A coun­try­man in West­min­ster

The MP and Coun­try­side Al­liance chair­man on stand­ing firm on field­sports

Country Life Every Week - - Interview -

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

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