In the soft-centred mush that today passes for political discourse, Roger Scruton’s discordant voice is a joy. He challenges the assumption on which our ‘society of wimps and scroungers’ is founded: he holds that ‘human beings neither are nor ought to be equal’. For this heresy he has been subjected to the abuse of his politically correct academic colleagues. Byron-like, he has shaken off the dust of their company and taken to fox-hunting.
He is a grandee who hunts with the Beaufort and has commuted from Boston to Badminton for Saturday meets. I have remained a poor provincial, strapped for cash. Rising in the dark to muck out and saddle up, hacking five or six miles to a meet and bedding down the horses again in the dark tends to knock any mystical stuffing out of one. Hunting cannot be for me, as it has been for Scruton, a life transforming experience. It is an ingrained habit. I just enjoy it.
The core of this book is a description of the joys, the sheer excitement of fox-hunting, familiar to those who hunt but rarely conveyed with such poetic intensity. It is a masterpiece that can stand beside the best of Surtees and Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man as an undisputed classic. The description of a puppy show, held in pouring rain, is a memorable set piece; that of a dinner with Enoch Powell, a comic gem. (Powell sold his foxhunting coat to his admirer, Mr Scruton; it split at the seams the first time out.)
The discovery of landscape is among the pleasures of hunting. But this discovery is, for Scruton, more than an aesthetic experience. It is a revelation:
Ancestral patterns of ownership and labour speak to us from our landscape – patterns that have been wiped away from the industrial prairies of East Anglia as they have been wiped away from the collective farms of Russia, Hungary and Bohemia.
He sees from his horse the landscape of ‘Old England’, threatened by a heathen urban culture that covers the land with concrete and supermarkets. This defence of ‘Old England’ against the onslaughts of modernity makes this small book more than a superbly crafted description of the skills of huntsmen and hounds, of the enjoyments of the chase. It is a political and philosophical tract of Powellian power: an attack on Cool Britannia, on a society that has lost touch with its past, a society whose political elite has lost its attachment to the land and dances only to the monotonous rhythms of the city, declaring its mission to be, as our Prime Minister repeatedly reminds us, to put us on the road to a thoroughly modern future.
Diseased by what Hugh Kingsmill used to call ‘New Dawnism’, we have lost touch not only with our past, but with nature. For Scruton, hunting enables us to recover that relationship with the natural and animal world once enjoyed by our hunter-gatherer forebears. This mystical relationship is distinct from that which we enjoy with dogs and cats, whose personalities are created by us; the latter is an unnatural relationship – the community it creates existing only in vets’ waiting rooms. The community hunting creates, with its uniforms and rites, is a living thing, one of Burke’s ‘little platoons’.
Will hunting with hounds, Scruton asks in a final chapter, survive in Cool Britannia? Nineteenth-century radicals – Cobden was one – attacked hunting on political and social grounds, as the ‘feudal’ sport of aristocrats. Now it is attacked on moral grounds for involving cruelty to animals. This shift is, in my view, more apparent than real. It provides moral cover and useful allies for those in whose breasts the old class struggle still burns.
Hunting is not merely cruel to animals; worse still, to our moral mentors like Roy Hattersley, this cruelty is indulged in as a sport which gives pleasure to those who follow it. Our new puritans, carried aloft by what Macaulay called one of the ‘periodical fits of morality’ that afflict the British public, resemble their Puritan forebears, who hated bear-baiting not because it gave pain to the bear but because it gave pleasure to the spectators.
Scruton attempts to rebut these charges: hunters do not take pleasure in suffering but in spite of it; death is part of natural life; foxes are themselves ruthless predators; opponents turn a blind eye to the appalling cruelty of factory farming; hunters are nature’s conservationists. Long experience has taught me that all this will cut no ice with those who see themselves as engaged in a crusade against barbarians. The real case against Foster’s Bill is that it offended libertarian principles; it exemplified J S Mill’s fear that the power of majorities in a democracy might ride roughshod over a minority. The minority in this case can muster 100,000 peaceful protesters in Hyde Park; moreover, it is a minority which is subject to what can only be called the terrorism of the hunt saboteurs, whose aggravated assaults on persons and property take place under the eyes of a police force that prefers, Scruton thunders, the agreeable task of persecuting mild-mannered motorists to that of protecting citizens in the pursuit of what is still a legal occupation.
This book will bring on its author’s head the abuse to which he has long been accustomed. But even the politically correct, if they have a shred of honesty, must acknowledge the intellectual power and literary elegance that distinguish it.