Claire Fox (no relation) enjoyed a day out with the hunting fraternity at the Countryside Rally on 10 July
Gamekeepers turned poachers
I don't often go on demos with the former nanny to Princes William and Harry, so it was somewhat disconcerting to find myself alongside Tiggy Legge-Bourke amid an eclectic mix of celebrities, conservationists, sportsmen, huntsmen in full hunting dress, farmers and countryside workers. They had all converged on Hyde Park to oppose the Wild Mammals (Hunting with Dogs) Bill, put forward by Worcester's new Labour MP Mike Foster to bring about a ban on hunting.
While I could not say I felt at home, there was something uplifting about 100 000 people taking a stand against New Labour's bans and restrictions on personal freedom. But it was also very, very strange.
To see the Countryside Rally was to know that it means nothing to label yourself left wing or right wing today. Who would want to be seen dead with the 'left': a rather feeble counter-demonstration of 100 or so Hunt sabbers waving placards reading 'Hunt scum do it for fun'. (And fun is for fascists in these puritanical times.) To be left wing these days means to demand that the government bans hunting and regulates, intervenes in and criminalises many other areas of life. On the other hand, opposing the ban on hunting means hobnobbing with the kind of people you would normally only giggle at.
Despite the best intentions of the organisers to give a classless feel to the day, you knew that many of these people were from a different world. Many had rarely been to London except to visit the club or drop in on the Harrods sale. One told of the terror of travelling down on a packed coach and realising that none of them had ever travelled on the tube - where was it, and how did one get tickets? Lady Jane Benson, daughter of the Earl of Lonsdale and Joint Master of the Ullswater Hunt may have been 'just another t-shirt in the crowd', but the fact that she hunts much of the Lowther Estate, her family's 76 000 acres, made her an unlikely victim of oppression. The most stirring speech of the day in defence of freedom was given by Lady Mallalieu, a Labour peer dressed in a red frock coat who 'rides out with the Devon and Somerset Stag Hounds and the Bicester Hunt' and was the living embodiment of Baroness Tallyho.
Much of it felt like it had been transported from a different era. There was an un-nineties absence of political correctness, with one of the organisers encouraging my colleague to wear a badge 'on that lovely bosom of yours' while the Daily Telegraph's country writer RWF Poole boomed through the microphone: 'I am pig sick of weirds with beards of both sexes assaulting me.' Meanwhile Lady Mallalieu finished her speech with a quote from Henry V addressing another militant minority: 'We few, we happy few, we band of brothers' on the eve of that 'other great historic battle' - Agincourt.
Perhaps the most bizarre thing was the way the toffs attempted to dumb down their sport by appealing to a workerist populism. On the question of defending jobs, much use was made of traditional left-wing arguments, none of which quite washed. The clearest indication that the organisers of the Countryside Rally had not quite got the workers bit right was the prominence given to Neil Greatrex, President of the Union of Democratic Mineworkers (UDM). The UDM, remember, was an organisation set up by the employers to destroy miners' trade unionism. Such is the political confusion of the 1990s that even Greatrex can sound like Arthur Scargill today. Greatrex's rather militant speech urging the crowd not to trust politicians because 'most of them lie more than a busload of poachers', and his wistful regret that 'I wish I'd got you lot behind me when they shut our pits down in 1992' led to resounding cheers from the crowd.
There was something of the Scargill in other speakers' calls to arms. Sam Butler, an estate agent, and one of the organisers of the marches issued the threat that 'if politicians ignore what has been happening here they do so at their peril'. David Jones, a professional huntsman warned that, 'This is the last peaceful march and the last peaceful rally' and was rewarded with wild applause. Auberon Waugh called the anti-hunting bill a 'declaration of war' and threatened among other things that country people would 'poison the water supply' in retaliation. Even the Sun never accused Arthur of going that far.
Despite the political confusions, incongruities and eccentricities, I enjoyed it. By contrast with the tired and shambolic rituals of traditional left-wing demos, it was well organised, fresh, and filled with an excitement that I have not seen for a long time. Speakers were listened to and cheered vigorously, chanting was spontaneous and there was real debate about the issues thrown up by the proposed ban.
The call for freedom expressed by many in Hyde Park was very contemporary, compelling and rare. For 100 000 people to object passionately to the 'odious interference' and the 'moralising intolerance' of the New Labour establishment was as refreshing as the recog-nition that legalisation should be informed by more than public distaste. There was an important kernel of truth here, and one which needs to be made more generally than in a debate about fox-hunting.
Unfortunately, the only thing I had in common with anybody at the rally was our mutual opposition to a government ban. The majority of those in Hyde Park wore their narrow-minded, bigoted and parochial views as proudly as their 'I was there...10th July 1997' badges, and were far more keen on turning the clock back than changing the world. That I would rather be defending freedom with real-life Ambridge than anywhere near a traditional lefty demo shows how much more narrow-minded, bigoted and parochial you have to be to call for the 'left-wing' bans that seem so popular in politics today.
Reproduced from LM issue 103, September 1997