Hunting clash: the illiberal in pursuit of the unsanitised
The vitriol poured on the pro-hunting protesters reveals the limits of tolerance in our 'inclusive' society.
According to an editorial in the UK Guardian, leading newspaper of the British liberal left, it was ‘an attack on the liberty of the British people and its elected representatives as serious in principle as anything attempted by Guy Fawkes, Charles I or Hermann Goering’s pilots…. It was a desecration of the basic principles of democracy and law and it was absolutely beyond excuse.’ For the Labour-supporting Daily Mirror, it was ‘the worst incident on the floor of the House of Commons for hundreds of years’ (1).
What could have happened to prompt such an outpouring of vitriol from such moderate newspapers? Had somebody staged a Guy Fawkes-style plot to gunpowder parliament, or brought armed men into the Commons to arrest MPs as King Charles did, or emulated the Nazi Goering’s Luftwaffe by launching aerial bombing raids on Westminster?
Not quite. What happened was that five men in t-shirts got on to the floor of the House of Commons, shouted some slogans and pointed fingers – not, note, guns or pikestaffs – at the few MPs present, as a protest against the latest move to ban foxhunting. It was not the most politically literate of protests, perhaps, and such stunts certainly do no more to connect a minority cause with a wider public than does dressing up as Batman and scaling palace walls. But an historic ‘desecration of the basic principles of democracy and law’? Hardly. These must be pretty fragile things in modern Britain if they really can be so easily endangered by a handful of foxhunting chaps armed with nothing more than some brass neck.
The strange thing is, those now loudly denouncing the hunt protesters have not always seemed so outraged by extra-parliamentary protests (including those that take place inside the precincts of parliament), or by activists who break the law.
For instance, the eco-protesters who have defied parliament and the law by wrecking GM crop trials on farmers’ land have been sympathetically treated, and even hailed as the true representatives of ‘the People’, by voices as diverse as the Guardian and the Daily Mail. Animal rights protesters may not always be so popular, yet the Guardian gave prominent space last week for an opponent of animal research to warn that more violence and law-breaking was inevitable unless the government gave in and stopped scientists using animal experiments in medical science.
Perhaps most notably in the context of this week’s events, there were no screams of outrage from these quarters about defiling democracy back in March, when Greenpeace activists breached parliamentary security and climbed the Big Ben clock tower, in a protest about the illegality of the war in Iraq. Their actions prompted the usual paranoid concerns about security, with headlines asking ‘what if they had been terrorists?’. But that is not the same thing as putting protesters on a par with terrorists, which is effectively what happened after the latest pro-hunt stunt.
It seems clear that despite all the high-minded language about offending democracy and the law, protesters are judged not according to what they do but why they do it. Certain types of extra-parliamentary action can win wide approval these days, just so long as it is used to highlight the ‘right’ kinds of issues that press fashionable buttons. But woe betide those who would stage the same sort of protests in support of politically incorrect causes. And there is nobody in Britain considered less PC than the pro-hunting lobby.
The ferocity of the reaction against the hunt protesters was not motivated by the way that they made a little scene in the Commons. It was motivated by the fact that many in the political and media class think that these people are scum. This provides an instructive insight into the limits of New Labour’s much-vaunted belief in social inclusion. We are forever being lectured about the importance of tolerance, minority rights and respect for other people’s lifestyle choices in modern Britain. But the vitriol poured on the hunters’ heads shows that there are new dominant prejudices at play. The illiberal elite cannot tolerate the choices of these people, whose attempt to exercise their ‘rights’ is deemed not just wrong but repugnant.
As we have argued before on spiked, when the anti-hunting zealots say that foxhunting has no place in a civilised society, they really mean a sanitised one. The hunting community exists beyond the limits of what these people consider acceptable behaviour. As the title of that Guardian editorial has it, they are simply ‘Out of bounds’.
It is often said that this hatred of the hunters is a class issue, because they are all ‘Toffs’. The upper class types who invaded the Commons certainly seemed to be trying to live up to that caricature. But even if that was really what it is all about, what would be the point of such a petty ‘class war’ today? It is not as if the aristocracy exercises any power over the rest of us any more. But in any case, this is no old-fashioned class war. It is more like a one-sided twenty-first century culture war against people who do not conform to the norms of New Labour’s Britain. Everything about the hunting community – traditional, rural, conservative, parochial – flies in the face of how we are supposed to live now. Hell, these people even insist on treating animals like, well, animals!
It was striking to see how, in dealing with the pro-hunting protests outside parliament, the Metropolitan Police took their lead from the illiberal elite. Under New Labour since 1997, the police have largely felt able/obliged to remove the iron glove that they used against inner-city rioters and striking miners in the 1980s, and briefly against the poll tax rioters in 1990. This week they chose to put that iron glove back on, in order to deal with a crowd of self-consciously respectable rural citizens. The hatred directed at those whom the Mirror branded ‘Tally Hooligans’ gave the Met the green light to baton charge the men and women in waxed jackets.
You do not need to be a toff or a foxhunter, or support their silly PR stunts, to want to oppose the puffed-up witch-hunt against them. The campaign to ban hunting is a politically motivated crusade about sanitising society by taming ‘wild’ people, not saving foxes. In response to the pictures of bloodied hunt supporters who had been beaten by the police outside parliament, many on the left sneered about ‘toffs getting a taste of what happened to the miners’. Those of us who defended the miners in the past would do more for the cause of democracy by taking a stand against the victimisation of hunters today.
When an opinion or a pastime that goes against the tastes of our illiberal elite can be dismissed as ‘Out of bounds’ – something that should not only be opposed, but outlawed – it ought to be obvious that the pressing threat to political freedom does not come from five posh boys being rude to some MPs.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
(1) Out of bounds, Guardian, 16 September 2004