January 23, 2005


BLOOD SPORT: How foxhunting became the most divisive issue in England. (JANE KRAMER, 2005-01-17, The New Yorker)

Tony Blair has now been in power for the better part of two consecutive terms, and his parliamentary majority is so large—a hundred and sixty seats—that, until foxes got involved, he and a small circle of ministers were able to run England from the sitting room at 10 Downing Street, with very close to a free hand. (“Sofa government,” people in London say.) Blair invented the idea of New Labour, which is to say that he promised to bring Labour, and with it Britain, into the modern world by introducing them both to the political center—to the kind of new-money-and-liberal-values meritocracy that Bill Clinton was espousing in America. But most of the M.P.s who gave him that large majority were decidedly Old Labour: trade unionist, populist, and socialist—the kind of politicians who grew up on the ideology of the welfare state and the class struggle and, as often as not, were elected from industrial, working-class constituencies.

For a while, the P.M. and his party got along. He took the Bank of England out of the hands of the Government, which controlled it, and gave it the authority to set interest rates. He took the House of Lords, with more than seven hundred seats, and reduced the number of hereditary peers to ninety-two, oversaw the appointment of twenty-two new, independent, “crossbench” peers, and paved the way for the eventual transformation of the Lords into a council of appointed experts—all of which, rather disturbingly, has made it a more interesting house than the democratically elected one. He gave parliaments to Scotland and Wales. He supported a law that assured everybody the “right to roam” through the British countryside.

But he also persuaded the Commons to accept his decision to send British troops to fight in Iraq, on Washington’s murky evidence of weapons of mass destruction; undermined (if you ask his backbenchers) the state education system by legalizing charter schools and weakened the National Health System by licensing self-governing, sink-or-swim “foundation” hospitals; and instituted tuition fees at the country’s colleges and universities. Old Labourites voted with the Government, mainly because without Blair’s moving toward the center on issues like that there wouldn’t have been a Labour government, even if it wasn’t the government they had expected, or, more to the point, their voters had expected. But they needed something to take home to their constituencies, something to let everybody know that they were still waging the class war and even looking after the country’s furry animals—loving and protecting animals being at least as much of a British obsession as hunting them. (It’s hard to imagine another country where photographs of particularly fulsome hogs appear regularly on the front page of every paper, or, for that matter, where a government report on the practice of hunting with dogs, completed in 2000, reflects at length on whether “this experience”—of a bite to the neck—“seriously compromises the welfare of the fox.”)

“I think it’s worth remembering that we in the Government didn’t consider this a matter of high priority,” Alun Michael, the beleaguered minister for Rural Affairs, told me two days before the vote to ban. “But, while people say it’s not an important issue, the fact remains that the chamber empties whenever the debate isn’t about hunting. And this kind of thing affects the individual M.P.s.” The human-rights activist Frances D’Souza, a crossbench peer who was against the ban, put it this way: “This was a fight between 10 Downing and the backbenchers. It was about challenging Tony Blair. Blair’s decision to go to war was made without consultation—all his decisions were. The House of Commons has been a very unhappy body.” And the columnist Jane Shilling—who has written a book about riding to hounds with a Kent farmers’ hunt called the Ashford Valley and is, by her own admission, one of the I’ll-eat-shepherd’s-pie foxhunters—said, “For Blair, this ban was like a bucking horse. It ran away with him.”

Shilling and I were talking over sandwiches at a country pub called the Woolpack Inn—her hunt had assembled in the Woolpack’s parking lot—but our conversation had begun a few days after I arrived in London. We had talked then about the turnout at protest demonstrations, and she had said, “You’ll see at the hunt, there is this huge caesura between town and country. The town now sees the country as ‘leisure’—it’s the country as theme park—and of course the town feels entitled to leisure, to its right to roam.” She thought that the Labour backbenchers were demonizing hunting as a sport that kept the countryside a preserve of other people’s entitlement, something that excluded them, something that put the priorities of a small community of toffs over the community of working British citizens. And never mind that the farmers who rode out from the Woolpack’s lot were also working British citizens, and that they thought of hunting as part of the “right to roam” of their community.

Old Labourites don’t believe in the community of the hunt, and it has to be said that, in the case of grand hunts like the Beaufort, they have a small point, because the ritual of the hunt, however democratic—with the lord giving way to the tradesman or the tenant farmer who gets to the wall or the hedgerow first—is also a ritual of the old order. And, in a way, the fact that they meet as equals to pursue a fox or a deer for a few hours is compelling mainly in that they rarely meet as equals on any other occasion (except, lately, at demonstrations). Of course, it could also be said that the Old Labourites owe these refinements of class consciousness to a hunter’s patronage. Friedrich Engels was an ardent hunter, as rhapsodic about the sport as R. S. Surtees or Siegfried Sassoon. (“I went foxhunting on Saturday, seven hours in the saddle,” he famously wrote to his friend Karl Marx. “Such a thing always excites me hellishly for a few days, it is the most magnificent physical pleasure I know. . . . I was in at the kill.”) And if it weren’t for Engels, riding to hounds, getting rich from the family’s Manchester textile factories, and sending bank drafts to Marx—who was in his carrel at the British Museum, avoiding “the idiocy of rural life” and writing “Das Kapital”—Labour backbenchers might not even be around.

In 1835, the British banned bearbaiting, cockfighting, and dog fighting—the three blood sports of the urban working class. And one of the reasons they did was that the rural gentry then controlling Parliament decided that killing games in small, closed, city places—cellars, courtyards, back alleys—were bad for poor people, exciting their basest instincts and encouraging them to lives of drink, gambling, violence, and all manner of Dickensian dissipation. Hunting, on the other hand, was healthy and uplifting. And it was fashionable. I doubt that very many people in England seriously want to bring back bearbaiting, or to spend their evenings watching two roosters rip each other apart. But Old Labour keeps track of the history of discrimination, and it has bred a furious resentment. For many working-class Britons, the ban on foxhunting is their revenge. Some go all the way back to the royal hunt that trampled Oliver Cromwell’s uncle’s farm. Most of them simply call the ban their “payback for the miners”—by which they mean that Margaret Thatcher, in the early eighties, abandoned the country’s foundering collieries, and did it without shedding a tear of pity for the communities where thousands of coal miners and their families lived. The miners clung to their pit villages, however miserable, out of an attachment to home that had no place in the “get up, go South, find yourself a new job” ethos in Mrs. Thatcher’s vision of reform. They struck for a year. Their demands were outrageous, their desperation clear—and their defeat a given. Most of the mines closed.

In the twenty years since then, Labour backbenchers have introduced nearly a dozen bills to ban foxhunting and stag hunting, and the fate of the miners has figured in the rhetoric of every attempt to get them passed. Even John Jackson, the chairman of Britain’s biggest association of hunters and hunt supporters, the Countryside Alliance, says that “the destruction of the miners’ communities then was like the destruction we in the countryside face now.” (In fact, it was much worse.) Jackson is not a hunter. He is a lawyer, with a couple of Cambridge degrees, who regards the right to hunt as a “fundamental libertarian issue.” “Blair never intended this ban,” he told me. “The Labour managers said to Blair, ‘If the backbenchers don’t get hunting, they’ll block us in our bills’ . . . and those backbenchers are old-fashioned class warriors, foolish and deeply prejudiced. And they have long memories.”

The Tories are a spent force and the backbenchers can't hurt you, give the country hunting.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 23, 2005 3:21 PM

Urg. Eternal class warriors.

Hard to imagine, in the U.S., the kind of interminable, cankered bitterness generated by the old class divide in Britain. Amazing that its power still persists.

Not that there aren't or haven't been "classes" in the U.S., but, once (real) fundamental injustices have been overcome here, people seem to get over it, for the most part.

Heh. Another perfidy of socialism -- preserving in amber (or a chunk of anthracite) every injustice, real or imagined, outrageous or petty, and nursing it for whatever malignant flame it can provide.

Posted by: Twn at January 23, 2005 11:23 PM

Bit exaggerated this. Iraq was far more divisive than foxhunting, which won't affect the next election one iota.

There's just a very small but VERY noisy pro-hunting lobby.

Posted by: Brit at January 24, 2005 5:39 AM

The war doesn't actually affect anyone--the hunt does.

Posted by: oj at January 24, 2005 7:06 AM

The class warfare in Europe becomes understandable once you realize that the 'aristocracy' has never been anything but a bunch of gangsters who have used their monopoly of military force and their paid stooges in the clergy to exploit the population there for over about a millenium in Britain and for about 1500 years in much of the rest of Western Europe.

The only truism about fox hunting was written by George Bernard Shaw, who called it 'the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible.' I would oppose it on the grounds that we don't eat it. When we engage in barbarous activity like hunting, we should at least maintain the fiction that we do so because we are hungry. People eat bear, elk, deer, pheasant, moose and buffalo. I have never seen Fox Parmigiana, Fox Vindaloo, Fox Lo Mein or Fox Schnitzel.

All that being said, one might reasonably see the fox as a pest to those who own livestock, as coyotes, wolves and jackals can be. In such circumstances, the local farming community is best able to decide whether the hunt needs to be organized, not the National government. It should also decide how it wants to manage it.

The comparison with disgusting spectacles like bear baiting, cock fighting and, above all, dog fighting is completely inapposite.

Posted by: Bart at January 24, 2005 7:37 AM

The class warfare exists because they realize the damage they did by toppling their betters and so have to keep punishing them.

Posted by: oj at January 24, 2005 7:57 AM

Speak for yourself, OJ. I have no 'betters' and neither do most people I know.

Posted by: Bart at January 24, 2005 8:36 AM

That's bragging, not reality.

Posted by: oj at January 24, 2005 3:04 PM

I'm an American, OJ. That means I am a citizen, not a subject. There is no one entitled to more 'rights' than I am entitled to, or fewer rights for that matter.

Posted by: Bart at January 24, 2005 5:18 PM

What do rights have to do with anything?

Posted by: oj at January 24, 2005 7:21 PM

If some people are our 'betters' it naturally follows that we give them more rights or else 'betterdom' doesn't matter. Some pigs would be more equal than others in your paradigm.

There are certainly people who are smarter than others, harder-working than others, more disciplined than others, but that does not make them 'better.'

Posted by: Bart at January 25, 2005 9:34 AM

They don't need more rights. In a world of equal rights their superiority is even more apparent.

Posted by: oj at January 25, 2005 12:44 PM