because a significant Tory majority after the election is all but inevitable, therefore the repercussions of a ‘no’ vote will be minor and outweighed by the benefits.

Were it the case that Parliament contained a meaningful opposition, I doubt that this proposal would have been tabled in the first place. As it doesn’t, and is not likely to in the near future, the proposal stands.

And nothing says ‘strong and stable’ like indulged psychopathy.

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