No More Playing: Fox Hunting and Politics.

A Parallel Shift from Aristocratic to Authoritarian in the UK

The Colonel by Harry Bunce

What is called ‘Fox Hunting’ is popularly understood to have been banned in the UK in 2004. This is the hunting and killing of foxes with hounds. What the Hunting Act of 2004 actually outlawed in England and Wales was the use of dogs in killing any mammal, not the outlawing of the hunting of foxes which still continues in other forms. In Scotland the outlawing of killing mammals with dogs had already been achieved a couple years earlier. Interestingly it is still not illegal in Northern Ireland, from whence the new potential parliamentary allies of the Conservative Party in the UK come from.

The Hunting Act was a major political hot potato during Tony Blair’s tenure as Prime Minister of the UK. Ultimately though the Hunting Act was a hallmark achievement of the Left of the Labour Party, using a method of post-modern identity politics, whilst its main political voice was suppressed voice under Tony Blair’s tenure as Labour leader. However Blair himself has gone on record to say he regrets allowing it to have been brought it up as an issue. As he himself notes, in practice it is arguably a very empty Act and hence a piece of gestural identity politics. But most impressive and effective at dividing people.

More recently the Conservative Prime Minister during the course of the election campaign leading up to the June 8th election of 2017, mentioned on record that after the election (assuming she remained Prime Minister) she would allow a free vote on repealing the Hunting Act of 2004 or something to that effect. This came on the back of her having been directly lobbied by the leader of fox hunts in England. Her following comments in support of it being a political bone to keep the sizable community who identify with Fox Hunting from voting UKIP instead of Conservative as they threatened to do.

So why is this actually interesting? While fox hunting is explained as being about pest control, this is simply an ongoing mythological imaginary about hunting. A mythology used to politically and institutionally justify it to people who are ignorant about hunting. Yes, foxes along with other predators, including Crows, are held in a particular rural imaginary as virile forces of Nature out to undermine human dominion over the land. The odd chicken lost here and there being a confirmation of this, and the dramatic plunge in ‘game’ animals being blamed on such species.

Fox In A Chicken Yard, oil painting by Jean-Baptiste Huet 1766

Primarily though foxes are admired within the context of the hunt. They are not a repulsive pest to be eliminated like a rat. They are ‘varmints’, but not vermin in the way pests are conceived by State infrastructure today; as populations to be eugenically controlled. Instead they are admired because of the ‘sport’ they provide to people who hunt them. I do not deny that this may be changing among some of the people who hunt today, as they seek to justify the practice to themselves in this more ethically adroit epoch.

In short fox hunting is about an idealized and romanticized relationship between gentlemen and the land. It was about good sport. This has been undermined by political dialogue such as that used by Prime Minister Theresa May. Ironically I doubt she has ever experienced the thrill of the hunt. Her argument instead is the argument of the Politician and the Puritan, an argument pushed by Hunting Lobbies trying to justify themselves on the terms of their opponents instead on their own terms. That it the argument for the control of pest species that do not shut up and die easily, domesticate themselves, look pretty in wildlife parks, or invade our country. Where the problem lies specifically with the conflation between sport and culling.

My argument here is that arguing for a sport, for sports hunting, for a contest as pest control is a far more insidious and authoritarian narrative than the narrative of gentlemen affirming their human community through giving wild and cunning Nature -in the form of foxes- a sporting chance of demonstrating that Nature is a worthy opponent.

A different image of fox hunting, when it used to be an occasion for a gathering of the whole community.

I am not a fan of this form of hunting. That is not the point. I am simply noting that pretending that fox hunting is simply about killing foxes and reducing their numbers removes any ‘play’ and any respect between contestants in the sport of hunting, in particular from foxes. Fox Hunting is about sport and play, otherwise one would simply cull them with more effective methods. Just as many other animals are culled across this country everyday -including foxes- by more efficient methods than on horseback with hounds (including but not exhaustive parakeets, moles, rabbits, boar, mink, raptors, badgers, geese, gulls, ducks, seals, deer, squirrels, corvids, goats, hedgehogs, cormorants, rats, mice, dogs, cats, foxes, multiple river creatures etc) I am also not a fan of this per se either. That is not the point.

The point is that supporting an sport in the form of aristocratic hunting, but arguing its about effective pest control, is taking the play out of a game, but arguing for winning. Its a philosophy that has turned predator hunting around the euro-american world into a mass gunning down of predators every year. A vicious and victimizing killing, dressed as sport and justified as conservation. An utter disgrace to any hunter worth their salt. It has combined the worst parts of Puritanical and Aristocratic ideologies when it comes to human-environmental relationships.

In short the political implication of signing up to this philosophy is that contests loose the importance of why they take place, the hunter loses respect for their opponent. The philosophy becomes being a winner, not competing against an opponent. Winning at the expense of respect, at the expense of play. Where play is a form of creative negotiation with an Other. And at the expense of everything. Except perhaps the eugenic notion of effectively removing species that are impure. In short the narrative has shifted to it being about winning at all costs.

I am not a fan of the idea of hunting as giving foxes a sporting chance as part of a game of symbolic environmental domination. I am just saying that whilst a superiority is assumed over one’s opponent, at the very least there is the principle that one’s opponent can also win, based on their ability to negotiate the world better than you. In the case of hunting it being who can interpret the environment on the hoof better, toward escaping as fox or capturing as human, and thus who is justified in being the land’s top dog.

I am not saying the Prime Minister really thought about what she was saying, but that her rhetoric reflects the same philosophy being perverted by her key constituents. Perverted for political justification. We have a Prime Minster at the head of a Political Party who accuses her opponents of “game-playing”, as if democracy should be a done deal. An attitude which was correctly interpreted as “Crush the Saboteurs!” by the UK DailyFail newspaper. A familiar approach by the Conservative Party of this country, and socially conservative political parties across euro-america.

The public argument for Aristocratic Fox Hunting today is a combination of the worst parts of Evangelical Puritanism and Aristocratic Eugenicism. It is the same philosophy underpinning socially conservative politics in euro-america today. An inherently undemocratic philosophy of no negotiating, of being above the rules of the game; of being above the political game, of hoping to exterminate the democratic opposition and win in perpetuity i.e. the spirit of authoritarianism.