As the tabloid columnists who form the opinions of Middle England say: Is it just me? Or does the whole populist spat over fox-hunting really make no sense at all? There’s wholesale insurrection in a supposedly newly democratic Iraq; hurricanes are flattening the southern states of America as an alleged consequence of that country’s insouciance regarding climate change; the Sudanese people are starving; and North Korea may have tested a nuclear bomb. And what brings the British to the barricades? Why, it is the right to hunt with dogs.
Yet it’s not the absurd juxtaposition with global issues so much as the domestic one that really bothers me. It’s this idea that there is a rural economy, thriving or otherwise, presided over by a countryside community. The countryside movement has made so many dunderheaded PR gaffes in recent years that it seems pointless to isolate a recent one, but the spectacle of the well-fed and -exercised son of a rock star and young friends of royalty invading the House of Commons last week to complain of economic and cultural maltreatment was – to borrow the well- educated, modulated vocabulary of one of them – risible.
“It’s so unjust!” shouted the lead invader at minister Alun Michael, before being wrestled to the ground by a balding man in silver-buckled shoes, not unlike the ones the insurgents buy from Gucci. It’s specious to ask where these champions of the oppressed were when the miners’ way of life was destroyed 20 years ago (at a cost of 20,000-plus livelihoods, against a claimed 8,000 in hunting) – they were not long born and Nanny was perhaps reading Fantastic Mr Fox to them. Of far greater importance is to ask whether the rural economy they stand up for really exists.
If it does, then it might be argued that there are greater issues at stake than the inalienable right to chase furry pests across fields. There is a rural transport system that has been run down by poor investment, with terrible social and economic consequences. There is the legacy of a Common Agricultural Policy that has discriminated ruinously against British farmers. There is the ham-fisted political management of genetically modified crops. There is the equally barmy indulgence of activists who want all pesticides banned. There is the stranglehold hegemony UK superstore-retailers have been allowed to exercise over agricultural suppliers. These are areas of government policy where legislation can truly be said to have been “unjust”.
Hunt supporters will say that their cause is iconic – a touchstone issue for rural oppression by townies. But that’s just silly – like saying that compulsory moustache-wearing in Saddam Hussein’s regime was an iconic issue for the invasion of Iraq. There’s either a discrete rural economy to defend or there isn’t. And, if there is, then it deserves to be defended on the grounds of some of the serious economic issues mentioned above.
But the identification of a separate and distinguishable rural economy may be a spurious one. And I am far from alone in suggesting this. The Countryside Agency suggests that the migration out of towns over the past three decades has meant that, if you were to draw a circle with a 30-mile radius around every town with 100,000 inhabitants or more – a typically commutable distance – you would find that there is very little land outside these areas. Sadly, farming as a staple employer in the countryside has been in long-term decline – only some 400,000 of the estimated 5.5 million people employed in rural areas are in farming and the figure is falling by 14,000 every year. Meanwhile, 1.4 million work in leisure industries, 800,000 in financial services and 600,000 in retail.
It is the mobility of workers that has done for our forbears’ rural way of life. Then there are the socio-demographics that make for uncomfortable reading for the hunting lobby. Far from being the horny-handed sons and daughters of toil the hunt followers would like to claim as their own, a MORI poll at the 2002 Countryside March in London revealed that an overwhelming majority of those lobbying for hunting were AB professional or managerial folk, living in towns or suburbs. These are the new owners of the countryside, with spotless 4x4s and a desire to maintain a twee, chocolate-box image of rural Britain.
The real issue here is not hunting. It is how we respond to a new agrarian revolution. I have got into trouble before for being glib when I suggest that farming needs to adapt to growing leisure and tourism demands. But there are global demands, too, to which it could respond, if the Government and its beloved superstores encouraged it. The over-concentration on meat in the Western diet stifles sustainable food production, because growing food for animals to eat is a grossly inefficient use of land. If we gave over more land to crops and increased yields through appropriate technologies, then we could produce enough food even for projected future world populations.
That, I would have thought, is a challenge to which it is more than worthwhile for a rural economy to respond. But chasing foxes is probably more fun.
George Pitcher is a partner at communications management consultancy Luther Pendragon