Whose country is it anyway? Part II – hunters, farmers and Brexiteers

In 2002, there was an acrimonious split between British country and city people. Here's what happened, why it mattered and why we're still living with the consequences

September 23rd, 2002. The day the story of the United Kingdom in the 21st century really began. 

On that day, 400,000 protestors arrived in London for the Liberty and Livelihood mass protest.

Not many Britons will recognise that name today. Say the ‘Countryside Alliance march’, however, and they’ll know what you mean. 

The Countryside Alliance was, and still is, a very effective lobbying outfit. It was founded just weeks after the 1997 General Election which ended 18 years of Conservative rule and brought Tony Blair to power. He coasted to a second, huge majority in 2001. This time, his all-but-unassailable Government was committed to enacting a manifesto promise: to ban fox hunting and other ‘field sports’. 

The ban was the spur for the September 23 protest: but the name ‘Liberty and Livelihood’ was deliberately chosen to goad a progressive, left-of-centre Labour government led by ‘Townie Tony’. They were protesting on behalf of country people they passionately believed were being marginalised by a cosmopolitan elite and a suburbanised, sentimental citizenry that knew little and cared less for its rural traditions.

The fact they were marching was also a jolt to the national psyche. Here were gamekeepers and lords, landowners and farmers, using the preferred medium of fringe and far left groups – the march, the placard, the megaphone –  to protest against a rigged system, an Establishment that locked them out. 

I was in the centre of town that day. My office was close to Leicester Square. I went out for a walk. 

The square and the surrounding area around Piccadilly is the hub of touristic London. On this damp day, the streets, pedestrianised areas and souvenir shops were the usual multi-coloured carnival of waterproofs and trainers and jeans worn by people from all over the globe. Their fluorescent oranges and blues and reds stood out against the grey skies and red brick buildings.

I walked down Haymarket to Pall Mall. The road was closed. In place of the traffic, there was a river of brown, green and khaki. The Liberty and Livelihood protestors marched in a tight phalanx towards Westminster, clad head to toe in their country uniforms: tweed caps and corduroy trousers, Barbour jackets and Tattershall shirts. 

Not since the week after  Princess Diana’s death had London felt so electric and unstable: as then, a very British sort of insurrection was in the air. 

Culture wars, UK-style

The then Opposition Party leader, Ian Duncan Smith, went on the march. He vowed that a future Tory  government would make parliamentary time for a debate to repeal any anti-hunting legislation. 

But he was a feeble leader of an enfeebled opposition. It’s hard, looking back now at that high summer of Blairism, before the second Gulf War, to believe how marginalised the Conservatives (or ‘Tories’) were. There was serious talk of the Tories, Britain’s ‘natural party of government’ being out of power for a generation. Multiculturalism was our new credo. We threw open the doors to new immigrants, especially from Europe. The battles over membership of the European Union seemed, like that stream of protestors on September 23rd, to belong to a different era.  

The Hunting Act became law in 2004. 

It didn’t take the Conservative Party a generation to get back into power. They won (sort of) in 2010 with a Tony Blair impersonator with a blue rosette; and they have been winning ever since. 

But despite being in power for over a decade now, the Conservatives still haven’t found the time to grant that debate Duncan Smith promised. 

The then Prime Minister Theresa May (see below) promised a free vote in 2015, only for it to be quietly shelved three years later.

To be fair, she had quite a lot of other things on her plate. 

Still, why has the ban not been debated, let alone repealed?

The Countryside Alliance has marshalled a lot of effective arguments in favour of controlling the fox population (especially) through hunting. What they couldn’t, and would never seek to deny, is that foxhunting, hare coursing and the rest are ‘sports’.

The idea of mammals being chased, terrified and torn apart for sport, for fun, if you like, is not something the majority of voters in 2021 can stomach, however much that sport has been part of British traditional life for centuries. For the Tories, now under Boris Johnson, a former mayor of cosmopolitan, multicultural London, there are only votes to be lost and wounds to be reopened by sponsoring another debate on country sports. 

Boris and bull: not grabbing it by the horns

Besides, many of the protestors moved on to a different cause: Brexit. 

Different issues. You might suppose that the farmers and big landowners would be in favour of remaining within the EU, given the generous subsidies and guaranteed income they’d enjoyed down the years. They – especially those East Anglian mega-farms I wrote about last time – have also benefitted from a reliable of cheap Eastern European labour thanks to the EU’s freedom of movement acts.

But whatever you say about Brexiteers, it’s hard to argue that they ever campaigned or voted out of narrow financial self-interest. No, this was the battle of 2002 all over again: a battle about identity, a battle to preserve Britishness, a battle against the multiculturalists, suburbanites and Blairites who’d tried to take so much away from them. 

And this time, they won. 

Why they electrocuted my dog

The war for the soul of the British countryside may seem like a phenomenon of the early Noughties. But as we learned last week, huge legislative and environmental changes are afoot. Farmers have already had a practice run at driving their tractors in protest to Parliament Square in a protest against the lowering of food standards (and, though they didn’t major on this, increased competition from cheaper, non-EU imports) they fear will be a consequence of the post-Brexit trade deals.

The boys are back, Townies

Meanwhile, skirmishes continue. There has been a minor, but revealing one during this long, COVID winter.

The weather has been very wet. And more and more people have been out walking. 

In the English countryside, unlike Scotland and other Northern European places, there is no ‘right to roam’ (more on this next time). However, there’s an understanding that public byways and bridleways may sometimes run across farmland

In January, the Countryside Alliance and farmers unions took to the media to lament that walkers, avoiding the muddiest sections, were widening the paths and thus trampling on winter crops. 

A muddy mess in Hertfordshire

One farmers’ representative told The Times he blamed the new legions of urban walkers who were desperately worried about getting their new trainers dirty.

That piece of unsubstantiated snarkiness aside, the quotes and press releases from the rural lobby were framed in emollient tones. The Countryside Alliance says many of these incidents were due to ‘a lack of understanding on how to engage positively with the natural environment’, rather than by deliberate acts of damage.

Don’t be fooled. Many farmers dislike ramblers (especially the ones with dogs) and resent sharing their land. This has been at the heart of English culture wars ever since the Kinder Scout ‘trespass’ pitted ramblers and landowners, city and country, Left and Right against each other in 1932.

The ruined fields story doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. Where I am, the paths have now dried up and with spring on the way, even those motorway-wide paths will return to narrow, overgrown tunnels through the grass and wheat. Farm vehicles and horses create far worse quagmires on fields and paths than people gingerly stepping around bogs in their new trainers. (Though come to think of it, I’ve never see anyone in new trainers in my part of the Chiltern Hills. People have got more sense).

Still, some farmers felt the need to retaliate against the intrusion. Where I take my dog, there’s a public path that leads through a huge field that was being used for grazing sheep. There was an electric fence. Fair enough. But the fence was pinned so close to the path and stile that you had to walk single file, and even that with difficulty. That difficulty was so much the worse if, like me, you were walking a blind rescue dog. I had to step  over the fence and try to guide Duchess while she walked on the path. Inevitably, she tried to get to me. She let out a horrible yelp as she clashed with the electrified wire.

Well, we found another path. But they are not as easy to find as they should be.  According to the Ramblers, 49,000 miles of documented and mapped paths have been lost and are on the verge of disappearing forever. 

It may be that The Countryside Alliance and the farmers groups get together to help locate these missing byways, especially at a time when, as they acknowledge, more and more people are seeking to take their government-sanctioned hours of exercise outside.

Just don’t bet on it. 

NEXT TIME: right to roam and rewilding.

All geared up: Patagonia

Here’s another skirmish to keep an eye on. The Patagonia outdoor clothing company has made a name for itself as much for its social and environmental activism as its fleeces and waterproofs. 

I doubt that it has ever been a brand much favoured by British gamekeepers and landowners. Certainly not now, since the Countryside Alliance has accused it of ‘alienating rural communities’ by giving financial support to Moorland Monitors, a group set up to document wildlife crime and cruelty, evidence environmental destruction and advocate for the uplands’ – or, as the CA prefers to describe them, ‘extremists’ with a ‘warped political agenda’. 

Copy that, chaps

Envy corner

The Road to Somewhere, by David Goodhart

This is a crucial text for understanding what’s been happening in Britain since the Blair years. But what’s happening here has also been happening  around the world. These ‘new tribes’ are global.

Goodhart’s thesis is simple, novel and powerful: that in place of the old divisions between Left and Right, we now have Anywheres and Somewheres. Anywheres are typically university-educated, highly mobile and cosmopolitan in their outlook. Somewheres – aren't. But instead of patronising and ignoring the Somewheres, or branding them all as bigots, Anywheres – especially the people who sit on boards and in Government  offices, should understand why people have deep ties to their ‘somewhere’ places and why they feel threatened when those places change. 

As a Somewhere-turned-Anywhere person, I found that much of Goodhart’s analysis, if not all his diagnosis, was spot on and sobering. We ignore this at our peril, I thought; but ignore it they/we did, and they/we got Brexit and Trump. 

And I want to stress this as strongly as I can. I might disagree with them about many things, but what the Countryside Alliance has been doing is rooted in a sincere and heartfelt desire in the vast majority of their members to protect their ‘somewhere’. 

‘Anywhere’ people like me, who happily flit between city and country, between country and country, would do well to bear that in mind.

Songs that take you places

I Vow to Thee, My Country

Music by Gustav Holst, words by Sir Cecil Spring Rice.

In one of many moments of desperation in her desperate spell as Prime Minister, Theresa May told a Conservative Party conference that ‘If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere’.

This nasty, rabble-rousing bollocks will, sad to say, go down as perhaps her only memorable saying. It’s bollocks because Anywhere people are as entitled to love their home country as much as anyone.

And to sing a wonderful hymn in its praise. Unfortunately, we English are stuck with God Save the Queen. I feel the deficiencies in our national anthem keenly at this time of year when the Six Nations rugby matches are on. The Scots and the Welsh get to belt out stirring Flower of Scotland and sublime Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau (Land of My Fathers) while our players are stuck with this dreary piece of 18th century sycophancy. 

If I were King, I’d have it replaced. Jerusalem is the obvious choice – a piece of great and mystical English poetry and one of the finest hymn melodies ever composed. But let’s choose I Vow to Thee, My Country instead.

I can’t hear the first bars of Holst’s music without a flood of joy and pain and love and longing for England swelling in my breast – and aren’t all national anthems designed for breast swelling? The patriotic equivalent of boob jobs, they are.  

This was also the favourite hymn of Diana, Princess of Wales, and was played at her funeral. So it is every bit an alternative anthem.

And if I were King, I really wouldn’t want everyone wishing God to save me. He can make up His own mind. 

Gustav Holst: the quintessential English composer (of mixed Swedish, Latvian and German ancestry)

The full Marklands playlist is here.

Let’s end with words about preserving your mental health

I’d intended to end the blog with something British and bucolic. But I came across this advice in a letter from the writer C S Lewis to his friend Arthur Greeves in April, 1922, and thought it’s pretty on-message as we end COVID Year One.

He had just witnessed the brother of the woman he shared a house with go through hell as a result of what we’d now call PTSD. Lewis had himself been in the trenches in the First World war: he knew what he was talking about. He wrote this to Arthur, also not the most robust of men:

Keep to work and sanity and open air – to the cheerful and matter of fact side of things. We hold our mental health by a thread: & nothing is worth risking it for. Above all beware of excessive daydreaming, of seeing yourself in the centre of a drama, of self pity, and, as far as possible, of fears.

… and keep that upper lip nice and stiff too, no doubt. Yes, I know that muscular, British, a-good-walk-cures-everything stuff is fearfully dated and has led to all kinds of misery going undiagnosed and undealt-with. Still, as a first resort when the lockdown blues get you, I’d say taking his advice is worth a try.

The Malvern Hills. a place C S Lewis loved.

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