1990s >> 1997 >> no-1116-august-1997

The Last Word: The right to eat landowners

The good old English sport of sending hungry hunting hounds to chase aristocrats through the woods, catch them and rip them to pieces, has been slow to take off as a popular pastime. Despite claims that these predatory parasites are a foul rural presence, serving only to infect the countryside with their conceited greed and indolence, it has been hard to find dogs with sufficient brutality to enjoy the so-called sport. Those who favour such hunts claim that it is nothing more than a healthy rural tradition, misunderstood by town-dwellers, and that ripping duchesses and viscounts to shreds is the most humane way to rid nature of those who have only survived historically by plundering and murdering others. The Royal Society for the Protection of Useless Aristocrats has been long split on the issue, with one section accepting that such blood sport is “just a bit of harmless fun”, while others prefer the idea of culling — or permanent quarantine in the House of Lords.

This laboured account would be funnier were it not for the harsh reality that rich, privileged, barbaric bullies, most of whom are brutalised at birth by hereditary right and public-school conditioning, do indeed defend their right to chase around the countryside with packs of hounds in order to savage and tear apart defenceless animals. Their callous defence is mounted in the name of sport. And because it is traditional for these parasitical killers to dress up in the costumes of their class and indulge their pleasure in watching deer, foxes and other animals being ripped apart, they respond with well-rehearsed cries of arrogant immunity to humane behaviour when their ritualised sadism is opposed.

I happened to be wandering through Hyde Park last month when this distasteful rabble of blood-sport enthusiasts gathered to demonstrate their right to be human vultures. A stench of hypocrisy pervaded the polluted city air as they cried for Freedom—not for their fellow humans, but for their cruel “right” to indulge in a sport of supreme inequality. The freedom of the armed hunters and horse-backed chinless wonders with their packs of hounds to pick on animals which stand no chance in opposition to them is not simply about sick behaviour. More than that, it illuminates the very descent into “the law of the jungle” which such people define as freedom. It is the same freedom which allows the very land on which we live, and the earth from which we are fed, to be owned and controlled by a minority of parasitical grabbers who believe that it would be the height of effrontery to invade their freedom by letting the earth belong to the people who inhabit it.

These depraved beings, who rejoice in their right to inflict pain on animals, are in the same class and historic tradition as those who proclaim the inviolable right to cast the peasant off their land and into destitution and starvation. The same haters of freedom who smashed down the communal utopia of the Diggers when those early communists sought to hold the land in common as a store of wealth for all; the same bullies who until a century ago enjoyed the propertied right to flog peasants and rape their daughters, and still today treat those who work on the land as if they are indebted to the landowners who steal the fruits of their labour. Looking at this savage minority of ruthless parasites, bleating their message of outrage against those reformists (destined to parliamentary defeat) who dared question their freedom to kill for pleasure, it was hard not to wish on them the fate of a frightened cornered fox, surrounded by a pack of dogs trained for the kill.

But that is not the socialist way. Why should we lower ourselves to their brutal customs? As Shelley reminded us: “We are many, they are few.” They are not worth the bullets which it would take to shoot them. Nor are they important enough to lead us from our hostility to the cause of violence, however guilty the victim has been conditioned to become. No the aristocrats need not fear our blood sports; the victory of our consciousness of human solidarity over theirs of class oppression will be reward enough for us.

But look what these parasites are doing to the land. They spray it with chemical pesticides, killing off whole species of birds, butterflies and plant life in their quest for profits. They have fed cattle upon cheap and lousy diets, creating the BSE crisis and whole varieties of food adulteration which makes us and our children all the potential victims of their profit-lust. They have dumped millions of tons of soil into the rivers which pollute the water which we are charged to drink. They have pursued, in the name of efficient “factory farming”, the most obscene practices of cruelty to animals which are tortured for the sake of making a few more pounds for their avaricious owners. They have contracted out farm management to City firms which seek to push down agricultural wages, casualise skilled farm work, thrown wage-slave-farm-workers onto the scrap-heap of the unemployed, and destroy whole rural areas in the name of agribusiness.

The landowners, who protest for their freedom to enjoy themselves in exhibitions of collective brutality, remain free to rape and vandalise the countryside. As Graham Harvey, the agriculture adviser to The Archers (of all things) has written in his incisive new book, The Killing of the Countryside, “they [the landowners] favour a countryside devoted entirely to industrial-scale food production, with the products traded on world commodity markets in exactly the same way as coffee and copper . . . Since this ‘progressive’ view of farming is supported by big business and the City, it is the one most likely to prevail. If so, the current losses of birds and flowers from our landscape will turn out to be merely the first casualties in a long process of attrition.”

The beneficiaries of this rural plunder are the very few. One percent of the population owns half the land in Britain and two percent owns three-quarters of it. A mere 600 landowners own half the land in Scotland. These capitalist-farmers are subsidised by huge grants to support their manipulation of the market. They receive millions of pounds and euros in return for taking land out of cultivation so as to keep profits up.

A horsy woman of uncertain age, with a voice like Ann Widdecombe and a designer-label outfit, approached me as I strolled through the Hyde Park demonstration and asked me if I would sign her petition to save traditional country sports. I asked her whether she had ever tried to emphasise with a sensate being chased by howling dogs and threatened with being ripped apart. “Oh, you’re obviously a socialist do-gooder,” she spat, as she drifted towards the next recruit. Which, as a contrast to a capitalist do-harmer, is not the worst thing in the world to be.

Steve Coleman