Rural recognition

Did the Countryside Alliance marchers want New Labour to 'fox off' or to feel their pain?

Josie Appleton

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‘Oppression breeds anger’, read a pink, neatly printed banner on the 400,000-strong Countryside Alliance ‘Liberty and Livelihood’ march in London on Sunday 22 September. ‘And insurrection’, added its owner, a small, well-dressed woman, with a smile.

The attempt by New Labour MPs to ban foxhunting has spurred a normally quiescent section of Britain’s population on to the streets. The march was an extraordinary sight – the streets of London packed with caps and Barbour jackets hailing from the length and breadth of the country. Few had been on a demonstration before – and yet, here they were, putting up one of the most significant defences against ‘liberty-robbing’ New Labour that Britain has seen.

More than any other past government, New Labour has attempted to intervene into our lives – writing codes on what couples should expect from marriage, imposing curfews on children. The attempt by some New Labour MPs to ban foxhunting – a minority rural pastime that has no effect on the rest of the population – has become emblematic of the government’s instinct to interfere.

‘We’re always being told what to do’, said a woman from Kennington, London. Ian and Pat Hoper, from near Portsmouth, said that the attempt to ban foxhunting was an ‘erosion of our right to do what we want to do’ – it was a ‘minority’ in government ‘imposing its will on lots of people’. Sixteen-year-old James said the government should stop ‘sticking its nose in’, and should ‘leave us alone to do what we do best’.

Some of those on the demonstration were not hunters, but they sympathised with the cause. A fortysomething man from near Banbury said that the issue was one of ‘self-interested groups, trying to tell others how to live’. He was marching to defend the ‘freedom to do what you want’.

This mobilisation in defence of liberty is to be welcomed. If only countless other freedom-eroding bills over the past few years had sparked a similar response.

But while one aspect of the Countryside Alliance’s campaign is staunchly pro-liberty, another part has the opposite message. While the ‘Liberty’ section of the march was telling government to butt out, the ‘Livelihood’ section seemed to be asking for the government’s support and recognition.

Supporters of the countryside movement now present themselves as a victimised minority. Apparently, Prince Charles wrote to Prime Minister Tony Blair, citing a farmer’s concerns that ‘if we as a group were black or gay, we would not be victimised or picked upon’. The end result of presenting rural communities as suffering and excluded is to invite more government intervention into their lives.

So John Wolfe-Barry from Surrey attacked Blair for abusing people’s liberty, but then complained that rural communities were ‘being ignored’. Peter and Glynis Tustin from Hertfordshire said that ‘[Margaret] Beckett doesn’t give a damn’ about rural people. A young man from Staffordshire said that ‘farmers aren’t being looked after’
properly by the government.

A clear-cut defence of the right to hunt has expanded to include every gripe about rural life. Every problem is laid at the government’s door – and the government is being asked to step in and make everything okay.

A man from Norwich said that the march was about ‘the countryside as a whole’. ‘Everything is going, little shops are going, the community is suffering.’ But is this the government’s fault? ‘It has to be somebody’s fault’, he said.

Phyllis Harrison from Cumbria said that the government was ‘causing schools, post offices and banks to close’. Jenny Harrison from Hampshire said that ‘the government is totally responsible for the decline in rural communities’.

This represents an invitation to the government to get involved in rebuilding rural communities – an opportunity that many ministers would relish. New Labour is simultaneously slated for being a tyrannical busybody and called upon to solve every problem of local life.

The Countryside Alliance’s defence of hunting is a very partial defence of liberty for another reason. The campaign gets its backbone, not just from the desire of people to live their lives as they choose, but also from some of the worst aspects of rural life.

The plethora of Sunday Telegraphs and Spectators, and the open doors of posh London clubs, showed that the march was, in part, a rebellion of the old elite against the new. Marchers were asked to be silent as they walked past the Cenotaph to ‘the glorious dead’ on Whitehall, and they completed the march to the rousing strains of flag-waving last-night-of-the-Proms music. Some marchers told me that foxhunting was a ‘traditional part of English culture’ and should be protected as such.

Standing next to Westminster Bridge, John Wolfe-Barry surveyed a domain that used to belong to his ancestors. One relative had designed the House of Commons and his statue adorned the hall; another had his engraving in Westminster Abbey; another designed Tower Bridge. Wolfe-Barry had retained the prejudices of the aristocracy – the attempt to ban hunting, he said, came from the fact that the ‘rabble don’t understand’ the sport.

But Wolfe-Barry also showed how the old elite has taken on the language of New Labour to make its case. Foxhunters, he said, were a persecuted minority, like the ‘Jews and homosexuals’ under Hitler. This adds a disingenuous edge to the campaign – members of the old elite ride off the moral authority of the homosexual experience under Nazism, while in practice they have not been known to support gay rights.

The campaign also seems to be marked by a parochial suspicion of outsiders – particularly people from the towns. Glynis Tustin said that Cherie Blair hated hunting because she was a ‘towny’. Her husband Peter agreed, saying that he hated people in the town telling him he shouldn’t hunt. ‘We’ll keep the cowshit in the country – you keep the bullshit in the towns’, read one banner.

Parochialism and aristocratic class identity partly fuel the protest against government interference – but they also limit it. While the ‘Liberty and Livelihood’ march was a welcome cry against the interference of New Labour, it far from provided a general defence of Britons’ rights.

Daniel Gare, a cheery huntsmaster from Lincoln, was the only person I spoke to who opposed other liberty-robbing laws, such as the erosion of the right to silence. ‘It’s the same principle’, he said, ‘the point is freedom’. ‘It’s what people fought the war for.’

But others were reluctant to draw the link. Ian Hoper said that he thought the right to silence was ‘abused’. Another said that he didn’t have any objections to the anti-terrorism legislation, or the intrusions of the Criminal Justice Bill. ‘We’re opposed to the right to silence’, said one couple firmly. ‘I wouldn’t march for it’, said another woman, more diplomatically.

Some have taken the aristocratic and parochial character of the march as a sign that the campaign to defend hunting is wrong. But the hunting issue is the point on which the Liberty and Livelihood march was correct – whatever I think of hunting, or of some of the people who like hunting, I would defend their right to do it. The defence of hunting is a defence of everybody’s right to pursue the pastimes they choose.

The problem is that when it came to liberty, many of the Liberty and Livelihood marchers got stuck at the second hedge.

Read on:

The hunting debate is about much more than foxes – it is about our freedom, by Mick Hume, The Times, 9 September 2002

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