Most politicians become used to reading colourful and sometimes not entirely flattering descriptions of themselves on social media. One of the more surprising descriptions of myself that I have read recently was “Alun Davies – the farmers’ friend”. It wasn’t meant to be kind. And I must say it didn’t always feel like that either.
The context was the forthcoming vote on hunting and the author appeared to be sure that they knew my views on the matter. They clearly didn’t. I oppose hunting with dogs and I hope that the House of Commons will vote down the UK Government’s grubby little attempt to undermine the Hunting Act when it is eventually put to the vote. In withdrawing the vote the new UK Government appears that it is not only duplicitous but incompetent. It is also demonstrates the power that the SNP block can exercise on a government with a tiny majority and MPs that it cannot control. So much for the “Vote Labour – Get SNP” line we were fed in May.
But back to hunting. Over the three years that I was an agriculture minister I never faced any requests to find ways of re-introducing hunting with dogs in Wales. It was never raised with me as an issue by either the farming unions or any other well-respected countryside group such as the CLA. It was raised with me once by the Countryside Alliance but that seemed only to confirm that despite their re-branding they remain no more than simply a pro-hunting pressure group.
In fact throughout those three years I held a series of meetings which discussed country sports and the rural economy but the re-introduction of hunting with dogs as either means of pest control or as an economic activity was never a part of those discussions. It simply wasn’t relevant.
And this is the key point. Despite all the noise and the fury and the commotion caused by the pro-hunting lobby, it represents only a small minority of people in the rural community. One of the most destructive and far-reaching aspects of the last debate on hunting was how the Countryside Alliance succeeded in turning the debate into an “us against them” – rural against urban – struggle. And they did this quite deliberately and for purely narrow self-serving reasons. They knew the truth. They knew that there was – and that there is today – a significant majority of people in both urban and rural communities who detest hunting. A straight campaign for hunting could never succeed. So aided by lazy and short-sighted opposition politicians, they turned the campaign into one which was not about hunting but about the “rural way of life” and to defend rural people against an attack on their “culture” and their “rights” by an urban Labour Party which cared nothing for rural communities. And in doing this they succeeded.
I remember feeling a real concern about this in the last Assembly, so much so that I led a short debate on the subject which sent some Tories potty with rage. As a minister and as someone who has represented the Mid and West Wales region I have been struck time and time again by how completely this confidence trick has succeeded in creating division, a very real and wholly destructive cultural divide between people sometimes living only a few miles apart. I have met numerous people who are either farmers or who live in rural Wales who are afraid to speak their minds about hunting because they fear the consequences of being seen to be letting down their community.
I hope that later today the House of Commons will send a clear message to Cameron and the rest of his government that hunting with dogs needs to be not simply regulated and limited but banned completely. But that’s not enough. Blair’s equivocation over hunting for the whole of his first government and the first half of his second government created the space for a campaign whose malign legacy still lingers and disfigures too much of our popular debate in Wales where it also affects other aspects of policy from agricultural support to the rural economy, environmental and conservation policy. And it is this almost-cultural legacy and not simply the campaign against hunting that we must now address and overcome.
And we need to do so in a way which takes seriously the real concerns that many people will share about the future of our rural communities. Whether that is about the future of agriculture and the family farm, jobs in rural settings, the future of the Welsh language, housing or access to services such as social care or mobile phones or broadband – essentially there is a whole rural policy agenda which is basically a Welsh Labour agenda. And it could be a Welsh Labour voice that can reflect, articulate and deliver these priorities. The new Rural Development Plan may be the best place to start. In government I was able to negotiate the biggest RDP that we’ve ever seen in Wales – against a backdrop of public spending cuts and huge pressures in departmental spending – as well as some fierce opposition from all opposition parties egged on by the farming unions. This is an opportunity to not only make an historic change in the way that we do environmental management but to invest in the future of agriculture and to address issues of rural poverty for the first time and to invest in the wider rural economy. This is potentially one of the most exciting new agendas that we can pursue in Wales. And if we do so successfully then we will not only remove hunting from the political agenda once and for all but we will also bridge and then remove this cultural legacy of that campaign. And that will do more for the future of rural Wales and those people living in rural communities than any amount of hunting with dogs will ever achieve.