Fox hunting is back on the agenda in Britain, and it's getting bloody.
Prime Minister David Cameron's government has stirred up a political storm by announcing a vote this week to loosen a decade-old ban on the divisive blood sport.
The government abruptly scrapped the vote Tuesday when it looked set to fail, but the issue has unleashed a maelstrom of British divisions, pitting city against country, upper class against the modestly off and English lawmakers against Scottish ones.
Fox hunting, in which groups of riders follow a pack of hounds trained to track down and kill foxes, has long divided Britons. Opponents consider it a cruel pastime reserved for the rich, while supporters say it is an important rural tradition and an effective form of pest control.
Britain banned the sport in 2004 after a long and acrimonious battle that saw hunting supporters clash with riot police outside Parliament.
Cameron's Conservative government, which has strong rural support, last week announced a vote on what it called "technical amendments" to the hunting ban in England and Wales.
Opponents called the proposal — which would allow a pack of hounds to flush a fox out of hiding but not kill it — an attempt to legalize hunting by stealth.
Celebrities including Ricky Gervais, Sadie Frost and Brian May of Queen urged lawmakers to keep the ban. Paul McCartney warned Cameron that bringing back "cruel and unnecessary" hunting would lose him support.
In a further twist, the separatist Scottish National Party announced Monday that it would oppose the changes — even though the party had promised to vote only on issues that affect Scotland. Their decision meant the government, which has a 12-seat majority in the 650-seat House of Commons, would almost certainly have lost Wednesday's vote.
SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon said the party had decided to vote because Cameron was out of touch with English public opinion — and to "remind the government of how slender their majority is."
Ironically, the government's proposal would make the law in England and Wales the same as that in Scotland, where a pack of dogs can already be used to flush out a fox.
The hunting defeat gives the government extra incentive to pass promised reforms barring Scottish lawmakers from voting on bills that only affect England — a controversial plan dubbed English Votes for English Laws.
Sturgeon said the proposal would make Scottish lawmakers "second-class citizens in the House of Commons," and some English legislators have also warned the government not to rush through a major constitutional change.
A vote on the English Votes for English Laws proposals is due after Parliament returns from its summer break in September.