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Fox-hunting, Privilege and Power

This is not really about hunting. This is about the last hunting horn blowing the last call for the feudal system and the House of Lords...

In August 1997 the Socialist Standard wrote (half) jokingly, of the imminent demise of the quaint rural past-time of hunting landowners. Half, that is, because the joke contained some truth on the matter of the contretemps over the banning of fox hunting which will come (finally) into force next month.

Much fuss has been made about banning this blood-sport, its supporters twisting and turning, saying one minute it’s a cultural past-time, the next it’s an economic necessity of farming life. Either way, it’s by-the-by. What is interesting is the raw process of power involved in this debate.

Under any normal circumstances, such a Bill – like the banning of dangerous dogs (under the Tories), or the banning of raves (also under the Tories), or any other sundry such measures that restrict the mythic beast of personal choice – would have been nodded through parliament after a swift and enjoyable debate. With foxhunting, however, the inner secrets of the British constitution were revealed in all their ugly goriness as the New Labour hounds tore into the privileges of the owners of vast tracts of land who wanted the right to literally be a law unto themselves.

Under ordinary conditions, most legislation and acts of government are passed by the passive (at least) co-operation of the responsible bodies. For example, in the direct democratic aspects of the constitution of California, if the Lieutenant General does not oppose an initiative going to referendum it is much easier to have the vote – as in the recent one on stem-cell research held there in November. It could still be forced through, but unless the issue is strongly desired, most people wouldn’t bother to fight against the grain.

At least in California, though, the electorate have a chance of voting for new officials. With the House of Lords, the British legislature has the remnants of the descendants of cronies and toadies of monarchs past mixed with the cronies and toadies of top-politicos today. The toadies of kings past also have the advantage of owning the country – a kind of fringe benefit – and the latter-day toadies like to hang out with these wealthy landowners. The incentive for resisting encroachments onto their eminent domains is clear.

Posture politics
Add to the mix the quest of the increasingly marginalised Tory party to find a solid political base from which to challenge a government that tries to pretend to represent the whole nation, and you have a recipe for government attempts to compromise with the uncompromisable, reconcile the irreconcilable, and the spectacle of hard-done-by landowners taking to the streets under the banner of the “Countryside Alliance”.  And, after themselves banning raves and pitbulls, of the Tory party now crying out about restricting personal cultural liberties and who weep about the unnecessary slaughter of dogs.

That is a recipe for the most debased, ridiculous, irrelevant and futile posture politics stirred up by has-been politcos on the make, squabbling over the crumbs of power. That hundreds of hours of parliamentary time apparently needed to be spent over banning foxhunting, as compared to the single vote needed to launch a murderous war, shows where the priorities of these disinterested Lords and their Commons co-conspirators really lie.

The whole history of the House of Lords has been one of the rich and powerful trying to retain a voice and a vote to protect their vested interests against democracy. It had nothing to do with organically evolved institutions, rationally devised systems of checks and balances, and everything to do with shabby compromises and naked self-interests of the landed elite demanding their place in the legislature. Every twist of their fight with the Commons has come from their naked self-defence of their property – most famously with the Irish and other Lords conspiring to defeat Gladstone’s Home-Rule Bills in the late nineteenth century.

The first Parliament Act of 1911 came when the Lords tried to block a Liberal budget. They are only supposed to be able to delay legislation for two years under that Act (and now after the Act under the Atlee government, only one year). However, in a busy parliament, any delay means disrupting the whole schedule for other bills, and so can mean wreckage of any plans it wouldn’t be worth putting up a fight over.

After the Atlee government, the Lords agreed not to vote on anything contained in a government election manifesto, a concession to democratic legitimacy in order to be able to keep their undue place in the halls of the legislature. When New Labour removed (most of) the hereditary peers, they declared themselves no longer bound by this agreement, and began to make life difficult for the government. Hence why it has taken eight years to pass this Act.

The Countryside Alliance now is set to challenge the legitimacy of the Parliament Act 1945 – the power that finally allowed the Government to force the Act through despite Lords opposition – on the grounds that it wasn’t passed properly (the Lords never voted on it). Sixty years late, they discover this idea.  If they can’t win under the rules, they try and change the rules.

The government has pledged to continue with its reform of the Lords, removing the last vestiges of hereditary peerage, but keeping the likes of Lord Sainsbury – a man who gave millions of pounds to the Labour Party, with nothing in return save a peerage and a ministerial post.

In Scotland, where the new Parliament is not bound by an un-elected second chamber, a bill banning hunting was passed with ease, and, strangely, the world hasn’t come to an end. A stark illustration of the power exerted by the Lords in the British Parliament.

Hereditary property rights
The landed rich cannot begin to conceive that their will cannot run untrammelled. Representatives of the hunts have talked of landowners exerting their property rights, and withdrawing co-operation from national infrastructure. Withdrawing co-operation with the army (so much for their vaunted patriotism); withdrawing access to land holding electricity pylons railways and waterways. Some have even called for civil disobedience. They have claimed the police will not be able to enforce the Act (something the police deny), which is again betraying their usual stance that law and order must be respected (and also forgetting that the police could just turn up to their houses and serve warrants on them).

We have already seen their civil disobedience – abandoning cars in the street, storming parliament, fighting with the police in ways that could only impress hardened direct actionist anarchists (indeed, London Class War in the Autumn 2004 edition of their paper have called upon the pro-hunters to, erm, bring it on). Yet, they escape with only a slapped wrist compared with anarchists who get heavily fined and locked up.

The BBC have contacted various utility companies to find out what the ramifications for the withdrawal of co-operation would be. The answer is, whilst it could make life difficult, if withdrawal of co-operation were to conflict with operational needs of the electricity, rail or waterways, then there is legislation for them to force access. The landowners could be shocked, again, to find themselves at the wrong end of a copper’s truncheon.

They retain their faith in the holy rights of property, of the power of property holds to exert influence in society. They forget that the power of property rests upon the political power to enforce it, and now the law is for once against them, they don’t like it. Much as they don’t like the right to roam, for ordinary people to walk across their vast open spaces that they have a piece of paper saying they own.

The sad thing in all of this – apart from the genuinely moving look of surprise and hurt that hunt supporters have when they discover the police can be a bit nasty – is that many of them feel genuinely, passionately moved by this ban. Some have been heard to say in interviews that this is the first political issue they have ever felt strongly or passionately about. So, never mind thousands dying in war, millions dying of preventable diseases, the AIDS pandemic, millions dying every year of starvation, privation, squalor, poverty, meanness and misery in every town bred by poverty. The right to hunt foxes is what exercises them.

The countryside should not be a preserve of a tiny minority, shouldn’t be a source of division or overweening power. Disputes should be settled democratically, without tiny rich groups having more say than others. All of this just serves to show how the nexus of power and privilege that is part and parcel of capitalism prevents those sensible sentiments being carried out. The attempts of the rich and the powerful to maintain their power over making the rules and laws of society is an affront that serves to illustrate how shallow democracy under capitalism really is.

A telling strength of the remaining power of aristocratic privilege, is that at the dawn of 2005, we have still had to devote some 1500 words to discussing people in silly costumes hunting foxes at great expense and waste.

PIK SMEET