You know Ireland dont you? Surely the Irish are mad for sport of all sorts and scathing of the animal rights nonsense that has infected our politics? Well yes, but Ireland also currently has a Government that is committed to new legislation on dog breeding, which will be economically disastrous for Irish hunting and shooting, as well as a ban on stag hunting. How does
this happen? Simple: a hung parliament and coalition Government. Since 2007, Fianna Fael leader and Taoiseach Brian Cowan has only been able to form a Government with the support of the Green Party, and the Green Party leader John Gormley is Irelands environment minister. As one Irishman explained it to me: Its like having the League Against Cruel Sports in charge of DEFRA, as well as it having the capability of bringing down the Government if it doesnt get its way.
You might think that the same thing could not happen here. In countries such as Ireland, which use proportional representation electoral systems, coalition governments are much more common and single-issue parties such as the Greens have more prominence than in countries like Britain where we maintain a first-past-the-post system for Westminster elections. But with a General Election just weeks away, the polls are suggesting that we too could soon have a hung parliament for the first time since 1974 and only the second since 1929.
What is a hung parliament?
The definition of a hung parliament is one in which no party has an overall majority, which means that no party has more than half of the MPs in the House of Commons. At the next election, the number of seats contested will increase from 646 to 650 as a result of boundary reforms. On the face of it, an absolute majority would require one party to win 326 seats, and if no party won that many seats there would be a hung parliament. In reality, it is not quite that simple, because the speaker and his deputies, though members of Parliament, do not usually vote. Also, in the current Parliament, there are four Sinn Fein MPs who refuse to take the oath of allegiance to the Queen and as a result are not entitled to vote.
In the simplest terms, however, the Labour Party will lose its absolute majority if it loses 27 seats and the Conservatives will gain an absolute majority if they gain 133 seats. Any result in between will result in a hung parliament and no party will be able to govern without the support of MPs from other parties.
If there is a hung parliament, the party with the largest number of seats will usually be asked by the Queen to try to form a government. It can do that by forging an alliance with a smaller party to create a coalition government, which would usually involve policy concessions and allowing members of the smaller party into the Cabinet. Alternatively, one party might try to reach an agreement with smaller parties that they will support the government if there is a vote in Parliament aimed at bringing down the government, or one party could form a minority government with no agreements and try to form majorities in favour of each individual Bill as it comes up. If no party is prepared to go down one of these paths, then Parliament will be dissolved again and there will be another election.
Lessons from the past
In 1974 there were two elections. In the first there was no outright majority, with Labour winning 301 seats compared with the Conservative Partys 297. Labour leader Harold Wilson formed a minority government, but it did not last long and there was another election in October, which gave Wilson a slim majority of only three seats. There was also a hung parliament following the 1929 General Election. Ramsey MacDonalds Labour Party won 287 seats, Stanley Baldwins Conservatives won 260 and David Lloyd Georges Liberals won 59.
The threat to fieldsports
So what does this all mean for shooting and the countryside? The bottom line is that an uncertain political situation brings only uncertainty for us. Since 1979, we have become used to British governments lasting several terms and, with the exception of the tail end of John Majors term as Prime Minister, governments with a majority capable of delivering their agenda. We have not had coalition administrations, single-term governments or short-lived Parliaments that have had to be dissolved and fresh elections called.
The stable governments of the past three decades have meant that policy has been developed through a consistent political agenda even, as in the case of the 2004 Hunting Act, if it was an agenda with which we disagreed. We have known where the battle lines have been drawn and on any number of issues, from firearms control to tail docking, have been able to lobby those politicians who we knew would be influential and campaign in a logical way.
Volatile political situations such as hung parliaments, however, offer real opportunities for single-issue campaigners either within or across political parties. Horse-trading becomes the modus operandi of government and everyone with a vote has an opportunity to sell their support to whoever is willing to deliver on their pet cause. Policy does not develop progressively. It is as likely to develop from political necessity as it is from any logical process. In Ireland, for example, the proposed puppy tax and ban on stag hunting was not brought forward because of any new research or scientific opinion but because the Irish economy collapsed. The Government has had to make hugely unpopular spending cuts and the Green party was able to extract virtually whatever price it wanted to keep Fianna Fael in power.
The most likley scenario
As discussed earlier, it is unlikely that under our current electoral system the Green party will hold the balance of power, though it is tipped to win its first Westminster seat in the General Election. The most likely scenario is that the Liberal Democrats would hold the balance of power and negotiate an agreement to support one of the two larger parties based on their willingness to adopt at least some Lib Dem policies. In such a situation the concern would not be that a minority party would negotiate to enter a coalition government on the basis of animal rights legislation, but that a group of MPs from one or more parties could put themselves in a position to demand it. Take the recent Parliamentary Early Day Motion calling for a ban on raised laying cages signed by 198 MPs. It is easy to write off as parliamentary graffiti when the government has a sizeable majority, but in a hung parliament any organised group of MPs of that size can demand a high price for keeping a government in power.
A return to the defensive
So instead of being in a position to get on the front foot and promote shooting to the public and politicians alike, the political uncertainty of a hung parliament would mean, at least in part, a return to the defensive. Of course, both in the long and the short term, building relationships and cross-party consensus remains crucial, but in a volatile Parliament the skills of the political street fighter will also come to the fore. We will need the intelligence to recognise the ambushes before they are launched and the skills to win the parliamentary fight when we come across it. Like a pen full of contented poults, the shooting world is sometimes unaware of how much work goes into keeping the fox from the gate, and if there is no clear winner at the General Election we will be relying more than ever on our keepers.