No war but class war

07Apr10

So, last week, the Conservatives confirmed that, if elected, they will re-open the debate on fox-hunting with the aim of repealing the 2004 Hunting Act. The Hunting Act does also cover the hunting of stags and the coursing of hares with dogs, but it’s the fox that hits the headlines – invoking a strong and well-known image that serves a potent symbol for the underlying discussion.

I have to say I’m relatively indifferent to foxes. When I have lived in this country, it’s invariably been in rural areas, so I haven’t absorbed any of the romanticised mythology about what is, essentially, murderous vermin. That’s not to say I think encouraging dogs to “tear them to pieces” is good answer to the problem, just that the alternatives – shooting, gassing, poisoning – don’t look particularly more attractive. The population has to be controlled, and if people imagine that farmers trap the little foxies and take them to the nice vet to be humanely destroyed, then frankly they’re deluded. Hare coursing and stag hunting seem much more of cruel sports, given that the creatures on the receiving end pose little threat to agriculture, but, of course, they lack the potency of the fox-hunt as a symbol.

And it’s as a symbol that this particular debate seems to be addressing the subject, the arguments from both sides coming down not to a debate about the most humane method of controlling a rural pest, but as an attack on a certain way of life, or a defence of that same way of life.

It’s an emblem of defiance for a rural population who resent government interference in their lives, particularly from a government that is seen as urban-centric, with little understanding or sympathy for the challenges and threats facing rural England.

It’s a symbol of established and elitist power and wealth that is not subject to democratic norms, that will hold to its own rules regardless of the will of the people, and that needs to be brought to heel.

It is, in short, about people, rather than about the welfare of the fox itself.

It has become an argument about class, though, arguably, it always was.

What I notice is different, this time, is that the balance has shifted.

The defenders of fox-hunting, with horses and dogs, make much of the traditions of hunting, its noble origins, and its deep ties with the rural communities. They argue it’s socially unworkable and legally unenforceable because the police don’t have the resources etc (but you don’t seem them arguing for the legalisation of recreational drugs,  for which similar claims could be made). They argue that without hunting, entire communites face economic and social collapse.

Once, that might have been true.

Such claims merit examination, and one thing comes into stark focus. The economic structure of rural communities has changed, and socially, they are collapsing, but it’s got little to do with hunting.

The reality is that the expansion of industrial agribusiness, the consolidation of small-holdings into large-scale commercial operations, has eviscerated rural England. There are few jobs, and increasingly, people are being forced out of their communities in search of work, almost invariably to urban areas. Add to that the massive increases in house prices, so that young people, even if they have work, have no chance of buying (or even renting) property in the villages in which they grew up – thanks to the expansion of the rich urban elite into second/weekend homes and buy-to-let holiday properties in those same communities. What you get is a deep cesspool of resentment and disposession, and increasingly the focus for that resentment is hunting.

Because who actually does go hunting these days?

Traditionally, the hunt focussed on the landed, land-owning gentry who derived their original authority and entitlement from the sovereign. It would involve the local stakeholders – farmers and small-holders – who would all gain something from the removal of foxes from these agricultural areas.

But with the mechanisation of agriculture and transport, horses are no longer common currency in rural communities. They are not a functional part of daily life. They are luxury items, available only to the wealthy who can afford to let land lie useless and unproductive to  support these animals that serve no useful purpose. And so the hunt stakeholders are less and less the rural community, and more and more the wealthy elite who can afford to keep horses.

And it is these people – the ‘weekend farmers’ – with no real tie to the countryside, little connection to the reality of daily life in rural areas and little or no interest in the challenges of modern farming, descending for their day with the hunt, who are polarising rural opinion. They are perceived as arrogant outsiders committed only to their own interests and pleasures, and it is this that is turning local opinion against the hunt. They trample land, they block lanes with their 4X4s and horseboxes, they’re rude, and the police don’t prosecute them – not because the police don’t have the resources, but because wealth and privelege and connections buy them a blind eye (only 100 prosecutions since the law came in). And there are no perceived benefits from fox-hunting to this same dissenting population because they no longer have a real stake in the agricultural economy.

So. Fox-hunting, with horses and hounds, has become an elitist activity, so to describe its banning as an ‘affront to civil liberties’ is stretching things – after all, very few people can afford to participate. That it’s an elitist activity doesn’t, in itself, mean it should be banned – after all, if we were into banning elitist activity, we’d be a republic by now.

There’s a key question that nags at me.

Where is the fox in all this?

Apart from the highly emotive language used to describe its treatment once the hounds get at it, managing the population effectively and humanely doesn’t much feature on either side of the fence. That animal cruelty should not be tolerated in modern society is, I think, a given, and that *is* a discussion worth having. That our rural populations are under threat in both societal and economic terms and how we should respond to it *is* a discussion worth having.

I don’t think re-opening the debate on fox-hunting is the right way to go about achieving this. The fox is only a tiny part of the wider issue, and should not be used as a battlecry by either side.

What we should really be discussing is not the elitist, class-based politics of fox-hunting, but rather a sensible examination of the best way we can balance protecting agricultural interests with a need to conserve our embattled wildlife and natural environment and a need to protect/preserve rural communities.

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