A tradition that crosses the divide: Antony Taylor looks left and right for the origins of hunt sabotage

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The Independent Online
THE RECENT death of 15-year-old Tom Worby during an anti-hunt demonstration, and revelations about the neo-Nazi past of the leading hunt saboteur who recruited him, have turned the spotlight on the origins of the hunt sabotage movement in Britain.

On the surface, the allegations that the movement is involved with the ultra-right seem little more than a deliberate attempt by the pro-hunting lobby to discredit their opponents. However, a suggestion by the former National Front veteran, Patrick Harrington, that parties of the extreme right have some sympathy for the aims of the saboteurs, serves to demonstrate that the animal rights tradition crosses the political divide and attracts support not just on the political left, but on the right as well.

Historically, a concern for the welfare of animals has featured prominently in the platform of those parties that derive their inspiration from appeals to the soil, simple rural values, and an idealised peasant past. In practice, animal rights are nearly always coupled with such doctrines as vegetarianism, anti-vivisectionism and 'back to the land' nostalgia.

Such views were not confined to Britain. In early 20th century Germany sentiments like these found their strongest outlet in the volkisch racist groups that sought an alternative to the complexities and sophistications of industrial society. When the German Communists captured the urban townscape and the image of the industrial worker, proponents of such rural ideas gravitated to an ultra-right position. Here, their ideas fused with the ideologies that formed the eventual seed-bed for National Socialism: extreme nationalism and rural nostalgia combined to create the vision of a Germany of small producers that provided the blueprint for the German settlement schemes in Poland and Eastern Europe.

Animal rights emerged as a major strand within this type of thinking. The Nazis planned nature reserves for endangered species in Poland and encouraged afforestation to improve the environment for their charges. Their dislike of Germany's traditional aristocracy also led them to oppose foxhunting, and Hermann Goering was widely criticised by the Nazi hierarchy for his addiction to this pastime.

For many Nazis, animal rights assumed a specifically racist tinge. In the Thirties the issue of cruelty to animals was used as the basis for a highly successful campaign against the ritual slaughter and preparation of kosher meat. More recently, anti-Semitic allegations of this nature have resurfaced in Poland, where an Animal Protection Act tabled by a group of right-wing MPs has reopened the question of whether the ritual killing of sheep and cattle entails cruelty.

Ultra-right ideas of this kind have never been transferred successfully into the British political setting. In the Thirties the British Union of Fascists mounted a campaign against Jewish ritual slaughter and the National Front has campaigned against the preparation of Asian halal meat, but in each case they failed to attract the support enjoyed by similar campaigns on the Continent.

In marked contrast to Germany and Poland, the British political tradition of animal rights campaigns carried on by the hunt saboteurs is far more strongly associated with the left. This is mainly perhaps because hunting has been so strongly associated with class.

The central role of hunting in court and establishment circles meant that in 19th century Britain fox-hunting, hare-coursing and similar country pursuits stood as badges of privilege. Hunting thus came to represent the wider failings of the aristocracy and became a natural target for those seeking radical reform. The early animal rights campaigners therefore focused their campaign on hunting rather than on any other form of animal abuse.

Early opponents of blood sports here were, accordingly, linked more closely to the pioneer Labour and socialist movement than were their counterparts on the continent. In many instances, their campaigns overlapped in their 'back to the land' beliefs, but in Britain these beliefs were placed at the service of the left, rather than the right in politics.

The inspiration behind the modern British anti-bloodsports movement was the social reformer and vegetarian, Henry Salt. In 1892 his spirited polemic Animal Rights argued against the killing of any animal for sport or food except in times of famine, and resulted in the foundation of the anti-hunting Humanitarian League. Salt subsequently recruited such pioneer socialists as Edward Carpenter and Annie Besant, and in 1915 George Bernard Shaw contributed a preface to a volume of his essays that amplified many of his views.

The Humanitarian League's longest running campaign was against stag-hunting. In its essentials it anticipated many of the tactics of the present hunt saboteur movement. These included careful monitoring of the hunts, faithful recording of any brutality and a leaflet campaign. In 1901 this pressure caused the premier stag-hunting association, the Royal Buckhounds, to be disbanded with royal consent.

The vast amount of arable land given over to game in Britain at the turn of the century and the jealous husbanding of game birds and other quarry, encouraged the opposition to hunting and shooting, which rapidly broadened into a wider campaign against landownership and lack of access to the countryside. By the Twenties it had merged with the public trespass movement and become an issue among both the Young Communist League and the Young Socialists.

In its modern form, the hunt saboteur movement in Britain is quite distinct from its European counterparts, being rooted in antipathy towards aristocracy, privilege and the rights conferred by private wealth. In its broadest sense, its platform appeals to atavistic folk memories of the huntsman as landowner, rural policeman and ultimately as the 'bouncer' of the estates. Huntsmen have done little to dispel this image and their attitude remains much the same as it was more than 60 years ago when Siegfried Sassoon recalled:

'We were galloping full tilt along a road just outside a cosy village. An angry faced old parson was leaning over his garden gate, and as we clattered past he shook his fist at us and shouted 'Brutes] Brutes]' in a loud, unclerical voice. Excited and elated as I was, I turned in the saddle and waved my whip derisively at him. Silly old buffer]'

The case for right-wing involvement in the anti-hunt movement, therefore, while seductive, is unproved.

The author is a history lecturer at Sheffield and Manchester Universities.

(Photograph omitted)