The neverending foxhunting debate shows New Labour’s disdain for the countryside, and its lack of excitement about the Town.
Will the hunting debate never end?
After far too many years of parliamentary squabbling over the pros and cons of banning the bloodsport, the government’s plan now seems to be headed for a ‘third way’ proposal: not a ban, not a freedom, but a six-month obfuscation process out of which might come permission for some hunts to continue on ‘pest control’ grounds. (1)
By the time whatever-it-is comes in, over five years’ worth of political time and energy will have been frittered away on the question of whether the fox is cute or verminous, whether it should be controlled by guns or dogs, and whether men in red coats are gents or barbarians. All to bring in a policy that is senseless, probably unenforceable and unpopular on all sides.
Symbolically, however, the ‘middle way’ is revealing. That foxhunting should have become a major issue at all, let alone one on which politicians and peers struggle to take a clear stand, reveals the petty character of political debate today in all its banality (see New Labour goes hunting for an cause, by Mick Hume). The drift towards a consultation and compromise indicates how difficult the New Labour government now finds it to push through even its pet policy ideas. And outside of Westminster, the middle way discussion represents a broader unease about the countryside, and its relationship with the Town.
If you can bear to cast your minds back to the glory days of New Labour’s 1997 election victory, the party that stormed into power on an election pledge of ‘ban everything’ wasted little energy or spin on sympathising with the lives and loves of country folk. Foxhunting was barbaric, self-indulgent, toffish and wrong – and that was that.
The country folk (or at least the hastily mobilised Countryside Alliance, which is not quite the same thing) descended upon London in their tens of tweedy thousands, raising hell about the metropolitan prejudices of politicians who wouldn’t know mud if they were stuck in it. The caricature of the ‘Islington set’ – mineral water-sipping New Labourites who hated what little they knew about the countryside – was pitted against the stereotype of the hardworking rural farmer or landowner, for whom hunting was an occasional pleasure in a hard life.
The town v countryside positions were always rather forced, but they indicated the dynamics of the debate. Blair’s government had a confidence about itself and its ideas that inspired a reaction outside of Westminster – a sense that just because Blair and co ran the country did not give them carte blanche to dictate what went on in the countryside.
Five years on, what’s changed? Campaigns from the Countryside Alliance and knockbacks from the House of Lords have not made New Labour MPs alter their views on hunting: in the House of Commons on 18 March, the vote for a ban on hunting was won by a majority of 211 (2). And crucially, despite wars, a general election and an ongoing rail crisis, the parliamentary debate has not gone away. But a row that was once as passionate as it was petty seems to have lost its oomph. While the screaming and jeering in the Commons is as high-pitched as ever, what used to be a clear-cut yes/no argument has got bogged down in convoluted concerns about ‘cruelty v utility’, and an attempt to find ‘common ground’ (3).
The reality of the countryside still jars with the Blairite vision of a sanitised, hi-tech, politically appropriate world. The countryside, and its traditions and practices, appears in this vision as barbaric, antiquated, diseased, intolerant and resistant to change. This is a government whose major concern is to raise people’s self-esteem through its own brand of culture and education, through social inclusion and active citizenship – not priorities widely considered to be high up the farming community’s agenda. It is a safe bet that New Labour views the countryside with as much bemused disdain as it did in 1997 – except now, they cannot say it.
The foot-and-mouth crisis of 2001 had a hand in this process, by thrusting the government headlong into the blood, sweat and tears of real rural life. As foot-and-mouth came to dominate the political agenda as much as it did the lives of farmers on the sharp end, the government had to force an interest in, and sensitivity to, the countryside. Farmers could no longer be written off as small-minded irritants wanting their bloody fun on the hunt – after foot-and-mouth, they were seen as victims, traumatised, impoverished and generally got at. Shrill condemnations of foxhunting sit uneasily with the therapeutic rural plans developed by the government to soothe the ravaging effects of foot-and-mouth, and it all got a bit more sensitive.
A truly urban-centric vision, however, could have pushed forward despite foot-and-mouth – or even used it as an example of why the countryside needs modernising. But the Town of Blair’s Britain seems to have little going for it, too. The old manufacturing cities in the North are shrink-wrapped as cultural centres, empty shells propped up by European money and the National Lottery, superficial, decaying and bland. The only Place to Be is surely London, and we read about London creaking along on an ancient Tube, marred by Mayor Ken Livingstone’s mean-spirited congestion charges, packed with little old houses that nobody can afford to buy. London is discussed in terms of its problems – a far cry from Dick Whittington’s streets paved with gold.
Whatever prejudices the Islington set may have had about the countryside, it looks around the Town without great excitement. And that’s really a shame. The anti-hunting lobby was never really about citifying the countryside, as many campaigners claimed – for that, there would need to be some grand kind of urban vision. But as New Labour loses confidence even in what little vision it had, the creeping bloodsports compromise/ban seems little more than spiteful.
‘Your countryside, you’re welcome’, we are told by the Countryside Agency’s new adverts, designed to boost rural tourism. ‘Our’ countryside – which cannot be built upon, makes no sense to farm upon, and cannot even be hunted upon without a struggle. Let’s hear it for rambling – symbol of New Britain.
Farmers turned park-keepers, by James Heartfield
Urban prejudices, rural myths, by Frank Furedi
(1) Hunting decision put on hold, BBC News, 21 March 2002
(2) MPs back hunting ban, BBC News, 18 March 2002
(3) Hunting decision put on hold, BBC News, 21 March 2002
(4) Countryside ‘open for business’, BBC News, 28 January 2002
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