A decade on, and the Tories have finally brought fox hunting back into public discussion. Whether to appease rural voters, tempt back Ukippers or “pay the mercenaries” who fought for them at the last election, it isn’t clear. Either way, British people are increasingly defiant of barefaced assaults on the culture and liberty of rural peoples, and it’s worth considering how such a spiteful, destructive and ultimately futile bill ever made it into being.
Of course, the foxhunting ban was never motivated by evidence-based concern for animal welfare. Labour MPs freely admitted it at the time: it was about jealousy, “class war” and fighting the landed gentry. Only a metropolitan elite fed on vacuum-packed meat, high in the clouds atop a remote moral pedestal, comically out of touch with the food chain, could possibly think this bill would actually benefit foxes.
Fox populations, sustained solely for the purposes of hunting with dogs, were exterminated with guns within weeks of the new law, and hound packs up and down the country were put to death the day the act came in. Farmers are stretched; they have a job to do and keeping pets is not one of them.
The inconvenient truth for animal welfare fanatics is that hunting with dogs is a very efficient way of culling vermin. Dogs go straight for the neck. It takes seconds. It is fun, theatrical and a brilliant way of keeping rural traditions alive. Riding breeches, bright jackets, strange rituals, plenty of port and a carnival atmosphere. Personal taste aside, it’s undeniably an eccentric and recognisably British cultural product that is copied and still practiced in America, Australia, Canada and even France.
The Burns enquiry, commissioned at the time, recognised two primary factors as motivating opposition to the hunt: “There are those who have a moral objection to hunting and who are fundamentally opposed to the idea of people gaining pleasure from what they regard as the causing of unnecessary suffering. There are also those who perceive hunting as representing a divisive social class system.”
As I’ve made clear, no ‘unnecessary suffering’ of foxes was averted by the law; more was induced. Secondly, human pleasure is wonderful! Thirdly, since when was petty social disdain and purposeful, pernicious cultural destruction a sound justification for the legislative denial of liberties? No one in New Labour cared for the jobs that were lost, the communities that dissolved and the ancient traditions that faded. In fact, most revelled in the fact.
I put this truth to a supporter of the ban and he was quick to revert to infantile, tit-for-tat arguments. He pointed out that when Margaret Thatcher closed the mines, she gave little thought to the working class communities that were decimated over night; their livelihoods, their culture, their way of life, their very identity, he said. He was right, of course, as Thatcher hinted on many an occasion: she disliked working-class culture generally. Her opposition was not only ideological, it was cultural, too.
Her Britain was one of competition, consumerism and individualism. Their Britain was one of nostalgia; one of hard work and hard men, collective spirit and community action. They were the enemy, because their vision of Britain, and their ethos generally, had little place alongside hers. Similarly, when Blair came to power he saw little place for such an archaic, elitist blood sport in his new, politically-correct nanny state.
Furthermore, the Neo-liberal Blair’s working class credentials were severely lacking and he needed to impress his class-conscious voters. “She started it,” cried Labour’s elites as they unapologetically threw in the match and watched ancient rural communities burn.
Blair would, of course, later admit it was “not one of my finest policy moments” – and then confess his utter, blithering ignorance, in words that will enrage anyone who loves the countryside: “I didn’t quite understand, and I reproach myself for this, that for a group of people in our society in the countryside this was a fundamental part of their way of life.” Some have argued he was perfectly cognisant of the fact, and is only playing ignorant now to avoid allegations of hypocrisy as he grows old on his own Buckinghamshire estate.
Britain is awash with identity politics and the foxhunting ban was one of the most despicable examples of one group taking a cheap swipe at another – a shameful misuse of the law and a worrying denial of liberty. The fact that so-called ‘animal rights’ campaigners (such as the League against Cruel Sports) are now calling for further laws prohibiting even the gathering of hunting people shows conclusively that their interest is in class war, not animals.
Boxing Day hunt meets are among the most joyful events in the rural calendar. A few days ago, thousands of people all over the country celebrated on a chilly morning together with hot wine, bacon sarnies and the inimitably thrilling spectacle of men and women on horseback, continuing the traditions of generations past. Hunting and the hunt culture has never been more popular.
It may seem optimistic to hope for a repeal of the Hunting Act, but, although it has taken ten years, is there at least now a chance of common sense and evidence-based thinking in the debate?