Friday, 12 August 2011

Shooting and the new class system

Shooters run the country, I'm glad to say. The British establishment is warmly pro-fieldsports. But don't take that as guaranteed.
Royal backing for shooting sports is a given, you would have thought. But should we take it for granted? And does it matter these days? Or are the royals no longer important? Two events that occurred within a week of each other gave us the answers to these questions, which go to the heart of the British way of life. One was the engagement of Prince William to Kate Middleton and the other a speech given by the Duke of Edinburgh to shooters.
The first question, about royal support for shooting, was answered fully by the press during the fluff that followed the royal engagement. We all know that Prince William is a keen stalker and his brother a keen game shot. The newspapers concluded and one of them even predicted that the Middleton parents’ invitation to Balmoral to go stalking sounded a note as loud as Westminster Abbey’s wedding bells.
Kate will oneday be Queen Catherine and Kate is a shooter. This is important – not because her name will be taught in schools for generations to come but - because when it comes to sport shooting, the newspapers, led by the BBC, often adopt an overly-laborious way of explaining it to readers, as much as to say that shooting is against the natural order of things. Kate shoots, which is an easy shorthand that explains shooting sports to the wider public.
There is a rot in the press over guns, as any of us who have worked in the shooting industry over the last 32 years will have spotted. Newspapers often take not just a consciously anti-gun stance but one which shows a cultural gulf between the chattering classes and shooters. You will notice that whenever the newspapers play their annual joke of sending their least likely young writers to try out pheasant shooting for a feature article, those writers play up to the gag by giving overblown explanations of the guns and the sport. They do this partly in order to distance themselves from it. Yet these are the same writers who can write comfortably about criminal shooting.
Next - the words of Prince Philip, the thinking royal-watcher’s crumpet. On a visit to BASC’s Marford Mill headquarters, he said that the media is the second most important establishment of state. I assumed he would say the royal family is the most important. But he doesn’t - and he goes on to say that he doesn’t know whether politics is more important than media or not. That doesn’t much matter. Whether he believes it’s (1) royals, (2) media and (3) politics or (1) politics, (2) media and royals are over and above this tawdry ranking, he makes an admission that redraws British social boundaries in just a couple of sentences.
What Prince Philip is talking about is who runs society in Britain and what society is. We all know what it was. In 1947, when he married Princess Elizabeth, society was class-based (as Ronnie Barker said in the 1960s, standing between Ronnie Corbett and John Cleese: “I look up to him because he is upper-class; but I look down on him because he is lower-class”) and it was run by politicians with a solid ‘establishment’ background. Establishment in those days had a lot to do with the landed aristocracy.
The class system was Britain’s shariah law - it helped keep order but it had drawbacks. Between the 1980s and today, it has been replaced.
Today, we have a system based on people either having privilege, comfort or discomfort. People are defined by how they live and, perhaps worryingly, what they own.
Where does this leave the royals? There’s a vicious darwinism attached to being a royal. They are always at the mercy of events. So the Romanovs ran out of luck in revolutionary Russia just as the Grimaldis in Monte Carlo lucked out by owning the casino. Our modern royals emerged from being what may now be described as gang bosses in the 15th century, through being the leaders of military juntas, to being emperors and now having to find a new role. At worst, that will be as spokespeople for the privileged classes. But I think they are going to do better than that.
Our royals have always managed to keep a foot in the other classes. For the working classes, they have put on super events such as the plucky Queen Mum visiting the East End while German bombs rained down. The middle classes have been the toughest nut for the royals to crack. Now that Kate Middleton has joined up, they can claim the middle classes as stakeholders in a right royal future. Prince Philip is right to have royals at the top of the pile.
The thing some worry about is how to carve up the hierarchy beneath the royals. The old staple of the belted earl no longer exists. As privilege replaces upper classes, perhaps we will see a (more honest) system whereby everyone who owns a helicopter gets a peerage. It’s almost at that stage already.
I think what Prince Philip is talking about is a period of fantastic social mobility - and we are living through it right now. Like a train, it is heading in one direction. It could be derailed but the direction will remain the same.
What this rather rambly article is leading to is a conclusion that the shooting industry has a good social basis for growth. Despite considerable class turbulence, Britain will continue to respect a system where the royals are our ‘first family’. Top down, the class system will change from being aristocratic to an oligarchy based on wealth. It will not be meritocratic as many newspapers suggest unless we believe that money equals merit.
As long as we actively introduce new people to our sport, shooters will continue to run the country. Shooting will continue to be an aspirational sport. The antis will continue to snap at the heels of shooting and will continue to inflict cuts on the sport via Home Affairs Select Committees and others, but they will remain outside the mainstream of this new establishment.

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