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England's upper crust may be outfoxed this time

The English have once again worked themselves into paroxysms of distress over the matter of fox hunting, for which political entertainment the rest of us can be grateful. Here, in a season of both literal and partisan downpours, is a dry spot where we can rest without any worry and simply enjoy the spectacle.

And what a spectacle. With the House of Commons poised to outlaw the sport, protesters broke into the chamber where, after some 25 minutes of disorder, five had been tackled, arrested and hustled out. They had managed to evade a security regime that has been tightened, supposedly, a few months ago after other demonstrators threw condoms filed with flour at Prime Minister Tony Blair. (Don't ask.) And outside parliament, thousands of jeering and hooting fox-issue warriors clashed with one another and with police. Heads were bloodied, no less.

Fox hunting with dogs is, to quote recent news accounts, "cruel, elitist and hopelessly outmoded," but there is probably something to be said against it, too.

Oscar Wilde had dismissed fox hunting a century ago, you would think definitively, with his famous quip describing it as "the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable."

But the practice, stubbornly unwithered by Wilde's wit, has persisted, and persisted in fact despite steady and overwhelming political disfavor in recent years.

The Commons has voted in nine of the last 10 years to forbid the practice, but the House of Lords has declined to concur, making a brave stand for the proposition that class still has its privileges and that one of those is the right of the landed tipsy to gallop after terrified foxes. That has left the issue alive, invalid and venomous.

Commons dutifully voted again this year, 356 to 166, to end fox hunting, but fox hunting's supporters were in a special uproar this time around because the measure might actually become law. Losing patience with empty gestures, the practice's opponents are threatening to get around the Lords by invoking a parliamentary dodge that is rarely resorted to and then typically for matters of a near constitutional magnitude.

With our Iraq adventure blowing up in our faces and confronted with choosing soon between a failed presidency and a failed candidacy, with hurricanes harrying our flanks and even managing to bore ruinously into the interior, Americans can envy the English for having an issue that is luxurious in its meaninglessness. If the hunts are outlawed, no great loss. If sustained, no great harm, except, of course, to the odd fox here and there. Either way, England stands.

Though you wouldn't think so to hear some of the defenders. They warn that, if fox hunting goes, fishing and falconry will fall next to the animal rights agenda. And the hunters threaten that if they are balked, they will haul England into the European Court of Human Rights, apparently to argue there that denying them their gallops is an act of class discrimination against the gentry.

That may be over-alarmist but, still, prudence and all that. It wouldn't hurt to start forming up the forces for a last-ditch defense of falconry. You have to draw a line somewhere.

Tom Teepen is a columnist for Cox Newspapers. He is based in Atlanta. His e-mail address is

Cox News Service