Fox-hunting and the bray of urban triumphalism

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The Independent Culture
THERE IS something faintly unconvincing about the modern rural protest. Lacking the gruff nobility of the great agrarian movements of the past - men in smocks with pitchforks rising up against tithe or enclosure - the modern demonstrators look too red-faced and healthy, as if they have just stepped out of their Range Rovers for a spot of amusing political agitation.

Already there have been sneers in the metropolitan press about the latest attempt by the Countryside Alliance to influence political opinion. Country people "should stop whingeing and be grateful," sneered an Observer columnist over the weekend. "It is the urban poor who should go on the march and storm the chocolate-box bastions of middle England villages."

It is to this voice - as authentically nasty and triumphalist as any braying pronouncement from saloon-bar Thatcherites of the past - that the Government has appeared to be attending of late. Banning hunting has suddenly seemed an easy crowd-pleaser. At a time when promises about an ethical foreign policy, contacts with big business and the environment have proved awkward to keep, here is the opportunity for a clean moral victory without collateral damage to image or the economy.

The raucous and undignified argument over the issue that has taken place over recent months has revealed bogus arguments on both sides. Foxes are not the deadly pest claimed by the hunters and, even if they were, chasing them across country is not the best way to limit their numbers. On the other hand, the idea that this activity belongs to an exclusive order of inhumanity has become increasingly difficult to sustain.

So the question for those who are agnostic on the question of a ban - the majority of people, probably - is first whether making hunting with dogs illegal is the easy political option it may appear to the jolly die- hards gathered in Bournemouth this week. Anyone who has lived in the country will know that for a significant number of men, women and children, riding to hounds is as central a part of their lives as it was for generations before them. Disapproval is irrelevant; attempting to stop people hunting will, beyond question, involve bizarre and possibly extreme incidents of civil disorder. Police will be obliged to cordon off villages to prevent illegal gatherings on Boxing Day mornings. Wailing children will be removed from their ponies.

Does any of it matter? I believe it does, and that the significance of the Government's decision on hunting extends far beyond the fate of the country's foxes.

The Countryside Alliance is a strangely disparate body, representing every kind of large landowner, small farmer and field sports enthusiast. However, its presentation of the fox-hunting debate as an indicator of general attitudes towards the rural way of life is closer to the truth than the argument recently advanced by Tony Blair, that hunting is a one-off moral issue, irrelevant to wider debates about the countryside.

It is precisely on account of the freedoms and pleasures of life in the country that small farmers are prepared to hold on to their land in times of agricultural crisis. Increasing control and legislation will see an acceleration of a process already in train - the gobbling up of all smallholdings by large corporations.

Perhaps this is how the Government, and the unpleasant man from The Observer, would like to see the countryside of the future being ordered: the landscape rationalised, with farmland being efficiently run as a profit sector by vast agribusinesses, while ecologically friendly leisure areas will be under the control of a caring, paternalistic Westminster quango.

Personally, and for all their faults, I would prefer to leave the farmers in charge and let them chase foxes to their hearts' content.