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Thu 18 July 2019
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Iain Overton’s personal take on where power has always resided in Britain – and why the horse is its ultimate symbol.

Jeremy Hunt’s short-lived announcement that he would bring back fox-hunting as Prime Minister was not just a kick in the face for a liberal, metropolitan Britain – one already being dragged off the cliff-face of Brexit – but part of a wider lurch to the nationalistic right.

You see this nationalism everywhere. For, whereas imperialism inevitably looks towards the future, nationalism has its eyes firmly planted on the past.

It is there in Nigel Farage’s tweed suits and his pints of bitter, in Gavin Williamson’s Twitter picture depicting a perfect cricket pitch at the height of summer, in the Tory Party’s image of an oak tree. All speak of a yearning for a bygone past: of village fetes and where honey is still for tea.

On the surface, there is nothing wrong with this love for the pastoral, but when it infuses political life, it mutates and becomes something else.

Brexit is an act of profound conservatism – rooted in a longing for the past, where hunting is re-established, nationalism flourishes and the true seats of power in Britain are preserved.

Hunt, living up to his name in seeking a return to blood-sports, is reverting to one of the most enduring icons of the British Establishment: the master on his horse.

The Establishment’s enduring love affair with that image runs deep. The horror of the national press when it was discovered that eastern European horsemeat had entered into our food chain in 2013 was not, at its heart, about the danger of eating that form of meat. Rather, it was an insult to a set of values that have become ingrained in British society. You only need to go to the National Gallery to see George Stubbs’ iconic painting of the horse Whistlejacket to see how deep-rooted that love affair is: few other national galleries have such a dominant icon.

At the very heart of this debate is the rarely asked question: why do the British not eat horsemeat? Simply put, it is because we have not had the sort of seismic revolutions that have toppled Europe’s elites.


Yes, there are arguments that our enduring love affair for the horse – and all it represents – might stem from pre-Roman religious belief systems.

But, there are plenty of nomadic cultures that once venerated the horse, but whose modern ancestors do not shy from consuming it.

Rather, the horse in British culture has taken on a unique status that is deeply entwined in the preservation of privileged power. It is no mistake that the word chivalry – a notion so beloved by the ruling knights of medieval England – was born from the French noun cheval, or horse. The knight on horseback – the most powerful figure on the battlefield – enforced his privilege and status through brute force.

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Over time, the violence that the horse (the medieval version of the modern day tank) represented to the serfs of Britain, mutated into a less explicit but more entrenched power.

It is there in the Queen’s stables, in the Army’s elite Cavalry Regiments, in the Conservative Party’s love affair for the fox-hunt. It is there, embedded in high society’s ‘Season’ with Royal Ascot, the Cheltenham Gold Cup, Badminton Horse Trials, the Grand National, the Royal Windsor Horse Show, the Epsom Derby, Glorious Goodwood and Cartier Queen’s Cup. There in the fact that the 12th Duke of Devonshire served as the Queen’s representative at Ascot and was the senior steward of the Jockey Club – a man who is worth an estimated £800 million.

From medieval royal pageants where jousting took centre stage, to the modern day attempt of Tory politicians to bring back hunting, the horse has been a fundamental icon of the elites of Britain. They are an elite of 1% that owns half of England. They are an elite who, despite political attempts to dilute their power – through death duties or universal suffrage – have endured. One that has 92 hereditary seats in the House of Lords. One where, at the start of this century, the descendants of the Plantagenet kings were estimated to be worth some £4 billion, owning 700,000 acres.

The elite’s enduring power is marked. Of today’s 24 non-royal dukes, half went to Eton. So, too, did our future king, Prince William, along with Brexiteer Boris Johnson, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the editor of the pro-Brexit Daily Mail, the chief of the general staff, and a number of current and previous Law Lords.

Why do the British not eat horsemeat? Simply put, it is because we have not had the sort of seismic revolutions that have toppled Europe’s elites.

The pillars of state: royalty, politics, church, law and the press are all there. It is of no surprise that that school boasts a polo team.

So, while Anne Widdecome MEP might rail at the European Parliament, claiming that Brexit is an act of rebellion of “slaves against their owners… the peasantry against the feudal barons”, the truth is that Brexit is an act of profound conservatism – rooted in a longing for the past, where hunting is re-established, nationalism flourishes and the true seats of power in Britain are preserved.

A Brexit that, at its heart, rejects Europe’s consumption of horsemeat, along with the European appetite for social revolution.

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