Sunday, 27 December 2009

The Boys Who Cried Fox

Stumbling out of my mother's house early on Boxing Day in search of coffee, I quite unintentionally ambled into the middle of the Boxing Day Hunt and supporters' drinks. The entire aristocracy of Sussex were assembled on Lewes High Street in a boozy throng of tweed, wellies and jodpuhrs to defend the right of a handful of chuntering poshos to set the dogs on woodland predators. On the morning that Liu Xiaobo was imprisoned in China, three weeks after a disastrous Copenhagen climate deal, in the teeth of a recession that has is tearing the soul out of the young, this was the pressing issue of the day for our soon-to-be lords and masters. Brilliant.

I'd seen the hunt meet before, but never in these numbers. The hunt saboteurs - as much a traditional part of the day as the hunt itself, by now - were nowhere to be seen, and the smattering of frozen placards called for a repeal of the ban on foxhunting that Labour fought so hard and so publicly to push through in 2004. The same ban that David Cameron, a former huntsman himself, has pledged to review should the Tories form the next government. And for what? To give the symbolic finger to a dying Labour administration. To demonstrate the right of the landowning rich to do what the hell they please. And really, that's about it.

I have a confession to make: I don't care about fox hunting. No, really. Couldn't give a fox's hastily-retreating arse either way. When Labour's anti-hunting campaign was in full swing in 2001-4, it was the number one issue for kids at my private school: the farmers' sons and aristocratic daughters who helped run hunts or even hunted themselves versus the humane, urbane liberal kids who went around with tiny foxes pinned to their lapels. They may not have understood about poverty and unemployment; they may not have had an opinion on the two wars that Blair's government was unleashing in the Middle East, the cluster bombs and civilian death tolls and blood on the sand, but by gosh they had an opinion on fox hunting.

Though I'm quite fond of animals, I honestly couldn't care less if rich idiots want to ride around in silly costumes ripping little woodland creatures to jolly shreds in the name of pest control. Yes, it's stupid, it's cruel, it's outdated and it's barbaric. Lots of things are barbaric. The wars that Labour took us into and that Cameron may well extend continue to be barbaric. The welfare state butchery, tax cuts and reassertion of 'hierarchy', which according to 'Red Tory' Philip Blond is what we all need a dose of, will be barbaric too. Thousands of women are abused, brutalised and murdered by their partners every year: that's barbaric. Six thousand people, most of them men, commit suicide in this country every year: that's barbaric. Right now in Britain, over a thousand immigrant children are imprisoned indefinitely without trial, most of them in Yarl's Wood: that's barbaric. Compared to the sheer weight of human cruelty unleashed in Britain every day government ministers making oh-for-shame noises over the fate of poor ickle foxes is a gutless gimmick.

It's a gimmick, and it was designed as a gimmick. The fact that the loudest noise being made by Labour over fox hunting came at the height of Iraq invasion was no coincidence; the issue is a foil, a political bauble to toss between those who nominally represent the working classes and the wealthy without ever mentioning the words 'wealth redistribution'. It's a stick to beat the Tories with, a way of evoking class sensibilities without actually raising class issues, and now, scenting blood, the Tories have turned the issue back on the government.

Labour is playing right along. Environment secretary Hilary Benn is attempting to drum up support for the hunting ban with an online petition, another fabulous bit of jimmied activist astroturfing by Labour. Benn himself is a staunch supporter of the ban, not because of cruelty to animals per se, but because of what it says about inter-party ideology. "He used to hunt foxes," Benn said of David Cameron. "He talked about fox hunting in his first ever speech to Parliament; and he has said that if he becomes prime minister he will get rid of the fox hunting ban...if you think the Tories have changed, their views on fox hunting with dogs make it absolutely clear that their priorities haven't."

Unfortunately, the way this issue has been used reveals as much of Labour's priorities as it does the Tories'. It will not be the repeal of the hunting ban that will affect the the lives of ordinary people under a Conservative government, but the brutality of Tory welfare and tax schemes and spending cuts. The open return of inherited privilege and hierarchy to the game of government will probably make some small difference too, but frankly Labour needs to grow the balls to say so rather than making knowing asides about what fox hunting means to the rich.
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The hunting ban is the scented rag in the bloodsport of Whitehall politics, tossed in the faces of the opposition to get them roused and snarling for a really nasty fight. I don't want to see the hordes of drooling poshos back in power any more than Hilary Benn does, but if Labour wants to outrun the Tories it must abandon the politics of symbolism. Britain still needs a party of the people, for the people; the foxes can look after themselves.

31 comments:

  1. I take a similar view - or is it a different one ? http://northernheckler.wordpress.com/2009/12/26/hunting-with-dogs/

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  2. The way I see it is that in the century before last, the Cruelty to Animals Act 1835 banned the bloodsports that the working class had, stuff like cock fighting and dog fighting. That Act specifically exempted wild animals from it's scope.

    The logic of the exemption escapes me, if it's cruel to treat a domesticated animal in a particular way, it must be as cruel to treat a wild animal in the same way. If it's important enough to ban the bloodsports that the urban working class enjoyed, then you must ban the bloodsports of the rural elite.

    I don't really want to see the return of dog fighting but if hunting with dogs is relegalised then where's the argument against it?

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  3. Labour only ever originally passed the thing - after trying earlier and balking at the resulting huge public opposition - because it wanted to buy off the party's back-bench left, who were making grumbling noises about Iraq. (On the one hand, foxes, on the other hand, humans. Oh, the dilemma!)

    It was a piece of class-based aggro from day one, and IMO it illustrates the stupidity of "class war".

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  4. And yet I manage to find it perfectly possible to be concerned about animals, Iraq and suicide. Check my blog if you don't believe me. I don't think that makes me a better person than people who say they don't care about animals, you guys probably do a lot for your things you do care about.

    What I am saying is that it is quite possible to be concerned about a lot of things at once, and I speak for practically all the other vegans I have ever met as well as myself.

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  5. How sad that our foxes are again being dragged into a battle between Tory and Labour. The reality is that people from all political parties do not want to see a repeal of the hunting act.

    There is no case for repeal. Hunt numbers are up all over the country. Drag hunting is legal. The sense of community, pageantry, heritage, and jobs are all still intact and yet these disgraceful people can’t manage to enjoy themselves unless they are terrifying and killing animals.

    Please if you support the hunting act, get your name on the R.O.A.R. (Register Online Against Repeal), an ‘all party’ list at: http://www.campaignfordecency.org.uk

    This is about cruelty to animals plain and simple!

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  6. There is no case for repeal. Hunt numbers are up all over the country. Drag hunting is legal. The sense of community, pageantry, heritage, and jobs are all still intact and yet these disgraceful people can’t manage to enjoy themselves unless they are terrifying and killing animals.

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  7. DM Andy- in 1835, wild animals were genuinely pests, actual problems. Fighting and hunting were completely different activities. Cockfighting involved penning animals into a very small arena and forcing them to fight to the death. It was drawn out, brutal, and served no purpose at all- chickens aren't a problem animal.

    But wild animals can genuinely be problem animals in a way that chickens are not, and in hunts are able to escape- often do. Their death is usually quite quick, because dogs don't torture their prey to death- they catch it and kill it, and that's it. Hunting follows strict regulations to prevent hunting any animal to extinction, and is generally rather more humane.

    I'm not a toff, I'm not a farmer, and I'm sure as hell not a conservative. I'm unemployed and live in a flat in Tower Hamlets, for goodness' sakes. I just know a bit about the many differences between hunting and forcing animals to fight.

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  8. "The entire aristocracy of Sussex were assembled on Lewes High Street in a boozy throng of tweed, wellies and jodpuhrs to defend the right of a handful of chuntering poshos to set the dogs on woodland predators"

    Was Paul Newman ("Newmania") there? Being as he lives in Lewes and thinks he's a big man.

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  9. I went ferreting a few times when I was a kid, so I'm not sentimental about fluffy bunnies, never mind foxes. (Although I get on fine with the urban foxes who live round here.) No, the amount of hot air and parliamentary time spent on the ban was no less scandalous than the prospect of the same amount of effort being spent to repeal it.

    If Labour had the courage to go for a genuine class-based appeal, centred around redistribution, meaningful jobs, seriously improving comprehensive education and highlighting the Tory threat to public services and infrastructure, they wouldn't need to go around maundering about Etonian toffs. In the absence of those things, it looks more than a bit pathetic.

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  10. Agree completely with this post.

    In the period between Labour coming to power and the ban finally being brought in - at the expense of loads of parliamentary time that could've been spent doing some stuff that actually helped working people - I attemped to form a pressure group called 'Left-wing Vegetarians Indifferent To Fox Hunting'.

    There weren't many takers.

    It's erroneously blamed on left-wing backbenchers. In fact, opposition to foxhunting was one of the few measures to unite MPs on all wings of the party from the hard left to uber-Blairites.

    It was (and is) an absolute farce. If Labour are going to get themselves accused of class warfare they could at least be opposing the continuing grotesque inequalities in wealth and power in the UK. But no, the priority, was boldly asserting foxes' right to be shot rather than killed by dogs.

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  11. Oh, sorry, I didn't realise there was only space for each person to care about a certain number of things. How did you pick your list? Will have to readjust my priorities, clearly...

    I don't even understand the point - you sound like one of those awful "but how can you care about this local issue - people are dying in Africa!!!" people. It also sounds like you don't believe that anyone could *actually* care about animals, and are just making it up... you say you're quite fond of them, but the rest of this article kind of disproves that, and you once said something horrible like you'd kick 50 kittens in the face to save one child, which doesn't sound like the kind of thing someone who is fond of animals would say (as you know, I really do massively dislike children but even when trying to be sensationalistic I wouldn't write something like that about them, or mean it). I'm actually pretty disgusted.

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  12. Well, the ultimate end result of unpleasant death for foxes is unaffected by the banning of foxhunting. The only change is the method of unpleasant death and whether people get to dress up and enjoy inflicting it.

    It is possible to care about lots of issues but is also important to prioritise the more important ones - and to understand the wider political effect of pursuing particular policies.

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  13. @ David Floyd, on the surface, it sounds rational to concentrate on "more important" issues. And you have every right to decide which issues you concentrate on. But if we all did that, we might end up saying that it doesn't matter about China executing people with mental health problems because it doesn't affect many people.

    But it matters. It is very disturbing that China would execute a man said to have been in a delusional state at the time of the crime, especially when there are doubts about the translation service and legal advice offered to him.

    As a vegan, I don't approve of foxes being shot. The reason they are deemed vermin is because they sometimes eat farm animals that humans want to eat. Since I do not eat meat, foxes are not my rivals.

    Plus, before the ban, many hunt supporters (including the late Ted Hughes) were claiming that hunts kept the number of foxes high. A very odd attitude to a supposed pest.

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  14. I'm happy for people to care about as (and campaign on) many issues as they're capable of getting their head round.

    That's a slightly different issue to what governments should do - given that there's a limit to what governments have the time and resources to do.

    But as the original post suggest, it's not just that the ban on foxhunting wasn't important, it's that the overrall political effect of Labour pursuing was actively detrimental to serious debate about inequality.

    It was detrimental it pushed the debate towards whether some groups of people ride horses, talk posh and wear tweed - which is largely irrelevant - and away from whether some people have destructively unreasonable levels of wealth and power.

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  15. PS Just for the record, I am against capital punishment full stop, even where the person is guilty and sane.

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  16. Hmmm, my impression was that Penny isn't suggesting only a small number of issues can be of concern to any one individual, nor that focusing on animal cruelty is wrong/silly. What irks is the hijacking of legitimate concerns for party politics.

    Penny seems to imply, and I think I would agree, that the hunting ban was never about animal cruelty, but rather was a means of deflecting attention away from difficulties surrounding the invasion of Iraq and providing a class-war stick to beat the Tories with that wasn't technically about class.

    (Apologises for para-phrasing, Penny)

    Now, whilst bringing the Tories to task and legislating to reduce cruelty towards animals are both worthwhile ends, surely we can do without the faux-outrage and bullshit?

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  17. That's a charitable interpretation, Snowshifter. I believe Penny actually claimed not to care about fox hunting. But good on you for giving her the benefit of the doubt.

    Having met many hunt saboteurs, I know that, whilst many of them are not particularly fond of "posh" people, they are passionately against cruelty to animals and to children. Some of them are a bit more judgemental about adults, but they hardly have a monopoly on that. The "Daily Mail" and "The Sun" and other newspapers often demonstrate that a lot of adults are quite judgemental towards other adults.

    @ David, yes, governments do have limited time, but I am sure you agree the accusation that time was being wasted on hunting could equally be levelled against hunt supporters.

    I am not naive enough to think that Blair was particularly interested in foxes, since his government continued to support the cull of ruddy ducks. These ducks are not being culled for food or because they are a nuisance to humans, their offence is that they are accused of mating with white-headed ducks. This type of miscegenation will not do.

    But what am I meant to do? Am I meant to think the hunting ban is a bad idea just because Blair's government brought it in? I am sad that it has loopholes, but a lot of pioneering laws were like thatstarts out that way. If you look at the 1965 law abolishing the death penalty and the 1967 law legalising homosexuality, you will find both riddled with loopholes. (Ie the death penalty was originally just suspended for 5 years, and was retained for treason and a few other rare offenses. Homosexuality was legalised for men aged 21 or over provided they weren't in Scotland, Northern Ireland, the army or the presence of anyone else.)

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  18. Fox hunting was certainly discussed at my State school in Sussex but there were plenty of people very well aware of how class and poverty and hunting were horribly tangled up. Plenty of people opposed the ban because they were working in stables and with the dogs and their livelihoods were under threat. Plenty of other farmers' kids I knew supported the ban because of the money they lost when the hunt went through their fields and damaged crops and sometimes killed livestock. Others, with a fair bit of justice, worried greatly about what the loss of fox hunting would do to an already fragile rural economy which made good money out of the hunt and tourists who came to see them ride. Personally I supported the ban because I thought hunting was barbaric but it didn't distract me and my friends from marching in Stop The War demos.
    If you only listen to the toff members of the Countryside Alliance then no, you won't hear much about unemployment or poverty. But at my school, where farmers' kids and kids whose parents ran studs or worked as grooms and other jobs, poverty and unemployment was definitely tied up with their feelings towards the bill.

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  19. I think the historical-materialist point to make is that yes, foxhunting is a symbolic practice, but the symbol in question is a population of sentient creatures with a genuine capacity for suffering.

    In a similar way, say, Berlusconi is a symbol of right-wing chauvinism, the conjunction of gangsterism and politics, and the corporate control of the media; and a souvenir model of Milan's cathedral is symbolic of the commodification of religion by the industrial-tourism complex... but notwithstanding this abstract symbolic value, when you throw the model at his face, it still kind of hurts him.

    One has to take into account, in a fairly utilitarian way, I think, the negative magnitude of the suffering against the positive symbolic effect.

    I can't honestly see that the symbolic value of fox-hunting can in any way justify the suffering caused by it, because the symbolic value of the practice is 100% reactionary horseshit. The Berlusconi incident, on the other hand...

    Furthermore, whilst the issue of foxhunting is raised for symbolic reasons, it accidentally brings in lots of wider issues about ecology, the relationship between the national centre and the periphery, the residual feudalism of our ostensibly capitalist economy, etc.

    E.P. Thompson on land-rights, in something like 'Whigs and Hunters', and Raymond Williams on 'The Country and the City' are important reference points here.

    I think limenreid's last comment was really getting somewhere by beginning to open out these issues. The worrying thing for me about the opposition to the hunting ban is that it showed how some working class people in the countryside are so economically dependent on the landed aristocracy that they will actively form a political bloc with them to defend their meaningless privileges.

    The important task, then, is for a left-wing political programme to provide alternative means of livelihood in order to de-couple the interests of the rural working class from those of the gentry. Typical Gramscian hegemonic analysis basically.

    All I am trying to argue is that maybe it is better to take the issue and expand on it, rather than just dismissing it because it is tokenistic at the (admittedly petty) level at which the Labour government initiated the debate. Otherwise you're just participating in the same fetishization/reification that they are.

    Incidentally I always found it quite telling that Ted Hughes loved fox hunting and wrote an essay defending it.

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  20. PS apologies for mispelling liminereid's name... can that be corrected? If not this post will have to do. Thanks.

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  21. @ Vanilla Rose. Hunt supporters wouldn't have wasted any parliamentary time at all on the bill. They would've just carried on hunting. That, on balance, was the position I supported. I don't support the Tories plans to waste more time reversing the ban. I'm just as bemused by the argument that hunting is a valuable tradition as I am by the argument that it's significantly more evil than shooting.

    I agree completely that laws that make things a lot better are worth having in the absence of laws that make things perfect.

    But the hunting ban is not remotely comparable with the legalisation of homosexuality in 1967. The legalisation of didn't go far enough but it was a real practical improvement in the situation for millions of people.

    Or the abolition of the death penalty in 1965, since which no one has been has been executed in the UK.

    For me, improvements in the rights of foxes are not high on my priority list but, even if they were, there's no clear evidence that the ban on foxhunting has led to any major improvement on the practical circumstances for foxes.

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  22. @ David Floyd. Hunt supporters put a great deal of energy into trying to thwart the hunting ban. The bill would not have taken up much parliamentary time if there had been no opposition.

    My point is that sometimes flawed legislation is a start. Maybe a few years down the line the government will also ban the shooting of foxes. They are clearly not intended for eating. The claim that killing them controls their numbers is clearly dubious. Hunt supporters have claimed that killing foxes keeps their numbers high (I think I already said that). This indicates that many hunt supporters know they are being dishonest when they claim killing foxes is a form of pest control.

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  23. Hi, Penny, Happy New Year! I know I'm a bit early.

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  24. Thanks Ben. You did expand what I was getting at far more theoretically than i could manage. The biggest problem is an almost feudal bond still exists because of the codependency between upper and working classes in the countryside. Country resentment that they were being picked on and their way of life was being threatened by 'city people' is simplistic but not without a basis in reality.

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  25. I've shot the odd bunny in my time, but it has always bothered me how hunting, which supposedly stands in the noble(-ish) tradition of fending off dangerous wildlife, has been reduced to picking on little harmless ones.

    Hunting lions may once have been the preserve of kings, involving ancient ideas of mastery over nature, but foxes?
    What next - hamsters?

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  26. just heard they have done a u turn on factory farming.

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  27. Jesus of Montreal1 January 2010 at 17:40

    Fox hunting is for idle stupid fuckwits!

    I hope it stays banned forever!

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  28. Hi,

    A friend pointed me to your blog. Your point of view is encouraging to me as a keen hunter. Although your tone suggests that your disapprove of the desire to "demonstrate the right of the landowning rich to do what the hell they please", your conclusion actually supports that right. Perhaps we agree that it is desirable for as many people as possible -- ethnic and religious minorities, the sexually adventurous, the poor, the rich, foxhunters and anybody else -- to be able to do what the hell they please, as long as they don't hurt anyone else.

    I do take issue with the idea that brutal spending cuts are necessarily undesirable. Leaving aside the fact that there is much less disagreement between the main parties about how quickly to cut the deficit than their rhetoric would have you believe, if spending cuts make people better off in the long run, they are desirable; if further Keynesian spending will make people better off in the long run, then it is desirable. The way to decide which course to take is to think about economics, not to dismiss large spending cuts as "brutal". To do the latter is to make the same mistake that Labour MP's (but not you) have made about foxhunting.

    I see the hunting ban as the continuation of a tradition of soft-headed niceness that succeeded where liberalism failed in winning greater acceptance of and freedom for various minority groups, and in bringing benefits for the poor and so on. He's poor? Give him some money. People pick on him? Make it illegal. Be nice, and if other people won't be nice, make them. This tradition has been a good thing; but as most of the battles have been won, its negative aspects are becoming more of a problem. In the foxhunting example, an ancient freedom was overridden by the desire to be nice to a fox -- curtailing and ancient liberty for the sake of an animal. In the economics example, soft-headed refusal to cut public spending may store up worse problems for the future.

    So by all means keep those fuzzy emotions; but remember that some decisions are better made using the principles of liberalism or economics.

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  31. JB wrote, "Perhaps we agree that it is desirable for as many people as possible -- ethnic and religious minorities, the sexually adventurous, the poor, the rich, foxhunters and anybody else -- to be able to do what the hell they please, as long as they don't hurt anyone else."

    But fox hunters ARE hurting foxes, and they know it. Otherwise, they wouldn't keep contradicting themselves every time they try to make excuses for their nasty habit.

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