Working for a government minister gives you many interesting insights into political life, but when you work for Alun Michael, the minister responsible for the oh-so-contentious Hunting with Dogs Act, you also get a unique experience of taking abuse.
Some people seem to be flying off the handle about hunting at the moment. But even if you were to don a red coat, mount your horse (a lot of that goes on in Devon I am led to believe) and get your dogs to chase me to the point of exhaustion across some of Britain’s finest countryside before ripping me to shreds, or swiftly and painlessly dispatch me with a single blow to the neck (depending on whether you read RSPCA Animal Life or Horse and Hound) I would still be more bothered about public services and international development than hunting. The hunting issue is actually a very small part of Alun’s portfolio and an even smaller part of my work. So this is not another article rehearsing the rights and wrongs of hunting – it is more like a catalogue of abuse (though not the kind you can pay to download from the internet).
Shoot it dead!
I first grasped how strongly people feel about hunting in a lay-by off the M23. The boss was halfway through demonstrating how to uproot ragwort for local radio when a Land Rover pulled up and two women piled out with placards aplenty and their poor kids in tow. ‘Livelihood and liberty’ they squealed plummily, thrusting the placards in his face. ‘Alun Michael you are a filthy Labourite!’ they added, tussling with the solitary policewoman who had turned up to make sure he didn’t end up with a placard piercing his rectum – which one of the women seemed to be suggesting might be a distinct possibility, albeit in rather coarser terms. As we left, one of the women picked up the nearest child, ran at Alun and said: ‘So when you have banned hunting, what’s going to happen to little Jonny’s foxhound? I’ll tell you what – you are going to have to come round to our kitchen and shoot it – shoot it dead!’ It was a tense moment – the woman was in a bloodlust, the kid was pretty petrified, and I was wondering whether taking a bullet (or perhaps a pitchfork) for the boss was in my contract. Meanwhile Alun was clearly worried that this was all just a decoy to expose his backside to the marauding placard. I stopped myself offering to come round and take care of the dog for her – with a mother like that the kid had suffered enough.
We got out of that situation safely (and no, bullets and pitchforks do not come under ‘Any other parliamentary duty’), but the abuse has kept coming ever since – by letter, email, phone, direct action, intimidation, dead animals and the occasional showering of knickers (the Countryside Alliance’s most prominent tool in countering ‘prejudice’ – which for those of you without a dictionary to hand, is defined as “any view we disagree with”).
Hunting hate mail
If you think that’s wacky, you should see the piles of correspondence we get. Many of the letters constantly invoke what I call the Hitler principle. People write in and say things like ‘Fascist pigs are people like you who try to wipe out minorities on the basis of their customs and beliefs. However, unlike the Jews and the gypsies, we will not lie down and be exterminated… You have been warned.’ This is an emotive but illogical argument. Yes, Hitler did ban hunting but Hitler was also a vegetarian – should we oppose vegetarianism? Hitler dramatically reduced unemployment (by undesirable means, I concede) – but should we oppose cuts in unemployment? And should we really rule out invading Poland…? No, fair enough, maybe we shouldn’t invade Poland. But it is downright offensive to compare the holocaust with a ban on hunting. Invoking the Hitler principle is the last resort of the man who has run out of convincing arguments.
So if you have got no arguments, why not repeat them? Last week one man sent the same message to Alun’s public email account thirty-three times saying ‘I hope you get the message now you snivelling little man with your petty Welsh nastiness – no ban!’ Tragically for Mr G. Fenton of Harlow,* Alun did not get that message thirty-three times – because I eliminated thirty-two of them. Why Mr Fenton thought that he was entitled to leave multiple abusive messages, merely because he could, perplexes me. I can imagine he would be pretty mad if his local Labour councillor rang his doorbell, said his piece, left, and then rang again a further thirty-two times the same day to reinforce the point. Had Mr Fenton been courageous enough to leave his address I would have been tempted to try this out, but alas this brave lover of liberty and tradition did not have the courage. Oh, and just a tip to all those of you who never realised you could email your MP – if you want to be taken seriously do not send it thirty-three times!
What about our Liberty and livelihood?
And then of course, there were the protests in Parliament Square. It amazes me that a million people protest against a war without any violence, whilst ten thousand turn up to protest about a sport and they see the need to attack the police. Now my philosophy is ‘when in Rome…’ and all that. So when urban ramblers go walking in the country it is bad form to leave gates open and the like. But let’s have some give-and-take here – when country folk protest in London they should respect the fact that we city-dwellers consider it terribly bad form to beat up the local policemen, break in to historic buildings and intimidate our representatives. What about our liberty and livelihoods, eh?
I am perhaps treating all this a bit lightly. This is a serious issue and the Real Countryside Alliance – the breakaway paramilitary wing of the Countryside Alliance – targets MPs and Ministers who they say ‘must be made to pay a price for abusing the Parliamentary Privilege (sic) of the House of Commons.’ What exactly ‘paying the price’ means I don’t know – but they have helpfully reminded their commandoes that the RCA is ‘mostly non-violent’. Plainly this does not prevent them jostling and racially intimidating MPs like Sir Gerald Kaufman, or trying to put a steel crowd barrier through my boss’s car window (while he was in it, needless to say), or dumping a load of manure outside an MP’s mother’s house. Shame their commandoes got the wrong house – collateral damage apparently.
Indeed it seems that it is not only Ministers and MPs who are to be targeted. The morning after besieging a Labour party dinner last week, (during which three policemen were hospitalised, one policewoman racially-abused, several police horses deliberately frightened and diners subjected to homophobic abuse) a pro-hunting spokesman was asked on the radio whether this violence and intimidation was legitimate: ‘Against Labour party members? Yes, definitely. Against the police? Probably not. Unfortunately they are piggy in the middle.’ An enlightened bunch, as you can see – but it’s not every day you get the opportunity to make porcine allusions to the police on national radio and get away with it.
Do not be too harsh on the pro-hunting lobby though – they have made an inestimable contribution to English literature. Like this inspirational poem from the Real Countryside Alliance website:
Time is ticking away! / Don’t let Labour get this legislation through
Don’t wait for action or it will be too late! / Get together with your friends
and plan your own civil disobedience!
This seems to me to reinforce the point that the standard of education in rural areas is (or clearly should be) of more concern than hunting. At least they will have more time to work on their poetry from February anyway…
No doubt the abuse will continue even though the ban has gone through. Last week I had my first ‘hunt martyr’ call in. ‘I want to leave a message for Alun Michael. You have made me a criminal, Mr Michael, and I will defy the ban. On the first day of the ban in February I will be out hunting. My name is Mr Alan Warman, I live at 11 Chertsey Drive, Chigwell, Essex and my phone number is 02179 883456*. I am just about to phone the Chief Constable of Essex Police to inform him too. Goodbye.’ It has been suggested that a total ban might be tricky to enforce – but now that Mr Warman and 50,000 other ‘hunt martyrs’ are thoughtfully keeping the police informed of their intention to criminalise themselves, it might not be quite so tricky after all…
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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