Britain's parliament has forced through a ban on fox hunting, leaving Prime Minister Tony Blair facing the prospect of massive civil disobedience from hunters in the run-up to an imminent general election.
Hunt supporters say the ban will destroy a centuries-old way of life
A law ending the centuries-old pursuit, the subject of furious debate in parliament for years, was only passed with the use of a rarely-invoked law overruling the wishes of the unelected upper chamber, the House of Lords.
The Parliament Act -- used Thursday for only the fourth time since it was introduced in 1949 -- allows the lower chamber, the House of Commons, to force a law onto the statute books single-handedly if the two houses of parliament simply cannot agree.
The ban -- which will take effect on Feb.18 next year -- had been approved 10 times over the past six years by directly elected members of Parliament in the Commons, only for it to be rejected by the Lords, formerly the preserve of the aristocracy, and now largely made up of deputies appointed for life.
The law applies only in England and Wales, with Scotland having outlawed fox hunting in 2002.
It comes into force within three months, meaning Blair and his ministers will almost certainly be dogged at every turn by furious fox hunters as they campaign in a general election widely expected for next May.
Even on Thursday evening, around 2,000 protesters gathered outside Windsor Castle, west of London, where Blair was attending a dinner hosted by Queen Elizabeth in honour of visiting French President Jacques Chirac.
Hounds waiting for the hunt to start. Animal rights activists say chasing the foxes is a cruel way to cull them.
Hunters and other country-dwellers have pledged a massive campaign of civil disobedience to protest at what they perceive to be a class-based ban unfairly targeting a pursuit traditionally associated with the landed aristocracy.
The ban would "draw a knife across centuries of tradition in our countryside", lamented Lord Thomas Strathclyde, leader of the opposition Conservative Party in the House of Lords.
However, Blair's Labor Party has twice been elected to power on a pledge to ban fox hunting, which opponents say is an unnecessarily cruel way to cull the animals.
On Thursday, the upper chamber had been given a final chance to approve a modified version of the measure, delaying a ban until July 2006.
But it refused to do so, a decision which had "brought us to the end of the road", according to Michael Martin, the speaker, or chairman, of the House of Commons, who formally invoked the Parliament Act.
Blair preferred compromise
A fox on the grounds of London's Westminster Abbey
While a hunting ban is hugely popular with many Labor members of Parliament, Blair himself has stood apart from the fray, personally favoring another compromise which would allow some fox hunting under license.
During a joint press conference with Chirac earlier Thursday, Blair said he accepted that the matter could not be resolved in parliament.
"But I think probably, despite the very passionate views on either side of this debate, the majority of people would have preferred to have seen a compromise accepted," he said.
Protests by pro-hunters could end up being a serious embarrassment to Blair ahead of the election, as he seeks to unite a nation already deeply skeptical about his decision to back the Iraq war.