The New Statesman Essay - Great hatred, little room

Geoffrey Wheatcrofton the clash of cultures that created anti-hunting passions

Someone once said that the English don't really like animals, they just dislike children. It was a good line, better in its way than Cyril Connolly's characteristically over-elaborate "animal love is the honey of the misanthrope". On the face of it, it is animal love that lies behind the campaign against fox-hunting, but that doesn't really explain why this issue has become so envenomed, so that it almost plays the part in our politics that abortion plays in American politics.

Soon after the last election, a bill to outlaw fox-hunting was brought in by Mike Foster, a back-bench Labour MP. It failed, and Tony Blair later said that it had been defeated in the Lords after "people like me" had voted for it. Both statements were completely false, as it happens - the Prime Minister did not vote on the bill, and it did not reach the Upper House - but this is one of the few questions on which Blair can strike a chord with his supporters. Now Labour MPs are demanding once more that he should stick to his undertaking to ban hunting as soon as possible.

But why has fox-hunting become such an intensely emotive issue in this country? There is hunting in France, and Ireland, and the United States: hunting foxes or deer with hounds, that is, followed by huntsmen on horseback, though when Americans talk about "hunting" they usually intend shooting, which they indulge in on a startling scale.

There are animal rights movements in those countries also. But in none of them is there any serious political challenge to field sports. In France, shooting songbirds is one of the rights of man and few people seem to mind about la chasse on horseback. Only here are hunts disrupted by protesters, and only here do MPs queue up to introduce another bill to ban hunting. "Why here?" is not a rhetorical question; it may have an answer.

First of all, the issue. We are none of us entirely consistent on the subject of animal welfare, except the Jains, the Indian sect whose members are so passionately vegan that they wear flimsy masks over their mouths lest they inadvertently ingest tiny insects. Perhaps on the other extreme there may be an equally logical man who believes that human beings should inflict the greatest possible pain on animals at all time, though I have never heard of him.

Few of the rest of us can claim rigid logic. I eat meat and eggs, but abhor factory farming. I don't hunt, but I don't want hunting banned. I enjoy fishing, but I detested the only bullfight I ever saw, and I am glad that bear-baiting, cock-fighting and otter-hunting are no more (the last, something of which the Guardian seems not to be fully aware). On a more abstract level, the claim, widely advanced in the past 20 years, that animals have "rights" seems to me intellectually absurd, and an impossible basis for the practical treatment of other species. Animals do not have rights that they can claim from us, we have moral obligations that we owe to them.

As to field sports, fox-hunting is wholly indefensible on vegan premises, or possibly any strict humanitarian premises. But is fishing any more defensible? Although it would be far-fetched to suggest that a fox actually enjoys being chased by hounds, or benefits from a comparatively quick death when caught, it would be no less implausible to argue that a fish enjoys being fooled by a fly so that it impales a hook inside its mouth and is dragged through the water for minutes or even hours.

In some respects, hunting might even seem morally preferable to fishing or shooting. Much fishing today is "catch-and-release", and a moralist might well say that the hunter should have at least an intention of killing if not eating his prey. Many of the fish caught and released have been damaged in the process and will not survive. Likewise, however hard people try to shoot straight, there are always birds winged rather than killed and left to die a lingering death. That is to say nothing of the killing of small animals in traps set by gamekeepers.

When Alan Milburn, the Secretary of State for Health, was asked on the radio about the difference between hunting and fishing, he said with an audible smirk that the difference was obvious: foxes couldn't be eaten. Until then, I had thought that new Labour's animus against hunting was a mixture of bossiness and hypocrisy. It turns out to be a mixture of bossiness, hypocrisy and ignorance. Even Milburn might be expected to know that most recreational angling in this country is for inedible coarse fish. Pheasants and trout can be eaten, and foxes need to be culled (though that shouldn't in honesty be used as an argument by fox-hunters; people hunt because they love it, not for environmental reasons). Competition angling has neither gastronomic nor ecological excuse. It has been described as pure sadism and is regarded with aversion even by us trout-fishermen.

On the other hand, it is the sport of four million people - including, of all people, Mike Foster himself - against the 270,000 who hunt. Most fox-hunters don't vote Labour, but most anglers do. Hence Blair's insistence that: "there will be no ban on the country pursuits of shooting and fishing; I guarantee that this government will not allow any ban." Hence a party document, issued before the election, in which Labour claimed to be positively in favour of fishing. If none of us can claim pure logic, there should nevertheless be some minimum of intellectual honesty and consistency. Vegans want to see all field sports banned and could say that two wrongs don't make a right, that the immorality of fishing doesn't make hunting moral. But there is another old saying about those who "Compound for sins that they're inclined to/By damning those they've no mind to".

If anything, the serious arguments go still further the other way. Although I fish and occasionally shoot, but don't hunt, were I forced to name two field sports to suppress I might well choose fishing and shooting rather than hunting and coursing, on grounds less of ethics than aesthetics. Foxes and hares are at least wild creatures. There is something distasteful about modern commercial shooting and fishing, in which tens of millions of pheasants and trout are artificially reared every year to be put down in coverts and stocked in streams so that we Cockney sportsmen can enjoy easy entertainment.

To get a better inkling of why hunting is so hated, look at the left-liberal press. The Observer says: "It is not so much the killing of foxes that concerns those who want to see it banned. It is its ritualisation into an exclusive sport which commands a key role, albeit small, in our culture, that so many find offensive." The Guardian says: "Where foxes need to be killed, let it be done by shooting. Turning their killing into sport debases society." And, for the NS, hunting exudes "not just cruelty, but also arrogance and exclusivity".

Opponents of hunting have sometimes insisted that the question has nothing to do with class, but almost everything in this country has to do with class. As those quotations fascinatingly suggest, it isn't the killing of foxes that upsets opponents of hunting, it is ritual, arrogance and exclusivity. A fox might reply that it makes little difference to him whether the hunt is conducted in an arrogant and exclusive way. Being killed by hounds - and no legislation envisaged will actually prohibit the use of dogs to kill foxes in all circumstances - is arguably preferable to being gassed or trapped. And, try as I may, I can't see what difference it makes to the fox, either, if he is hunted by a red-coated, red-faced Old Etonian master of foxhounds or by a horny-handed yokel.

Most revealing of all is the Observer's "ritualisation". It is perfectly true that all field sports have a large element of ritual about them, in that their primary aim is not to cause pain, nor even to kill living creatures as simply or efficiently as possible. The object of coursing is less to kill hares (most of whom survive the alarming experience) than to provide a test for the dogs' speed and agility. The object of fox-hunting is less to kill foxes than to see hounds working and to follow a chase. If the only purpose were to kill foxes with dogs, you would use whippets. They are much faster than any fox, which they would catch and kill in seconds. Foxhounds have been bred over the centuries for stamina rather than speed, so as to provide a long ride rather than a quick death.

But then the other sports are ritualised also. There are easier ways of killing birds than shooting them with a twelve-bore, and far easier ways of killing fish than casting with rod and line. You can net them, or simply do as poachers sometimes do, toss a stick of dynamite into a salmon stream and wait for the dead or stunned fish to float to the surface. Angling with a rod is pure "ritualisation", whether using various kinds of live bait to catch roach or tying on a pheasant-tail or sepia dunn to catch a trout. Why don't these elaborate sporting procedures debase society?

With those newspaper leaders, we are getting warm, especially the Observer's "a key role in our culture". But there is more to it even than ritual or arrogance. Hunting has been accurately called a mixture of sport, snobbery and pest control, and the snobbery cannot be ignored by the sport's defenders. The Daily Telegraph tells us forlornly that most people who hunt are not rich at all. But that isn't even true of the Quorn and the Heythrop, and where it is true, outside "the shires", it is only partly relevant because class - though not quite a red herring - misses the real point.

The hunting debate is not class war, it is Kulturkampf. It illustrates perfectly a profound truth about life today. Someone has said (I think it was the American liberal academic Richard Rorty, though I wish I had said it myself) that the story of the past generation is that the right has won politically, while the left has won culturally. That distinction illuminates everything. Like gay rights, hunting is a cultural question, which has less to do with class than mentalites, and nothing to do with the traditional politics of left and right.

Compare and contrast Friedrich Engels and Tony Blair. Engels was a man of the advanced left, the author of The Condition of the English Working Class and co-author of The Communist Manifesto. Engels was also what we would now call a bitter homophobe. He complained to Marx that: "the pederasts are beginning to count themselves and find they make a power in the state . . . It is only luck that we are personally too old to have to fear that on the victory of this party we shall have to pay the victors bodily tribute."

And as better-informed fox-hunters know, Engels was also a hard man-to-hounds, hunting regularly with the Cheshire. He claimed it was useful training for the revolution; I imagine he just enjoyed it. Then compare him to Blair, who supports gay rights,wants to ban hunting - and is further to the right than any previous Labour leader, or even a couple of postwar Tory prime ministers.

Even that does not fully answer my initial question. Left-intellectual antipathy to hunting in this country goes back well before political correctness or Blairism; George Orwell noted it more than 50 years ago, when he remarked how funny it was that, in contrast to British progressives, "Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky were all of them keen sportsmen" (he was using that word in its traditional sense: they liked bagging bird and beast, not kicking a football).

There was an explanation, he suggested. Quite simply, those revolutionists were Russian, not English. They enjoyed the advantage of living in a huge empty country, where field sports united rather than divided classes. The real curse of English country life has not been hunting but enclosure, the pattern of walls and fences and "trespassers will be prosecuted" signs covering the country for 200 years.

As Orwell said, it is, or has long since been, impossible to imagine an English literary equivalent to the wolf-hunting scene in War and Peace. "In the end, it is the peasant's dog that outstrips those of the nobles and gets the wolf; and Natasha finds it quite natural to dance in the peasant's hut. To see such scenes in England, you would have to go back a hundred or two hundred years, to a time when difference in status did not mean any great difference in habits."

Or you would have to go to Ireland, where hunting and coursing are close to being "people's sports"; or to France, where the great expanses allow huntsmen to hunt without being bothered or bothering each other. But not here, where we dislike each other as well as children. Yeats meant Ireland, but his line more aptly applies to England: "Great hatred, little room."

It is not easy to admire those MPs who clamour to ban hunting. They know they have a prime minister who actually uses the word "libertarianism"as a sneer, and a home secretary reminiscent of the Tsarist minister of the interior of whom it was said that the only thing further to the right of him was the wall. They obediently vote to cut benefit for single mothers, for an asylum bill that will deny asylum, and for a freedom of information bill that will restrict freedom of information.

But they still have hostility to hunting as a moral fig-leaf, the last refuge of the disillusioned progressive. For Surtees's "Mr Jorrocks", hunting was "the image of war without its guilt". For new Labour, the campaign against hunting is the image of class war without its price.

This article first appeared in the 03 April 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Englishness: who cares?