“How many people do you know who own a shotgun?” I asked John first because he lives in rural East Anglia, a situation more or less comparable to mine. “None,” he replied. The same answer came back from a handful of other friends in England. Here in La Borelière, where there are only fifty dwellings, I know at least three men who have a gun and two of them have the dog or dogs to go with it. At a conservative estimate I would say there are another 100-150 among the commune’s population of 3,150. Even in Paris, I knew a couple of keen chasseurs. Hunting in rural France is very much an activité populaire — not ‘popular’ in the English sense but, straight from the Latin, ‘of the people’.
This is not the case in England. I don’t say that on the basis of my straw poll alone; if it were the case then you could bet your old walking boots that gun licences would cost a whole lot more than they do.
The difference between the two cultures is largely explained by the French Revolution, which resulted in the nobles’ vast estates being broken up and distributed to the peasantry, whereas in England the estates remain intact and their owners (old money or new) control the hunting rights. Not surprisingly the already-über-rich exploit those rights to the full, charging the merely-very-rich hideous sums of money for the dubious privilege of shooting at tame birds over champagne and caviare butties.
Cameron’s decision to leave the 5-year gun licence fee at £50, where it’s been frozen since 2001, may be insignificant as far as the Exchequer is concerned, but symbolically it speaks volumes. The rich rule, OK? The fees we pay for passports and driving licences are calculated on the basis of the full, real cost of producing and administering them. If the same method were applied to gun licence fees they would cost £200. Cue howls of indignation from the holders of Swiss bank accounts. But we’re talking about an extra thirty quid a year, for God’s sake — less than the price of one ounce of caviare!
As political decisions go, this one is shockingly clumsy and Cameron deserves all the flak he will get. It looks petty and petulant and his aides should have talked him out of it. But I don’t think it is merely clumsy. I think it’s shockingly cynical — just one more illustration of the fact that fair-and-reasonable doesn’t even get a look in: government is conducted by the rich, for the rich, and the rest of us can go to hell. The thing is they don’t even bother to hide it any more.