Article update: The government has now pulled the foxhunting vote until after the debate on English Votes for English Laws.
Britain's animal rights debate is just a mechanism for talking about class. What other way is there to explain the staggering levels of muddled-thinking and contradiction which are contained within it?
Tomorrow's Commons debate on whether to increase the number of dogs allowed to flush out a fox – a relatively technical legal change which would win no press attention at all if it were a normal bit of legislation - is being accompanied by protests outside parliament, frenzied behind-closed-door talks and acres of press coverage.
And most of the people expressing such outrage at the very idea of foxhunting will then go to a café or a supermarket and actively participate in a meat industry where the most extraordinary level of suffering takes place, without for a moment considering the contradiction.
It is said that foxhunting is particularly cruel, but is it really? Certainly numerous inquiries have failed to demonstrate that, although the Burns inquiry did contribute to the gaiety of the nation by concluding that hunting with dogs "seriously compromises" the welfare of the fox. Yep, thanks for that. What a good use of your time.
Foxhunting involves one set of animals chasing and killing another animal. Surely that happens in the wild all the time. Unless we're going to set up a police task force to prosecute animals for not following the European Convention on Human Rights it seems a weird point to make. Is it really so much crueller than breeding animals in factories, with no room their entire lives, in an existence based solely on providing another being with a burger, before electrocuting or stunning them, and shredding them into various commodities? Would the fox, which will kill all the chickens he can get his paws on, recognise the difference?
We see the same thing with fur. Assuming an animal has been killed humanely and is not endangered, is it really so much worse to wear it than it is to eat it? What exactly explains that moral distinction? And why does it not apply to leather, which everyone seems to wear without much concern?
It cannot be a coincidence that the two examples of animal treatment which garner the most outrage – foxhunting and fur – are conspicuous examples of upper class culture. Animal rights are like house prices. We claim to be talking about one thing, but really we're talking about class. Quite probably, in this country, we're always talking about class but only rarely realise it.
If you work hard you can unpick some strands of moral consistency, although it’s harder to imagine a law which reflects them.
The first thing to recognise is that almost all of us believe animals can be used by humans and that includes being killed. We are not likely to ban meat-eating any time soon. If we're prepared to kill animals for food then one would need a strong argument for why it is wrong to kill them for clothing.
If we're prepared to use animals for food and clothing, then presumably we'd definitely be prepared to use them for medical advancement. So there are three areas we can put to one side: Food, clothing and medical research. These should obviously be done as humanely as possible and according to the highest ethical standards, but if we are not prepared to ban meat-eating, it follows that these other uses for an animal should be allowed too.
Cosmetics, unlike food, clothing and medicine, is not essential and most people seem to feel that makes it qualitatively different. You rarely hear anyone protesting that the regulations around it are too severe.
But then we come to hunting. The distinction here is surely that the act of killing the animal is the pleasure. Sure, it's dressed up in the need for pest control, but those red coats and horns and the sheer culture-war tribal pride of the thing suggests these guys are definitely getting some sort of kick out of it.
And indeed that's what always proves so perplexing about hunters themselves, from the foxhunters to those people you see posing with a dead lion in some outraged anti-hunting post on Facebook. They enjoy the suffering of another being. It is not a side-effect – it seems to be the motive. That suggests they are, to some degree, psychopaths. Perhaps they are capable of empathising with humans, but there is certainly some limitation on their ability to empathise with animals.
All hunting for pleasure, whether it be foxes, deer, pheasants or elephants, seems fundamentally barbaric. So why not ban it entirely? Because to do so would ban those who go fishing for their evening meal, or who eat the animal they kill. And it would be a strange world where the hunter who kills for his dinner is banned while the factory-processed meat industry is allowed to thrive. The hunt is not what really concerns us, the purpose of the hunt is.
One could imagine a law which said something like 'one cannot hurt or kill an animal where the sole purpose of doing so is the pleasure taken in the act'. But that seems so full of problems: Which animals are included? Would flies count? How about rats? And if not rats, then why guinea pigs? Would we base the distinction on animal intelligence, or size? None of that would work. And how would pleasure be proven in court? Would police follow them trying to get a photo of them smiling? What about the man who goes fishing and fails to eat all the fish he caught? Would we have government inspectors picking through his bins for uneaten fish?
Animal rights are a mess and it's hard to see any really consistent way to turn. So instead we are left with this angry, class-ridden confusion in which we lash out at fox hunting because it's done by posh psychopaths and consider the image of a man fishing somehow idyllic. But even if they are posh psychopaths, you can't blame the foxhunters for feeling that they are being targeted for their class. That is exactly what is happening.