Elmar Stracke – The City of London versus the countryside, progressives versus traditionalists, regulation versus freedom from state intrusion, egalitarianism versus elitism – different societal cleavages can be used to explain the UK election results. All of them materialise in a very peculiar British controversy: the fox hunt legislation.
Conservative Attempts to Re-Legalise Fox Hunting
Foxes occasionally greet you in the streets of most English cities, or when they appear in the newspapers as an electoral topic. The Conservative Party has opposed the ban on fox hunting since it was introduced by the UK parliament in 2004. Last month, Theresa May reaffirmed her personal support for the sport and a new vote on the ban for the following three reasons. First, the perception of fox hunting as a symbol of British culture aligns well with the government’s Brexit-driven narrative of the UK’s identity and uniqueness. Second, libertarians and traditionalists perceive the ban as unnecessary state intrusion, which opposes the Conservative’s ideal of a small government – especially given their feeling that a detached London determines the life of rural communities that it does not understand. Activists even challenged the ban in court for breaching human rights and individual freedom, although unsuccessfully. And third, yes, for some people it is actually about the participation in fox hunting, but only some 50,000 people used to compete in the sport regularly before it was banned.
Fox Hunting – Politics for the Establishment
In a traditional fox hunt a pack of dogs would be sent into the woods to trace the smell of foxes, hunt them down and kill them. Depending on which political side one asks, fox hunting is either unnecessarily cruel, or natural and rooted in tradition. The hunting of foxes is challenging for the participants and gave birth to many equestrian sports. Since fox hunting traditionally required the necessary estates, the means to afford the dogs, horses, equipment, and assistant personnel, only noblemen took part in the hunts. To break with a tradition that is considered elitist and class-dividing was certainly a driving factor when it was outlawed in England and Wales in 2004 under Tony Blair for reasons of animal protection. May’s lobbying efforts for a reversal of the ban therefore clearly favours the politics of the rich and noble.
A Vulpine Backlash
Yet, on this issue, the general public is not as traditional as the Conservatives expected. While support for the ban has hung around 50% in the last decade, now every single region in England, Wales and Scotland – however rural and far away from London they are – supports the ban by margins between 8% and 26%. 64% of the all British citizens support the ban, and even among the Tory voters, only 16% would support a re-legalisation. This would not have posed a threat to May’s campaign if the voters simply did not care about a topic that does arguably not affect the everyday life of most citizens. Yet, due to its elitist and overly traditionalist symbolic character, it was indeed relevant to many voters and, arguably was decisive in in some contested constituencies: 50% of the voters said they were "less likely" and 27% even "very much less likely" to vote for candidates supporting fox hunting. This drove the election results towards the eventual Tory minority and away from a 50 seats majority that the fox hunting supporters needed for a re-legalisation.
Politics of Division or Coherence
May failed to unite the country behind her in these elections, putting neither herself nor her government in a “strong and stable” position, particularly with regards to the commencing Brexit negotiations. It seems that even the Conservatives themselves came to understand that the fox hunt would only divide the country further. Right after the disastrous elections the government sheepishly confirmed that they would not pursue the topic any more and that it is not one of their ‘priorities’ for now. In the light of Brexit, the most recent London attacks and the Grenfell tower catastrophe, Downing Street will be busy trying to bridge societal trenches. For the time being there is no more political will nor capital – and even less of a popular mandate – to reheat historical divides in British society through this peculiar British controversy, which disproportionately caters to a marginal number of elites.
This blog post is part of a blog series about the UK General Election by the emerging think tank Agora in London. Agora will be launched in autumn 2017 as part of the foraus-global network of open think tanks.