What a very peculiar person John Swift turned out to be. For more than 25 years he headed up the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) before stepping down in 2013. Opinion was rather divided over his leadership, but there can be no arguing with the fact that during his time at the helm the Association enjoyed significant growth and became the most important – and to some the only significant – voice, when it comes to shooting issues. Among those issues over the years was the vexed subject of lead. There is no getting away from the fact that lead is a noxious substance and for some time now both here and in Europe there has been much debate over the dangers it poses to human and animal health. The oft stated position of Swift and BASC over the years was that whilst there was a risk it was a vanishingly small one and that many of those putting the case for a ban on the use of lead shot were doing so not from a concern for the environment or wildlife or the risks posed to human wellbeing, but because of an entrenched antipathy to shooting.
In the five years since stepping down from BASC, Swift has been the voice of the Lead Ammunition Group (LAG). Originally set up in 2010 the LAG sought to bring to the table representatives of the conservation organisations, food industry groups and other various shooting stakeholders, with the aim of looking at the case both for and against the use of lead ammunition and thereafter to advise policy makers on the way forward. In 2014 the first cracks began to appear, when three of the representatives from the shooting industry resigned, strongly hinting that there was an anti-shooting bias in the LAG’s direction of travel; a claim given some substance when none of the three was replaced on a like-for-like basis. Unabashed Swift, as LAG Chairman, went ahead and submitted a report to Defra, thereby provoking the resignation of then Gun Trade Association Director, John Batley who claimed, correctly as it turned out, that the report had not been prepared by the majority of the group and that he and others had been excluded from seeing the draft. To the surprise of few, the report turned out to be against the continued use of lead shot. Defra thanked the group, considered the points raised and promptly labelled it ‘no further action to be taken’. At which point one might have expected the LAG, its purpose now fulfilled, to fold its tents and disappear into the night. You might have expected that, but it did not. Shorn of anyone representing shooting, it carries on, now unashamedly pushing the case for a ban on the use of lead shot.
Which brings us to one of the points which Swift during his BASC days was always keen to highlight. Whenever one of the ragbag collection of anti-shooting bodies produced a spurious report or survey aimed at proving the case against some aspect of shooting sports, Swift would always seek to emphasise the lack of any official status of the publishers and the corresponding absence of objectivity of the authors. That Swift should now be the leader of just one such group illustrates just how dazzling his Damascene conversion to the cause of a ban on lead shot has been. Some have suggested this may have been hastened by his departure from BASC. The argument goes that, having announced that he was to retire, Swift may have had it in mind that his would be a leisurely exit, a sort of winding down interspersed with lots of lunches and glowing encomiums, but that BASC wanted something a bit more prompt. Whether true or not when he finally came to exit the Marford Mill building for the last time, there were few valedictions and little sobbing.
Whatever its claims to scientific objectivity, the LAG must now be regarded as not just anti-lead, but anti-shooting. There is, for example, something wearisomely predictable about the presence alongside Swift of Debbie Pain and Jeff Nott. The first is a self-confessed anti-shooter whilst as RSPB Regional Director, one can have little uncertainty about Knott’s sympathies. Where at BASC Swift once commanded a body of significance and the attention of policy makers and politicians and where doors opened to him, he is now reduced to scrabbling about with all the bald men fighting for a wig. His was a political career and in his continued leadership of the LAG, a body with no official status and no influence, he provides a more than ample underscoring to Enoch Powell’s observation that all political lives end in failure.