Thursday, 5 January 2012

Charming traditions

One of the high points, or at any rate one of the points, of the recent Christmas break was that great English tradition of the Boxing Day hunt. 

On the 26th of December, some hundreds of those who like to think of themselves as superior, turned out with pretty red coats and large horses to go careering across the countryside after a bunch of hounds, while some hundreds of thousands of people with no more sense but far less money turned out to support them. 

It seems that this year the supporters numbered about 250,000.

Oscar Wilde had it right. Fox hunting is the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable.  

The unspeakable at play

Well, the uneatable has been illegal game since 2004, when Parliament decided that having dogs tear a fox to pieces at the end of a hunt wasn’t acceptable behaviour in the twentieth century, however much fun the unspeakable may have got from the process. And however time-honoured the tradition.

Of course, there have been a few accidents when hunts have actually led to the death of a fox but, hey, accidents happen. 

Remember Apartheid South Africa? They used to happen to activists who got too close to windows on the upper floors of police stations. 

What about these days in Russia? They happen to journalists who get to close to uncomfortable facts. 

At least in Britain, it’s foxes who tend to be the victims rather than people. Where Britain resembles the other two countries is in the fact that the police don’t waste their time or anyone else’s investigating these unfortunate incidents. Sorry, accidents.

So the unspeakable are still going strong, heavily supported, galloping around the countryside as though they owned it which, come to think of it, they probably do. And with their friends now in government, there’s some pressure to get the hunting legislation repealed.

It’s a curious business, that. I never liked the ban. Not because I’m fond of the unspeakable of lack sympathy for the uneatable. More because I just don’t like bans.  I reckon they ought to be kept to the bare minimum needed for a civilised society. 

So, murder: yes, ban it (much though I’d like an exemption made for certain individual victims I could name). in a week which saw the conviction, eighteen years on, of two of the men who killed the teenager Stephen Lawrence for daring to be black in a public place, it’s hard not to feel that certain bans are highly desirable. Ban rape, ban violence against the individual generally, ban burglary, theft, fraud, and so on. 

But can’t we keep bans down to the strict minimum necessary? 

Take cannabis, for instance. It seems that at least three million of my countrymen smoke it on a regular basis. That suggests that we have at least as many dope smokers as we have churchgoers. So just how useful is that ban?

It’s easy for me to oppose the ban on cannabis: dope doesn’t bother me. It’s easy to tolerate things I have nothing against. The real test of tolerance is when we have to apply it to things we don’t. It’s more of a challenge to oppose bans on things that make me uncomfortable. For instance, I don’t like the wearing of the niqab, the full face veil, but it’s not clear to me that entitles me to call for it to be forbidden?

Equally, I dislike fox hunting pretty intensely. But I’m not convinced it should be banned, principally because I dislike the idea that a majority, just because it is a majority, should be able to impose its will on a minority that is no threat to its wellbeing. 

What’s more, I’m less uneasy about hunting than I am about our knee-jerk tendency to reach for the statute book to deal with any problem. That’s another of our traditions in our great nations of the rule of law: faced with a problem,  legislate, if only to make it look as though the government is taking action.

I’d much rather see certain things wither away than be banned. Reading toxic newspapers. Binge drinking. Believing in things because a few centuries go someone claimed, without a shred of evidence, that they were the word of God.  

So where does that leave fox hunting?

Well, there’s pressure for the ban to be lifted. Will it be? No, it won’t. Polls show a hefty majority in favour of keeping it. No politician who wants to ensure his re-election is going to go out on a limb on this one.

So what will happen? Another great tradition will be respected: the unenforced law. On the one hand, the law will stay on the statute book, and those who loathe hunting will feel self-satisfied on that account. On the other hand, those who want to tear around tearing a little animal to pieces will go right on doing it knowing the police will do nothing against them. At the price of a little hypocrisy, everybody can get what they want. It’s win-win. Except for the fox, of course. 

Ah, traditions. Charming, aren’t they?

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