Icons of England
  • Introduction
  • The Icons
  • Nominations
  • News
  • Learn & Play
  • Your Comments

Fox-hunting and the Ban

Interview: Roger Scruton

Philosopher Roger Scruton is the author of "On Hunting: A Short Polemic" and a passionate defender of the English countryside. ICONS spoke to him.

Let’s start with your book, On Hunting. What motivated you to write it?


What motivated me was very simple – Rachel Cugnoni at Yellow Jersey Press said, 'Here is a contract and here is a cheque if you sign it' – the usual thing.


Yes, that sounds quite convincing.


What she wanted to do was to get people writing about the various sports who were not themselves professionally known for all this but nevertheless had abilities as writers. She got Alison [A.L.] Kennedy, for instance, to write about bull-fighting. And me about hunting.


But it’s obviously not random – it’s obviously something you feel strongly about.


Yes, I had written about it in the press, largely because of all the troubles, and the campaign to ban it, so I obviously leapt in to defend it, because – as I point out in the book – it became very important to me personally. I started building my life around it.


The main argument used against it is, of course, the cruelty argument. How can one argue against that?


Well, it’s such a difficult one, this; nobody can pretend – well, some people have pretended, but nobody should pretend – that foxes enjoy being pursued by a pack of hounds, because it’s obviously not true. But also nobody should pretend that if we don’t control fox populations in that way that we won’t do it in some other way, and the question is whether any other way would be better from the foxes’ point of view, and my view is – having looked at the matter from as many sides as possible – that it wouldn’t be better.


Presumably you can’t argue, though, that most fox-hunters are actually doing it for that reason?


No, no, of course not. It’s like anything else – it has an internal purpose and an external purpose. The internal purpose is one of population control, but the external purpose (which is much more important) is to follow along and enjoy it, which is of course what I do.


But there has to be a distinction presumably – whatever the incidental benefits such as population control – between enjoying something like that and something like, say, bear-baiting?


Yes, I think most people would recognise the difference; and indeed Parliament recognised the difference, because it expressly exempts chasing rabbits, rats with terriers, that sort of thing, from the legislation, because it recognises that this way of controlling pests is nothing to do with a spectator sport of watching animals being cruelly torn apart for the fun of it, which is essentially what bear-baiting is.


If there isn’t a moral core to the argument against it, and there isn’t a logical reason for the argument, what do you think does actually motivate the anti- movement?


Well, this is very relevant to your ICONS thing – what does I think primarily motivate people is hostility to Old England, and aspects of Old England which my father, for instance – whom I describe in the book on hunting – took great exception to: the squirearchy, the idea of the countryside as a settled and socially hierarchical place, the uniform, people being on their high horses looking down on us, and of course the old English Puritanism that can’t bear the sight of anybody else’s pleasure. It is an icon of the old class structure of the English countryside, and England in all its iconic versions is the countryside. Even in the 19th-century novel, apart from Dickens, you’ll find the English countryside is the central character – in George Eliot, in Trollope, in Surtees, obviously, and also in the poets; and fox-hunting in all those novels is described as the moral heart of it, not because of any particular thing to do with hunting of foxes but to do with the social ambience which it represents. And I think that that’s why people are hostile to it, because there is a huge current of repudiation, if you like, of the Old English image in modern England. But then those people who do it are also often very moved by that old icon and want to belong to it.


Many campaigners for fox-hunting insist, though, that nowadays it’s not a class issue any longer, no longer the preserve of the élite but practiced by very different sorts of people – that at least in class terms it doesn’t represent that split now…


Yes, I think actually if you read what Trollope writes about it, he already says this; and indeed Surtees, who was the greatest celebrator of hunting in literature, his hero, Mr John Jorrocks, who’s MFH [Master of Fox Hounds], is a Cockney grocer who’s made good. And from the beginning people recognised that fox-hunting – precisely because it requires the co-operation of all classes (if you’re to rampage across everybody’s territory) is a social melting-pot. It doesn’t follow from that that it’s totally classless, or doesn’t have some vestige of the old class idea. For one thing it’s totally imbued with a spirit of politeness and formality; it’s one of the last episodes not only where you wear a uniform, but you lift your hat to people, everybody greets each other in a formal way, the Master is addressed as ‘Master’, even if he’s a woman, and so on. Those are vestiges of an old way of doing things which people I think find very appealing.


Since you wrote the book, the ban has come into force; but the argument doesn’t seem to have stopped, it’s just as vehement as ever. Do you think the debate has changed, though? Have the terms of the debate changed?


The debate goes on partly because people – certainly fox-hunting people – just have not accepted the law; we’ve finally got a test case on at the moment, I gather… But they are still hoping that it’s either unenforceable or will be repealed; obviously if it proves to be unenforceable it very likely will be repealed at some stage. So for that reason I think the debate still goes on. And the terms have changed in a way because it became very clear towards the end of the debate that popular sentiment is not behind a ban. It’s not necessarily against it either, but it’s not the huge, electrifying issue that the Labour Party originally thought it would be.


Perhaps the vast majority of people frankly don’t feel strongly one way or another?


I think they don’t have a strong feeling about the issue, but they do have a strong feeling that Parliament wasted a hell of a lot of time – debating this for 320 hours, and the Iraq War for 18 – doesn’t look very good to the mass of people, I think. So I suspect that people think, God, this is an obsession on the part of a minority of agitators that we really ought to grow up and beyond.


One way of moving beyond it would be to repeal the law, of course, and saying be done with it, yes; but another would surely be to enforce it, to do it properly. There’s surely no solution less satisfactory than the law remaining unenforced?


Yes, if it can be enforced. But the Hunting Act as you know does not define hunting; it’s a crime to hunt a wild mammal with a dog, but it doesn’t define either the word ‘hunt’ or the word ‘with’, which is crucial when you come to look at how the evidence could be collected. But anyway, that’s a technical point, and you’d have to see. There is another matter; it is difficult to go on enforcing a law against a substantial minority of people who are normal, law-abiding people and who also have an awful lot of social power; and that could prove a difficulty in the long run.


Do you mean it might end up being a war of attrition, just waiting to see who gives up first?


Yes, I wonder if that might happen…

So, do you agree? For a very different view on this controversial subject, read what Ann Widdecombe had to say, here.