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 Yes, it's stupid, it's cruel, it's outdated and it's barbaric.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.
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.