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Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 January, 2005, 11:46 GMT
The unusual suspects
By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

Hampshire Hunt in Herriard
Police have so far adopted a friendly approach
Hunt supporters hope their legal challenge will stop the ban due to start next month. Some say they will ignore it if it is introduced. What is it that makes otherwise law-abiding citizens decide to break the law?

The clashes between police and pro-hunt protesters in Parliament Square last year took one man who was present back 20 years.

Ex-miner John, who hunts with terriers and lurchers in south Wales, remembers the violence of the picket lines during the national miners' strike, in which nearly 10,000 miners were arrested.

Both issues have provoked people who usually respect the law to stand up and disobey the authorities.

The arguments for and against hunting are passionately held on both sides - but John is one of those who feels so strongly that his side is right that he is ready to go to jail.

"I've not even had a parking ticket in my life but I'm prepared to go to jail and that's not an idle boast. I will not pay any fines.

Police and miners clash
1984: Miners' strike over pit closures leads to violence on picket lines, 9,778 miners arrested
1990: Poll tax deemed unfair and sparks non-payments and riots, hundreds of arrests
2000: Fuel blockades over rising prices nearly bring UK to a standstill, handful of arrests
2004: Pensioner Elizabeth Winkfield one of several to refuse to pay part of her council tax (case ongoing)
"To say that makes me feel absolutely terrible, as it would any citizen because you're giving up your personal liberty. My first duty is to my family and they're totally supportive and back me 100%."

The police are unlikely to prosecute because it will be difficult to obtain video evidence of the hound, the fox and the huntsman, says Gerald, 28, a huntsman in Hertfordshire intent on flouting the ban.

But that hasn't stopped him contemplating time behind bars.

"They're not going to send me to Brixton, are they? It will be a low-key prison because it's not a hardline criminal offence, so it won't be a lot different to boarding school.

"I'm quite prepared to go to prison for what I believe in and I believe what we're doing is right."

The Countryside Alliance advocates working within and not outside the new law and some farmers have already started a campaign of disruption, such as withdrawing permission for military training on their land.

But John, Gerald and hundreds of others say they plan to take direct action beyond what is lawful. If they do stand as criminals eyeball to eyeball against the government over hunting, they will historically be in unlikely company.

Tommy Sheridan MSP
Anarchy is when the state refuses people the right to civil disobedience or when people disobey laws and nothing happens
Tommy Sheridan MSP
The miners eventually backed down, broken and demoralised. Six years later another wave of protests came, this time over the poll tax. It sparked refusals to pay and riots, but on this occasion it was the government who conceded defeat.

Tony Blair's turn came four years ago, when fuel protesters almost brought the nation to a standstill by blocking supplies. They stayed mainly within the law, except a few arrests for obstruction or intimidation.

Among the poll tax law-breakers was Tommy Sheridan, the former leader of the Scottish Socialist Party who was twice jailed over his resistance to it. And although in full support of the hunting ban, he backs their right to break the law.

"As long as they present their case via civil disobedience and no violence is involved, then I've sympathy with their expression in principle. I've no regrets about what I did.

"The poll tax was a bad law and had to be changed and just like those who have broken laws in the past to change the laws, we were successful."

Civil disobedience is a human being's right, says Mr Sheridan, but you also have to accept the state has a right to imprison you.

"I don't think it leads to anarchy but a strong democracy. Anarchy is when the state refuses people the right to civil disobedience or when people disobey laws and nothing happens."

Healthy dissent

Dr Roy Bailey, a clinical psychologist, says there have been times in the past 20 years when individual frustrations have been harnessed into something collective and potent.

"There's coal, poll and more recently fuel. These are historical moments that touch this idea a law might not be fully thought through and rightly or wrongly we think it's unfair.

"These are otherwise law-abiding people who every other day of the week are getting in their car, digging coal and paying their taxes. What triggers it is a complex question."

He thinks it could be a culmination of discontent on a number of issues or a consequence of protesting through the official channels but not getting anywhere. Either way, it may actually be healthy for democracy.

"Society depends on individuals to feel that their voices are being heard and something is being done about it.

"The question we are left with is, is there a democracy robust enough to assimilate it? So far, we're not doing badly."

Here is a selection of your comments. The debate is now closed.

These individuals want the right to obey whichever law suits them. But they will expect the full protection of the law if someone, for example, tries to burgle their home. I hate to use a "New Labour" phrase, but with rights come responsibilities. We cannot pick which laws we want to obey just because it suits us - that way lies anarchy.
John Canavan, London

The issues contained herewith are uncomparable. In the 80's the miners were protesting to maintain their right to employment and a fair wage. The strike was broken to end the militant unions that had crippled Britain for the past decade, making it uncompetitive and perpetuating the decline of traditional industry. Persons involved in hunting are protesting to maintain their right to employment, irrespective of wage. Why should they be denied this when their actions have no negetive effect upon the macro-economic climate.
Andrew MacLauchlan, Church Aston, Shropshire

I am an otherwise law abiding citizen who for many years walked a fine line whilst protesting against hunting as a hunt saboteur. I was arrested but never convicted of an offence although I certainly broke laws upon occasion, particularly agravated trespass which only became a crime in the CJA 1994. I would agree that the pro hunting lobby have the right to protest against the act through civil disobedience but not through hunting in spite of the act.
Matthew, Lincolnshire

Bad laws (that should never have been passed, or should have been repealed) are those broken by a majority or significant minority of citizens. Cannabis and the 70mph limit on motorways are just two examples that are flouted by millions of Britons several times every day. Banning hunting will go the same way, therefore it is a bad law.
Stephen Brooks, York, England

I assume the hunt supporters who will break the law are perfectly happy for my to ride my motocross bike back and forwards over their crops. After all, just because the government removes rights of way for bikers, why should we feel the need to change our habits? It seems that we have the perfect argument here to continue as we always have.
John, London, UK

I don't necessarily agree with hunting, but the ban is not driven by animal welfare issues, this is merely a smokescreen. The real issue is outmoded and irrelevant left wing political dogma, which dictates that all hunters are "toffs", and as such the sport must be banned, as an insult to the people.
Phil, Bracknell, England

Society may very well depend on individuals feeling that their voices are being heard and something is being done about it, but when half the country wants to keep hunting & half wants to ban it then one group is not going to have its own way. It's parliament's job to decide which laws are passed and we can elect a new parliament if we wish. If we allow one law to be broken then we weaken all laws. Legitimate protests should not be allowed to break the law.
Peter, Nottingham

What on earth does it matter if someone is 'otherwise law-abiding'? All that means is that until it was 'them' affected by a change, they had nothing to break the law for. I am not sure what the relevance is that someone has never had a parking ticket. This law affects a tiny, usually privileged minority, unlike concerns over coal, fuel and poll tax. While I am on this subject, can someone please explain to me why they can't switch to drag-hunting to protect their jobs and the social aspects of the hunt?
Kaylie, Runcorn

If people are to be criminalised for their culture and way of life, it is every citizen's duty to disobey the law based on prejudice.
charlie de pelet, London

Banning gratuitous cruelty is not comparable to the miners cause or a (minority) objection to the poll tax. This is purely a power struggle between the self-righteous country set and the majority who are opposed to cruelty. The opposition to the ban is a 'tribute' if that is the right word to the organisational skills and manipulation of the ruling classes. My final words on the matter is - build more prisons.
Helen, Chester UK

Plenty of people are already criminalised because of their culture or lifestyle choices, including the recreational use of drugs, why is fox hunting, which effects such a small portion of the population, worthy of so much news coverage?
Noel, London


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