Humanising our environment

Do communists support a ban on fox-hunting or do we defend the rights of fox-hunters? Danny Hammill examines the issues

After six hours of debate in the Scottish parliament, the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Bill was passed last Wednesday by 86 votes to 36 with five abstentions. This now means that mounted fox-hunting, fox-baiting and hare-coursing will become a criminal offence in Scotland punishable by a £5,000 fine or up to six months in jail. An obvious question is now posed - England and Wales next? Naturally, the Scottish ban provoked fury from the usual suspects. Noel Collins of the Rural Rebels grouping denounced the bill as "an attack by urban politicians on the rural way of life". David Thomas, spokesperson for the Federation of Welsh Packs, went further. In the best traditions of Powellite rhetoric, he blasted: "We are prepared to fight for our way of life and even die for it. You will not need to send envoys to Palestine or go to Africa to sort out problems there, Mr Blair, because they'll be too much trouble here. There'll be rivers of blood in the countryside just because I want to get on a horse and hunt a fox." The message is clear - 'countryside values' are facing extinction from 'denatured' townies motivated purely by 'class envy'. Who are these uppity, urbanite parvenus to criticise us? In these shouts of rustic despair, we cannot fail to be reminded of the sentiments expressed by the protestors at the massive July 10 1997 Hyde Park demonstration organised by the Countryside Alliance. Supported by 'non-political' BBC radio programmes like The Archers and Farming Today - egged on by the Tories, aristocratic riffraff and the likes of The Daily Telegraph - over 250,000 assembled to 'defend the countryside' and kill off Mike Foster's private members bill, the Wild Mammals (Hunting with Dogs) Bill. In easily the biggest demonstration London had seen in many years, the most reactionary and backward elements of UK society congregated to do battle with the 'townies'. All were united in hostility to the homogenising juggernaut of "urban values" and all claimed to be militant upholders of "minority rights". As part of the harmless fun, marchers waved placards with slogans such as 'Killing foxes is cool by me', 'Country sport means country business', etc, and heard foam-specked speeches from enraged individuals like David Bellamy, Jeremy Irons, Willie Carson and William Hague (remember him?). As we pointed out at the time, given the fact that a good number of the demonstrators have access to arms (sadly unlike the working class), here we had a glimpse of what a real counterrevolutionary movement might look like - with hardly a BNP type in sight. It is also important to remember that the Hyde Park rally was the largest protest demonstration since the election of the Blair government in May 1997. Yet, while the central core of the demonstration consisted of members and supporters of the Conservative Party, it was also backed by normally 'anti-Tory' liberals like Hugo Young of The Guardian (surely the bête noire of any respectable fox-hunter), who wrote movingly about the plight of "rural outsiders" and how the rally was a huge cry against the "hideous plight of centralised uniformity" (July 10 1997). How come? Alienated liberals like Young et al are only too eager to defend a rural idyll of their own imagination - an inviting, misty, mysterious world of hay wains and thatched cottages reminiscent, if anything, of The Shire in JRR Tolkien's Lord of the rings, where the at-one-with-nature hobbits dwell. By expressing his solidarity with the Countryside Alliance and fox-hunters, Young was defending his 'right' to have a bolt-hole to retreat to when class inequality and poverty in the cities reaches such a level that it starts to offend his liberal sensibilities. Almost five years later, the 'anti-ban' arguments fall along the same essential lines, albeit this time round on a far less visible scale and without the assistance - so far - of the unctuous Jeremy Irons (though we do have instead celebrity chef Clarissa Dickson Wright, the 'fat lady' herself). Hence, the Scottish Countryside Alliance director, Allan Murray, has claimed that the banning bill breaches two articles of the European convention on human rights. Article one, which states no one should be deprived of their property or livelihood without justification (such as miners or British Airways workers?), and article 8, which purports to protect the right of individuals to enjoy a way of life without interference from the state. Naturally, the latter defence particularly impresses one of the editorial writers for The Times, who railed against "whatever meddles with private personal disposition of a man's time" as "tyranny direct" - or so he did in 1800 against the banning of bull-baiting. This brings us to one of the main arguments normally deployed against a ban - surely fox-hunting is a harmless leisure activity, one of these eccentric British habits to be defended, if not treasured, like PG Woodhouse and repeats of Brideshead revisited. According to The Independent, the Holyrood ban was a "daft action" - it was "absurd" that so much parliamentary energy had been expended on such "a minor issue". Far worse of course, was the 'fact' that a ban on fox-hunting represents "a deeply illiberal impulse. Fox-hunting is a strange, faintly ridiculous pastime "¦ the unpopular behaviour of a minority, however baffling or bizarre that behaviour is, should be tolerated in a civilised society, so long as it does not impact on other people" (February 14). It almost makes fox-hunters sound like morris dancers on horses. The Daily Telegraph too evokes the 'pleasure principle' in its anti-ban tirade. But it also throws in the 'conservationist' card: fox-hunting is a "pastime that not only gives pleasure, but does demonstrable good to the ecology and economy of the countryside" (February 15). The 'pleasure principle' advocated above is sheer bunkum. By the same token there would never have been laws prohibiting the baiting of badgers, bears and bulls, or banning cockfighting or dog-fighting. Indeed, it would be perfectly legal to torture your pet cat or dog just for the hell of it. René Descartes may have thought that animals could be compared to the clockwork mannequins so popular in his day - that is, animals are merely intricate machines. However, communists recognises that relatively complex animals like foxes, or cats and dogs, are sentient beings which can suffer and feel pain. To state this does not mean one is being 'sentimental' or - sin of sins - 'anthropomorphic'. Yet, it is not primarily the animals' suffering that concerns us, though of course that is far from irrelevant. It is the dehumanising effect that the infliction of suffering has on their actual tormentors that is our main concern. Events like fox-hunting (with its ritualistic 'blooding') or bullfighting, as practised in modern-day Spain, pervert the humanity of all those involved and only help to perpetuate oppressive social relations. We can see then that the so-called 'philosophical' defence of fox-hunting does not amount to much - even in its more modern forms. Take that arch-fox-hunter, the conservative philosopher, Roger Scruton - the unthinking man's thinking man. Hunting is 'natural', says Scruton. Predation is one of life's most fundamental facts. Nature, a là  Tennyson, is "red in tooth and claw" - everything is destined to die ("the leaves decay and fall"). Foxes, the hunted, are also hunters in the wild. Scruton continues - human beings evolved as hunters. Therefore, his logic goes, to hunt with horses and hounds is to express in some way our 'true nature'. Ergo: anti-fox-hunting protesters are effete, cut off from their species-being. Actually, to the extent it matters, contra Scruton, humans evolved as gathering animals who only occasionally supplemented their roots, berries and fruit with meat - often, no doubt, carrion. Even the myth of man the hunter, as articulated by the likes of Scruton, hardly accords with the real, historically-determined activity of fox-hunting as we know it. Real predators, such as lions and wolves - and foxes - hunt for a living, so to speak. If they do not catch anything they do not eat. Hunting must therefore be cost-effective. Any failure reduces chances of survival. But 'success' must not be won at too high a price: natural predators must not expend more energy in the chase than the prey itself provides. If the prey is too alert or too elusive or too fast over the ground, the 'professional' predator gives up. The availability of food - or lack of it - limits fox numbers. In complete contrast to this, our tally-hoers are content to chase 'Old Reynard' all day for nothing in terms of food (in a 'real' hunt, the usual rule is that either the prey gets away fairly early and the predator gives up, or it is soon put out of its misery). The hounds are fed whether they catch anything or not. The human hunters return to their manors and executive houses, eat and drink their fill and then fall asleep with a full belly which contains not a gram of fox meat, of course. Very 'natural'. As Colin Tudge puts it, "The hounds are in no way comparable with wolves in the wild. They are more like domestic cats, well fed on Whiskas who kill small birds for a hobby" (New Statesman February 18). Meanwhile every year sees a beagle holocaust, with the in-touch-with-nature houndmaster putting an unsentimental bullet through the head of any unfortunate dog which is unable to keep up with the chase. Man's best friend? More objectionable still is the abject nonsense about how fox-hunters and their ilk are motivated by a passion to defend "the ecology and economy" of the countryside - almost eco-warriors in disguise whose love of animals surpasses that of the most militant Animal Liberation Front member. In truth, foxes are no more a threat to the rural economy than, for instance, golden and white-tailed eagles or peregrines - all of which have been largely or totally eliminated by earlier generations of hunters. In the name of capital accumulation, the same class of people who form the core of fox-hunters were the cause of rural depopulation. Nor are they today less than hesitant in exploiting rural workers (just about the worst paid section of the working class). As for the fox-hunters' beloved 'ancient and natural' landscape, this is a total fraud. England's - and Wales's and Scotland's - not-so 'green and pleasant' countryside is both modern and class-made. Historically, swathes of the countryside where hunting 'traditionally' occurs were created, in the first place, by forcefully driving small farmers and rural workers off the land and then crowding them into the new city factories and workplaces. Denuded of people, the mega-rich landowners and aristocrats turned the countryside into their private plaything - a theme park for hunting, shooting and fishing. Armies of keepers were employed to eliminate any putative predator whose teeth, beaks or claws threatened the creatures they themselves wanted to chase. Hence, eagles, peregrines, owls, otters, wolves, etc all went by the board. What is more, the landowning gentry were ferocious when it came to defending their acquisitions. Look at the draconian 'anti-trespass' laws and the general defence of class power and ascendancy. The annual grouse-shooting massacre in Scotland, for example, is a monstrous example of obscene capitalist-aristocratic privilege. Do we support the 'right' of Scottish aristocrats to own half the land so that they and rich Arabs and Germans can slaughter specially - ie, artificially bred - birds? Yet these very people love nothing better than to decry 'metropolitan correctness' and 'urban ignorance'. In reality, for all their sound and fury, 'conservationist' big farmers and landowners have been the prime despoilers of the countryside, pouring more and more noxious chemicals into the land for greater and greater profit. Now, we have the 'new' industrialist landowners - who have effectively turned virtually the entire countryside in areas like East Anglia into a denatured desert. No wonder foxes and other animals are moving out, 'fleeing' to the much friendlier environment of the towns and cities. Isn't nature a funny thing? So what should our response to the Scottish ban be? Clearly, not merely to give three cheers for the MSPs and then meekly wait and see what they do next. Nor should we treat this issue with economistic disdain, perhaps imagining that this is not something real 'class warriors' should bother themselves with. We should certainly not follow the SWP-like advice of The Independent, which informs us that the fox-hunting ban is "an unwelcome distraction from the really serious problems - hospitals, schools, public transport system and crime - that out elected representatives should be concerning themselves with at this stage in our history" (February 15). Rather, we need to put our stamp on this and take the lead. Obviously, communists do not object to state bans as a point of principle, even under the current society. To do so would be to perpetuate the apolitical idiocy of anarchism. Do we not call upon the bourgeois state now to introduce a minimum wage and introduce greater health and safety regulations? Would we support a ban on the barbaric practice of female circumcision? Was it not a progressive measure when the British parliament banned child labour or when it outlawed slavery? The campaign against hunting foxes with hounds does not originate with the urban elite or the Blairite political class. True, it involves a number of cranks, animal righters and outright sentimentalists. But there can be no doubt that it is a democratic demand which commands a clear and obvious majority - both in the town and the countryside. What is noticeable under these circumstances is how the government has refused to honour its 1997 manifesto pledge to outlaw fox-hunting by horse and dog. There is another aspect that also deserves to be considered. The 10 hunts north of the border employ around 3,000 people, which includes all of those who derive any part of their income from hunting (farriers, saddlers, feed merchants, etc). Additionally, the Macaulay Institute recently concluded that the impact of a fox-hunting ban would cost 300 jobs. It is only right that these workers be protected. Tommy Sheridan is then quite correct to highlight the "redeployment" issue (Scottish Socialist Voice , February 22). However, we not only defend working class rights but we possess a wider, human, vision of nature and the countryside. Thus in our Socialist Alliance general election manifesto, People before profit, we read: "The SA believes that the countryside is a precious resource that belongs to us all. We want a policy that sustains a diverse and accessible rural landscape, populated by diverse and vibrant rural communities"; "If the labour movement fails to champion the rights of rural workers, small businesses and farmers, them we leave them open to reactionary forces". Communists actively and constantly struggle to humanise our environment - whether it be the urban jungles of New York or Calcutta, the Scottish Highlands, Antarctica, or for that matter, the planet Mars (ie, by employing the latest 'terraforming' technology). In other words, we fight to break down the town-country divide - the baleful legacy of capitalism. 'Bring the countryside into the cities and the cities into the countryside' - this should be our battle cry.