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The Freedom to Wear Silly Red Coats

Would you wear this jacket?

      I have a fantasy. It is this. All members of fox hunts should have their hunting apparel embroidered with the following words: 'GOVERNMENT HEALTH WARNING: WEARING THIS SILLY COAT COULD SERIOUSLY DAMAGE YOUR MENTAL HEALTH'.

      I don't mean this in reality of course. It is only a fantasy. So don't get in a heat about repression. Not just yet, anyway. For the moment, please mentally add the words 'BUT YOU ARE FREE TO WEAR IT'. Still, the shorter, more contentious, version does sum up my attitude towards fox hunting - almost. Let me explain, or try to.

      We all remember the fox-hunting brigade being forced on the defensive earlier in the century. Never mind that, after the waste of much Parliamentary time, legislation is in hopeless muddle. The hunt supporters cast about for justifications for their cross-country gallops as the result of the Government's populist move to lift a ban up the political agenda. At the same time, the men and women in red coats came up with some pretty strange and spurious arguments in defence of their activities. One of the more amusing ones was the way in which they used grossly inflated estimates of the number of people who would be thrown into unemployment by any move to ban hunting. Then they tried to make the case that it was more 'humane' to chase an exhausted beast across half the countryside than to use methods such as poisoning to control these vermin (which in many cases are bred under the protection of hunts anyway). It really is a case of 'the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable' as Oscar Wilde once put it.

      Does this mean I would like to see more considered anti fox-hunting legislation brought forward? No, it does not. Fox-hunting may be anachronistic; it may be cruel; it might be difficult for many people to understand how fellow countrymen can take part in such a practice. But the fact remains that it is supported by a largish minority of people. It would be very wrong to ban something they and their predecessors have indulged in for centuries simply because many don't happen to like it. It is not going too far to say such a move would strike against the root of freedom. This is the only sustainable argument for retaining this particular blood sport. It's a very strong one, unfortunately for those among us (like me) who feel an instinctive disgust for this barbaric rite.

      Ah, but would you bring back things like bear-baiting and cock-fighting, then? That's an argument regularly trotted out to me. No, of course I wouldn't. These were recognised as unacceptably cruel practices by earlier generations, and any support they do have - and we all know they do have some - is fortunately from a tiny minority. The same kind of minority support that, with a bit of luck, fox hunting may be able to count on from later generations. One of the costs of living in a civilisation is the sacrifice of a certain amount of freedom, but those freedoms should be very carefully considered before they are surrendered. You will find, somewhere in these islands, those who would favour man hunts or gladiatorial combat. This doesn't mean that foul things like this should be allowed. But it's a big step from allowing these murderous practices to banning something that is actively supported because 'we', the apparent majority, disapprove of it.

      There's an interesting phenomenon when 'the moral majority' loses the authority given by numbers and becomes a minority. This happens when Brits travel overseas to countries whose people don't share all their views.

      I have seen live frogs neatly skinned and dropped into a bucket in Beijing. I have seen half-dead crickets - at least I think they were crickets - being roasted in Tangier. I have a Malaysian guide book from the 1970s proudly featuring cockfighting as a tourist attraction. What's the betting it doesn't feature in tourist publications now Malaysia receives many more visitors and has learned to be so much more visitor-oriented? About as certain as that you will find actual cockfighting aplenty off the tourist trail, I would say.

      You don't have to travel to the more exotic locations to experience a different outlook on animals. Spain has been a very popular destination since the nineteen-fifties, but rather embarrassingly for many it is also the home of bullfighting. La corrida de toros is not a sport, and doesn't pretend to be one. Rather it is a ceremony or spectacle which has its origins in the Roman Amphitheatre. It's undoubtedly cruel, not so much for the bulls which are bred as fighting animals and enjoy a cosseted life before their day of death and glory, but for the skin-and-bones, blindfolded horses, which are plainly terrified to be in the ring with a snorting killer.

      Most Brits have now abandoned their rather ludicrous 'without tourism the whole thing would go under' line and instead rather ostentatiously avoid seeing one of the sights of Spain. How much better and more consistent it would be if they boycotted the country altogether. For bullfighting, which most in Northern Europe would see as very wrong, is supported by a clear majority of Spaniards and is a key aspect of Spanish culture. I have a very clear memory of El Cordobes getting booed from the Barcelona bullring in 1965 for failing to kill an animal cleanly with the sharp sword hidden behind his muleta, something he was normally noted for, so I was told. I wouldn't be afraid go to another bullfight if the opportunity presented itself. This doesn't mean I 'approve' of bullfighting. What it does mean is that I think it would be quite wrong to try to impose my particular world-view on a very different society.

      Interestingly, bullfighting is no longer permitted in Catalonia. Its banning may have had more to do with separatist politics than animal welfare, but it's a sign that one day fox-hunting could also become a thing of the past. Obviously, in this case, it will be for some other reason. I don't think the waving of banners by the Hunt Protestors will be that reason

      You may or may not agree with what I have to say. You don't have to agree with my words: all I ask is that you think about them. Maybe you might remember the most important of these words: freedom. It isn't so very far to go from wanting to ban fox- hunting, to making vegetarianism compulsory because it's better for you, to making walking five miles a day a legal requirement (because we all need exercise, don't we?) to dropping bombs on the home of bullfighting.

      And if you think my examples are too far-fetched, think of a recent real one. The Californian State Government outlawed smoking in public parks. What's the betting that soon there'll be a lobby for a similar ban here? And if you can't see the connection between this, banning fox hunting, dropping bombs on Spain (excluding Catalonia, naturally) and compulsory press-ups, read this again.

      At the beginning of this essay I said that the words 'Government Health Warning: Wearing this Silly Coat could have Serious Effects on Your Mental Health' almost summed up my views. Almost. Perhaps adding 'So can wanting to ban fox hunting' would bring it a little nearer to the mark.


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