I can date quite precisely the end of my Britain and the beginning of somebody else’s: 1 August 2002 in Scotland and 18 February 2005 in England and Wales. These were the dates on which traditional hunting was outlawed. I’m not rehearsing here the arguments for and against hunting. My point is that these dates pulled the pin from four definitive political and social grenades. Pin out, lob, count to five and bang, Britain was reshaped.

First, the abolition of hunting was a key marker in the shift from a tolerant, broad-based society towards the intolerant constrictions of identity politics. On those abolition dates, “I don’t like or understand what you do but I respect your right to carry on doing it’ surrendered to “I don’t like or understand what you do so I’m going to stop you doing it”. The surrender was neither complete nor instant, but it was irreversible and led, in the end, to cancel culture.  

Secondly, until the abolition of hunting, we, and, say, Gaston Phoebus (1331-1391) shared an understanding of the natural world as red in tooth and claw. We also accepted that although man is possessed of reason, he was part of that red in tooth and claw world. In this respect, Gaston’s world and our world, though dissimilar in many ways, were still recognisable one to the other. Outlawing hunting sundered those two worlds. On one side, man as part of nature and naturally one of nature’s hunters; on the other, man above nature, and adopting the mantle of nature’s (selective) guardian. 

Thirdly, abolishing hunting contributed to the general decline in appreciation of the virtues integral to it: endurance, agility, thinking on your feet, tolerating without complaint extreme physical discomfort (rain trickling inside boots; frozen fingers) and, as Alphonso XI of Castile (1312-1350) neatly put it, the strength of character to “conceal one’s fear”. Hunting generated and consolidated these virtues, particularly the last because hunting wasn’t “safe”. Where I hunted, everything was unpredictable: the weather and terrain as well as the walls, gates and straggly hedges over which, if you wanted to keep up with the hounds, you blindly leaped, usually landing in a bog. Post-reform hunting is more measured. Runs are controlled, sometimes prearranged; obstacles tidier, bogs avoided. My hunting coat and bowler would look prehistoric in these days of body protector and skull cap. And what need to “conceal one’s fear” if what generated the fear – the unpredictability, the hovering of catastrophe – has been neutered?

Hunting on a horse is always a risky business but the risks in today’s hunting are much diminished. Of course, since only a tiny percentage of the British population went hunting, the abolition of real hunting didn’t trigger our current paranoia about danger and our obsession with safety. But if it was possible to count how many times the word “safe” was used before real hunting hit the buffers and how many times afterwards, the result would be a clear win for the safety-firsters. 

Fourthly, the abolition of hunting pitched all animals, not just hunted animals, into cuddly toy territory. Naturally, pets have always been much loved members of the family, and though hounds make rotten domestic companions, individual hounds have been equally loved. Prince John of Portugal (1537-1554) slept between his two favourites. Horses, too, have a special place in British hearts. Hanging in my study is a lovely portrait my grandmother commissioned of her beloved hunter, and the fate of the horses conscripted for use in the First World War exercised the British public as much as the welfare of returning soldiers. But it’s only since the abolition of hunting that I’ve been aware of vets calling owners “mum and dad”, with pets’ deaths morphing from sad, often very sad but natural life-events, into full-blown tragedies requiring time off work and therapy.

So, four grenades detonated by the abolition of hunting. Perhaps I should add another. Though hunting has always had its fair share of thrusters and shovers, idiots and felons, real hunting prescribed rules, manners and etiquette. These were not flummery. They expressed the respect demanded by hunting’s open and unambiguous purpose – the killing, by hounds, of quarry. If you flouted the rules by overrunning the hounds, you would be sent home; if you were mannerless – barging, shouting – ditto. But rules, manners and etiquette have an empty ring when their underpinning has vanished. The purpose of post-abolition hunting is muddled, so flummery trumps authenticity, thus furthering the cause of Great British Fakery. 

Hunting as I knew it was supposed to say something bad about us, but didn’t it also say something good? Pre-abolition hunting was a genuine sport; a truthful sport with clear aims. Its demise ceded power to intolerance, severed us from nature, advanced “no risk” culture, boosted animal sentimentality and undermined authenticity. Perhaps these consequences are commendable aspects of man’s civilising evolution.

Perhaps somebody else’s Britain is a better Britain than my Britain. And after all, the rupture may not be so radical. Gaston Phoebus’s observation that “men desyren to leve long in this world in helthe and in joye” is still relevant. But wait. “And therefore be ye alle hunters,” he continued, “and ye shal do as wise men.” Was he onto something? Along with everything else, did the abolition of hunting make us stupid? Maybe, but maybe that’s what somebody else’s Britain prefers.

 Katie Grant is a novelist and political thinker.

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