From town to countryside, has this land ever felt less at ease with itself?

A metropolitan elite uses the EU, the courts and the BBC to impose values which many others find alien and repulsive
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The Independent Online

It was all predictable. On Saturday, throughout the hunting shires, a bad law was scorned and exposed as unenforceable. Ignorance and prejudice took a heavy fall.

It was all predictable. On Saturday, throughout the hunting shires, a bad law was scorned and exposed as unenforceable. Ignorance and prejudice took a heavy fall.

Tony Blair will not be distressed by this outcome, and nor will other senior ministers. Their backbenchers have had a good gallop, to blow some Iraqi cobwebs out of their system, and now the huntsmen too can carry on galloping. As to the consequences of having an unworkable law on the statute book, which will in theory criminalise hundreds of thousands of the most law-abiding people in the country - this government has always believed in letting the future take care of itself. The Blairites would not be any use in the hunting field. They are incapable of seeing beyond the next patch of long grass.

This does not mean that the rest of us should be quite so content at watching the hunting controversy subside into mockery. Even if the huntsmen are right to break this law, we should be uneasy. The hunting farce will accelerate a development which was bound to occur at some point, with unpredictable consequences: a debate as to the legitimacy of the law and the citizen's duty to obey it.

I am not suggesting that we are all about to embrace anarchy. If the alternative to law is lawlessness, even onerous laws will suddenly seem attractive. Hobbes was right. However extensive the freedom which a solitary man might enjoy in the state of nature, it would be so precarious as to be worthless without the safety of laws. As Coleridge wrote, though there might not have been an actual moment when our ancestors came together to form a society, all civilised polities depend on the idea of the social contract, under which individuals exchange absolute freedom for collective security.

So far, so commonsensical. But if society depends on the notion of contract, an obvious question arises. Under what circumstances are individuals allowed to repudiate that contract?

They can clearly do so by emigrating. But if they remain here, the rest of us are surely entitled to infer a continuing willingness to be bound by the nation's laws. After all, if individuals could simply opt out of the law, chaos would ensue. So the rest of us, still persuaded by Hobbes's reasoning, would be entitled to invoke Leviathan's might in order to prevent this.

But what about secession? Suppose half a dozen English counties were to declare their intention of setting up a new independent state? On what basis could the remainder of the country justify the use of force to prevent them?

Until recently, there would have been an easy answer. Hobbesian practicalities would have been buttressed by the legacy of the divine right of kings. There would have been a sense that British territory was sacrosanct. It was on that basis that we used to defend our own country, including the whole of Ireland, while creating a British Empire. There was no question of claiming democratic legitimacy; British sovereignty was legitimate ipso facto. Britain was Britain.

Yet we no longer believe that to be the case. If a majority of the inhabitants of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Gibraltar or the Falkland Islands decided to secede from the British Crown, no one would prevent them. So why should similar rules not apply, say, to the Saxon kingdoms of the heptarchy? If a couple of thousand Falkland Islanders are entitled to self-determination, how could the same rights be denied to several million Englishmen.

Though this is not yet a practical question, the hunting ban has moved it nearer to the political agenda. On Saturday, several hundred thousand people expressed their defiance, not only of one silly law, but of the way in which that law was enacted. They may not yet be aware of it, but the hunters were also acknowledging the gap which has opened up between them and much of the rest of the country.

In one laudable objective, John Major failed lamentably. He said that he wanted a country at ease with itself. Yet I have a sense that the country has never felt less at ease with itself. The town does not understand the countryside. Ancient institutions are derided, including even the monarchy. A metropolitan elite uses the EU, regulatory bodies, the courts and the BBC to impose values which much of the rest of the populace finds alien and repulsive.

Partly as a result of all this, our political institutions have never been held in lower esteem. Although deference may seem an outmoded concept, all political systems depend upon it to some degree. If the governed do not respect their governors, politics is in trouble. In Britain today, respect has been largely replaced by rancour.

That is not only true of politics. Throughout the country, different groups despise and resent each other's habits and pleasures. The ancient virtues of gentleness, tolerance and self-deprecation, which used to enable the English to live amicably in crowded proximity, have given way to road rage, and to other forms of rage.

This is the lesson which has now been learnt by the hunting community. For years, they tried to make their case. They persuaded the Government to set up expert committees, which found in hunting's favour. The hunts subscribed to the Countryside Alliance which eschewed hot-headedness and worked for a dialogue with government. The hunters offered a middle way for their sport, and ministers showed enthusiasm. Tony Blair was keen. But the Labour Party was not interested in moderation.

"We don't care about your arguments,'' jeered Labour MPs, "because we hate you. We have the power to give our hatred the force of law, so kindly get stuffed."

On Saturday, hunting responded to that request. But the matter will not end there. It is not just lefties who can be radicalised by the process of struggle. They may not yet realise it, in the pubs which hunters frequent, but the battle to preserve their sport has turned a lot of them into political philosophers. It is making them think about the legitimacy of government.

This is a piquant development, for most hunters are people to whom allegiance comes easily. They revere their country's traditions; they respect everything which makes up old England. But recent events have made them aware that far from protecting them, their allegiance to England and its heritage has only increased the rage of those who hate both.

Hunting is merely the catalyst. The bigger question remains to be asked, let alone answered: can a country which finds it so hard to be at ease with itself remain together? In Philip Bobbitt's masterly book The Shield of Achilles, he describes the emergence of the market state, in which citizens will feel less and less bound by traditional ties; more and more inclined to judge their states by the quality of the services which they provide. On that basis, not many hunters would now give their state high marks. The least trendy of people, their alienation from allegiance could set a trend. By the end of the century, historians may be identifying the Hunting Bill as a crucial moment in the decline of the British constitution.