Horses for Courses

Glen Newey

As the saying goes, horses for courses – and now, if the Princess Royal gets her way, those courses will include not just Aintree or Newmarket, but first and main, possibly served with horseradish sauce or horse chestnuts. Princess Anne, as she used to be known before she was upgraded to Princess Royal as one in the eye for Diana, declared last week that horse should be on the menu again, notwithstanding the brouhaha earlier this year over horse meat. Times are hard: food is dear. So the proles can't afford Tesco value sausage? Let them eat horse.

But the rationale for the Princess Royal's recent intervention in public debate, after a well-judged silence spanning several decades, wasn't that, with supermarket sirloin selling at around £20 a kilo, the hard-pressed yeomanry might sit down after a day's horny-handed toil to a plate of Clydesdale and chips. Anne's thought, which takes some unpicking, was that instead of their traditional post-knackery careers in pet food, farm and riding-stable nags could be dispatched to Waitrose for the benefit of the horses themselves.

As an argument, it's strikingly similar to the claim that slavery benefited black people, who were supposedly better treated as chattels than wage-labourers were because the owners had an interest in looking after them. The idea of eating something for its own good takes a bit of swallowing. Few would buy the parallel argument about human beings. Cannibals make unlikely bleeding-heart liberals. On the other hand, eating horses so that we can be nice to them is a safely uncontroversial proposition that British bosoms can be banked on to echo.

Thus is the mystical bond between the better sort and the man's second best friend reaffirmed. With the royals, the mystical bond lies in guff about pedigree: they really do seem to see themselves as like up-bred horses. After surviving an attempted assault in Australia with the help of his bodyguards, Prince Charles put his unflappable reaction down to ‘a thousand years of breeding’ – an idiosyncratic way of describing the royals' genealogical progress through homicide, serial monogamy, cousin marriage, religious bigotry, bigamy and lunacy. In the minds of the nobs and their hangers-on like Debrett's, all the eugenic crap about bloodlines and thoroughbreeding transplants seamlessly from horse to human.

You are what you tell other people to eat. Anne didn’t say if she’d feasted on any of her own superannuated jades. Still, she came close to having a point. As far as anybody knows, no one's on record as having said, during the horse meat furore earlier this year: ‘Jesus wept! This beef lasagne tastes of horse!’ So there seems no good gastronomic reason for not guzzling the full gamut of nag pie, piebald rissole or, up at the Heston Blumenthal end of the market, Appaloosa coulis with a Lipizzaner sorbet. During the war the British put away their dobbin sentimentality along with goodly helpings of butchered horse – sometimes, admittedly, masquerading as cow, but often out and proud as stiff mare. For Icelanders, the French and us Belgians, it's a regular menu feature. It can taste pretty good. The guano in the guacamole is that few British people want to eat it, even if it looks and tastes much like beef, because it’s dangerously close to tucking into one’s dog or guinea pig (a staple in the Andes). Still, it takes advanced chutzpah or dullness to speechify on the question while ignoring food poverty and the supermarket supply-chain jiggery-pokery that first gave the scandal legs.