Britain's new class politics
by George Monbiot (15.06.99)
Last year's Countryside March, the organisers were at pains to point out, concerned more than just hunting. Farm employment, they told us, was collapsing, the countryside was being smothered by new housing, "rural values" were being dissipated. All this, they insisted, was the fault of "the urban jackboot".
Deferential as ever, we townies were careful not to betray our ignorance of rural life by asking who had sacked the farm labourers, or who had sold the land to the housebuilders. Nor were we impertinent enough to point out that all the rally's main organisers lived in cities (though some owned second homes in the countryside - a further cause of rural woe), and that the Countryside Alliance's chief executive and both of the march's main funders were major greenfield developers. A new book published by the far right's Social Affairs Unit will leave us even more confused.
"Another Country", like the Countryside Alliance, argues that rural people are an "oppressed minority", persecuted by "an urban population that no longer knows much of country ways". The right to roam, it argues, is a theft of property from rural people by urbanites.
Public land, currently available "for the reckless use of all", should be sold off to private owners so that it can be "properly husbanded". Public footpaths should be closed. Planning constraints should be abolished, as they impose unfair restrictions on country dwellers. Rural people, the book informs us, want more roads, more use of agrochemicals, more genetic engineering, and less health and safety regulation.
But they are suffering from "a clash of cultures. Modern Britain simply cannot accept the rural way of life".
No one will be more offended by these propositions than rural people. They are the ones who have fought hardest to defend the greenbelt and to stop the countryside being ripped apart by new roads. Newbury, for example, was sharply divided over its new bypass, but the villages which lay along its route were firmly opposed. Rural people have been hurt more than any others by the loss of songbirds and the destruction of landscape features caused by the farming methods the Social Affairs Unit promotes. Rural people appear to be just as supportive of the right to roam as townies are.
Curiously, none of the 34 authors of this book appears to live and work exclusively in the countryside. Nearly all of them are urban academics, journalists or consultants. The Social Affairs Unit is based in central London. So just what and whom are these people defending?
Like the Countryside Alliance, the Country Landowners' Association and the Telegraph, the Times and the Mail, these authors conflate the interests of rural people in general with those of large landowners and property speculators. The landlords, though many of them live in cities, are the authentic representatives of the countryside, and what they want is what all rural people want. As one of the book's authors, citing Burke, maintains, "the great country landowners" defend the countryside from "invasion by government or by mobs ... in the interests of everyone."
This is the myth that all patrician defenders of "rural values" nuture: rural society is unchanging and harmonious, and its culture and traditions are seated in and protected by the big estates.
The turbulent and dreadful history of the enclosures, of dispossession, vagrancy, desperate riots and rebellions and the brutal suppression of peasant economies and vernacular culture remains untold. The stately homes we visit explain how Capability Brown landscaped their deerparks, but tell us nothing of the people who were evicted to make way for them.
The book states repeatedly that the battle for the countryside has nothing to do with sustaining class or privilege. Yet it champions the rights of those who can afford it to maraud across the land on horseback, while denying the rest of us the right to take a quiet walk.
The urban assault on rural life, it maintains, with a sneering snobbery seldom voiced in public, "reflects the values of middle-class suburban Britain - its disregard for dress codes, table manners, school uniforms". Hereditary peers, it argues, are "more needed than ever as a voice for and of the countryside".
The conflict over the British countryside is a struggle not between urban people and rural people, who, by and large, have fairly similar tastes and aspirations. It is a conflict between impunity and accountability. The right seeks to stir up hatred between town and country in order to obscure the real causes of rural decline.
Britain's new class politics are being constructed around the countryside. It is to be the playground and source of wealth of both old and new elites, the social laboratory for both the libertarian and authoritarian right. The rest of us, whether urban or rural, are excluded from the Britain they are seeking to create.