The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1997-2001 Parliament

Mr Major’s Commons Speech on Fox Hunting – 20 December 2000

The text of Mr Major’s Commons speech on fox hunting, made on the 20th December 2000.


Mr Major: I have never hunted a fox or a deer, nor have I attended a hunt or seen one, except at a distance, yet I oppose the Bill every bit as strongly as any one of the country dwellers who are likely to lose their livelihood should a ban be imposed by Parliament.

I am surprised that the Government introduced the Bill, and truly astonished at the timing of its introduction. At the end of a Parliament in a truncated Session, priority is being given to a measure that is classically the stuff of a private Member’s Bill. We are bound to wonder at the priorities and motives that lie behind the Bill. If it is a priority for the Government, that is laughable. As for the Government’s motives–I think that these are at least clearer than other factors–they must think that there are votes in the Bill.

Some polls say not, but a majority may well oppose foxhunting. In the Government’s eyes, the Bill is to unite that majority against the minority who hunt. It is as simple as that. It is a breath-taking illustration of political self-interest overriding natural justice for a minority cause.

Generally in our political system–to its credit, this is usually the view of the Labour party–justice for minorities is considered to be important. So it is, but not, it seems, if the minority consists of countrymen who hunt. Tolerance is swept aside in the Bill. Foxhunters have little hope of their concerns being fairly considered by a majority of Labour Members. Labour Members claim to be tolerant, but to be tolerant is to have the moral and intellectual courage to accept the right of others to have different traditions, lifestyles, allegiances and beliefs.

That is the definition of tolerance. They are not my words but those of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who uttered them the very day before the Queen’s Speech was delivered to Parliament. What a pity that the right hon. Gentleman’s laudable sentiments do not apply to the Bill. On this issue, Labour Members generally–I exclude the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding), with her courageous speech–have the open-mindedness of a revolutionary tribunal.

In the Bill, which was introduced with sweet reason by the Home Secretary, there are in theory at least options to outride prohibition. There could be an independent supervisory authority–that is on offer. There could be the Home Secretary’s preference–regulation and a code of practice, which, subject to examination of the small print, might possibly be a way forward. If these were serious options, I would welcome them. However, I fear that they are no more than fig leaves for the Government to ban hunting and wash their hands of the responsibility for having done so by putting up straw men–forgive me; no pun intended–with every certainty that Labour Back Benchers will not accept them. I suspect that the Government are confident that most Labour Back Benchers have made up their minds to go for prohibition and are deaf to reasoned arguments for the interests of the countryside.

Hunting has always been a tricky issue. As the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) has said, I was originally from the towns. I understand clearly the strong feelings of many people who oppose hunting. Hunting may offend them, but it should not affect their intellectual judgment of the merits of the activity in terms of pest control when set against other options; only facts should influence them. I congratulate Lord Burns on a report that exposes the complexities of a debate that is too often presented solely in simplistic terms.

Let us consider some of the facts. What are the merits of the Bill? Does it preserve rural traditions? Does it create rural jobs? Does it add to rural prosperity? The answers are no, no and no again.

There are, I hope, points of agreement across the House and I shall suggest some. Foxes are vermin that spread disease. They kill sheep, poultry, free-range piglets and game. All farmers regard foxes as a menace. No doubt the sheep, poultry, piglets and game also have strong feelings about them. Moreover, without a proper method of destruction, the number of foxes would treble annually, which, as far as I know, nobody would welcome, so the fox needs culling, but shooting alone will not do, as the Burns report makes clear. It may seem humane — I seem to hear the slamming of the closed minds of Labour Members. Perhaps they would care to listen to the arguments and make up their minds on that basis rather than on the basis of their own prejudices.

Shooting may seem humane, but it is often ineffective. A fox that is wounded and not killed–that often happens–might linger and suffer for a long time, perhaps even days. Shooting cannot eliminate the need for hunting, as the Burns report makes clear. All violent death is distasteful, unless the fox is to die in comfort, surrounded by its family and mourned by neighbouring chickens. It is inevitable and no one can avoid it.

Many emotive arguments, including some hoary old chestnuts, will undoubtedly be made by Labour Members to advocate the end of hunting. Many of those are conventional wisdom, but that does not make them right. I remember that the concept of a not-for-profit lottery operator was conventional wisdom and the view of almost every right-thinking person. Anyone who did not agree was viewed as sleazy and self-interested, but we are now in different circumstances: the chase is over and the wrong fox has been killed.

I began by saying that I have never taken part in hunting but that I am intellectually convinced that it is necessary, not least because, having represented a rural constituency for 20 years, I have seen it at close quarters and I care for it. Whatever the personal feelings of Labour Members, I ask them, why wilfully go out of the way to introduce specific legislation to destroy jobs? That is what a ban will do. Why wreck traditions and “modernise”–what damage that word has caused–the activities of a rural minority? Why set town against countryside? That is exactly what Labour Members are doing, and they are doing it wilfully.

Rural Britain is in severe crisis, but instead of offering help and comfort to the countryside, the Government intend to use the juggernaut of their majority to hurt it further. This is the wrong measure introduced at the wrong time for the wrong reasons. I say to Labour Members that, if the Government force it through, it will be bitterly resented and long remembered.

I invite the opponents of hunting to accept that foxes must be destroyed, that hunting creates jobs, that minorities must not be legislated against simply because they are minorities, that hunting helps to preserve the balance of wildlife in the countryside and that huntsmen and the hunts manage conservation of woodland scrub and hedgerow.

Let Labour Back Benchers open their minds for a moment, banish the image of huntsmen as red-faced toffs and try to understand the intricate complexities of the issue.

Let Labour Back Benchers banish the image of huntsmen as red-faced toffs and understand the intricate complexities of the issue. I am cynical about the Government’s intentions, but the Home Secretary has left an escape clause–the options that fall short of a ban. I congratulate him on that, if they are genuine. Let Labour Members show their open-mindedness and prove the cynics, such as myself, wrong.

Let them go to earth and allow the escape clauses to protect the future of a traditional way of life. It is Christmas: go on, surprise us!