A countryman in Westminster
The MP and Countryside Alliance chairman on standing firm on fieldsports
IT is a truth not always acknowledged that the people who defend country sports most staunchly are often too busy to enjoy them. Certainly, a trimly besuited Simon Hart, chairman of rural lobbying group the Countryside Alliance (CA) and MP for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire, has the look of someone who might rather be smelling the sea air on a wildfowling marsh than the coffee beans in a Westminster cafe.
He admits that becoming an MP was a case of the local seat or nothing: ‘Because I don’t have any ambition to be Prime Minister, I don’t think I’d be any good anywhere else,’ he says with self-deprecation. ‘I’ve been there all my working life [he was a chartered surveyor] and I want to achieve things there. And I have 27 beaches in my constituency.’
For 10 seasons, Mr Hart had been living the young hunting man’s dream as master and amateur huntsman of the beautifully bred South Pembrokeshire foxhounds in unspoilt countryside when a job at the CA press office came up. He became chief executive until the 2010 General Election. ‘If I was to live life differently, it was to see what had to be done to turn a reasonably safe Labour seat into a Conservative one, on home territory, and it seemed a fantastic challenge,’ he explains.
In 2015, he increased his majority to more than 6,000, despite being canvassed against by dedicated badger activist Brian May, which illustrates the fact that profieldsports MPS need to be fairly robust, as well as pragmatic and charming under provocation. ‘Idealogically, they [the animalrights lobby] hate us and we have to accept it. We’ve beaten them on evidence and arguments, but we have to beat them on politics and that’s why I switched careers.
‘We said the demise of organised coursing would be the worst thing for the hare population, but these people would rather have no hares and no grouse moors as long as no rich people are shooting. It’s so frustrating. The material in the Burns enquiry [of 1999] should have told MPS that banning hunting was not a good thing, but not a single one stood back and thought about it.’
More threats simmer, not least a review of Scottish hunting legislation by Lord Bonomy, which Mr Hart describes as ‘unquestionably a danger’. A petition to ban grouse-shooting reached the target needed to be acknowledged by Parliament this month, a phenomenon he thinks reflects the ‘Corbyn era of politics’ in which a few can mobilise the many through social media.
‘It’s the same people [who were against hunting] using the same rhetoric, but with a new focus. It’s quite easy to whip up 100,000 signatures on any subject you like if you’re savvy and make it emotive, but I don’t think it nec- essarily reflects what the wider population believes,’ he points out.
‘The nut we haven’t yet cracked is grouse-shooting’s environmental and economic contribution, but the argument is never over the evidence. There’s a “don’t confuse me with the facts” mentality. And although 99% of shooting is managed to a high standard, and most keepers wince when they hear of others doing something wrong, there’s always someone who will spoil it —adverse publicity is always to do with hen harriers, predator control or being inconsiderate: if you allow 300 pheasant poults to make a mess overnight in someone’s nice garden, that’s obviously not good PR.
‘However, most of my colleagues across Parliament, and not just supporters of shooting, do get that. There’s an element that can’t bring themselves to admit that toff-bashing and extreme animal rights are wrong, but the clever people in Labour realise it’s mad to go after [country] people in a vindictive way.’
Mr Hart’s constituency—pembroke docks, pretty Tenby, the tourism, military, industrial and dairy-farming sectors—is as varied as the CA’S brief; he’s on the Defra Select Committee and his interests include charitable regulation, firearms legislation, the Animal Welfare Act 2006, farming and broadband. ‘One of David Cameron’s last announcements was a universal service obligation to broadband. There are some “hard-to-get” places in my constituency and I’m waiting to see what Government does with interest.’
Wales was firmly for Brexit; Mr Hart was a firm Remainer, but seems sanguine. ‘The nation was answering questions that weren’t set, about how rubbish MPS are and about foreigners. Nigel Farage tapped into a different mood in the North,’ he suggests.
‘But for pro-brexit farmers, the idea of any relaxation of environmental law is not going to happen. I don’t see that there will be changes on pesticides, for instance. We won’t go back to the bad old days—there will still be stringent standards. Apart from anything else, it would make us uncompetitive, especially if the single market was in doubt.’
Mr Hart, 53, comes over as a politician who’s in it for the right reasons and who is realistic about his career, ‘swimming against the tide’ in that he doesn’t watch political programmes or attend conferences. ‘When the whole Leveson [inquiry] thing was going on, Westminster only had one subject in its head. I went home to west Wales and the conversation was about anything but and it taught me a lesson that the political bubble is of no interest anywhere else.’
He’s barely ridden a horse since he gave up hunting nearly 20 years ago, but treasures his rough shooting and trout fishing. ‘When I do my annual visit to the Boxing Day meet, I remember that decade as the most fantastic fun, but remaining in the politics of it is important. And seeing hounds reminds me why it’s important. I haven’t ruled out a return.’ Kate Green
‘We won’t go back to the bad old days—there will be stringent standards