I'm sorry, they're still unspeakable

Countryside campaigners are offensive when they bang on about minority rights, says Trevor Phillips
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It would have been fine if they'd just stuck to the defence of fox-hunting. I don't hunt, but would like to be tolerant. Anyway, like the majority of citizens I'm too busy to feel strongly about things that don't affect me directly, so I elect people to worry about that stuff for me. However, the countryside campaigners this week made two tactical errors. First they came to town and held up the traffic, which was a pain; and then they decided to base their arguments on principles of which they know little, and for which they hitherto have cared not at all. If their aim was to win support from the urban majority, they blew it with me.

Don't get me wrong. I am for the countryside. I listen to The Archers assiduously. I am lucky enough to be able to spend many weeks of the year in a farming area, and even contribute by way of local taxes to the upkeep of that community. More important, perhaps, though born a townie I spent most of my childhood as close to nature as you can get, in a tiny village, with chickens and turkeys in the yard. Until I was seven years old, I did not experience the special pleasure of hot running water. I did not know what an inside toilet was; and anyone who has ever been into a pre- septic tank cesspit (ie, one without a water-closet) will understand just how natural life can become when you spend time in close proximity to your own bodily waste.

None of this took place in England, granted; but if you've lived in a pre-industrial society you can be forgiven for feeling slightly irritated by the claims of the countryside lobby. The English countryside is anything but natural. For the best part of 1,000 years it has been tended, tilled and teased into a shape congenial to man. Few genuine wildernesses remain in England, and every acre is managed with as much care and attention as any stately home. Seen from the perspective of tropical rain-forest, the New Mexico desert or the Canadian tundra, say, the idea that the English countryside represents an untouched idyll is laughable. And a modern farm, full of expensive and complicated machinery, is little more than a factory with fields instead of floors.

Against this background, the patronising tone of some of the countryside campaign's leaders is, to say the least, annoying. But they become seriously offensive when they bang on about the rights of minorities to preserve their special cultures. The case is that a ban on fox-hunting represents an attack on an essential part of a special tradition. The sheer brass neck of this claim takes the breath away. Are these people seriously suggesting that the right of a few people to chase after an animal is in any way comparable to the right of a religious minority to practise its faith or its rituals? Is a fox-hunting meet to be put on a par with the Jewish sabbath? Or hare-coursing equated to Muslim prayers? This is the sort of stuff you find at the bottom of your cesspit.

Thursday's rally was graced by several celebrities. Not all of them are complete strangers to principle. No one could criticise Lord Steel, for example; his commitment to the rights of all kinds of minorities is unimpeachable. But what on earth is he doing in company with Nicholas Soames, Tiggy Legge-Bourke, Sebastian Coe, Lady Mallalieu and Lord and Lady Lloyd-Webber? What have they ever had to say before about the rights of minorities? And do they genuinely think that this is the most important such cause to engage their attention and largesse in Britain? Perhaps they need to pay a visit to some urban districts just a few miles from their London homes - Tower Hamlets, or Hackney, for example - in order to see what a genuine struggle to preserve the integrity of minority communities looks like.

The countryside campaigners are not just arrogant. They are inept in the mode of their protest. Instead of organising a demonstration in their own territory, they decided to cheese off London. I was caught in their traffic hold-up. Normally, I'd accept that this is part of urban life. But there is something not quite right about people who want you to understand their problems travelling hundreds of miles just to get in your way. And since four out of five of us are basically urban dwellers, it looks like poor tactics to me. As we sat waiting for the marchers to pass, our attention was drawn to the fact that we townies are bankrolling country people by about pounds 500 per household per year. It appears we'll never understand why we're shelling out this cash, because we can't understand the rural culture; but it may have something to do with supporting practices we don't like. Not a persuasive case, I'm afraid.

The case becomes even less impressive when you learn that many farmers won't allow hunting on their land, in spite of the claims that it is an essential aspect of country life. According to a survey commissioned by the International Federation for Animal Welfare, 57 per cent of country people don't believe that hunting works as population control. The campaigners claim that the sport is no longer the preserve of toffs and that many ordinary people hunt; they can afford to do so because they look after their own horses and dogs. If that's so, their other argument, that a ban will cost jobs, looks rather feeble.

Thus it comes down to the question of whether the distress caused to the hunted outweighs the pleasure afforded to the hunter. I don't know the answer to that question for sure. But I do know that fewer than six generations back, some of the ancestors of those who defend the hunt today would have said airily that it mattered little what they did to my ancestors; people like us were not capable of feelings of pain and distress, being little better than animals. That alone puts me on the side of the animals.

Perhaps we should remember that practices that look essential to today's culture may not appear so in the light of history. For example, until now American space vehicles have been named by officials, who usually chose ancient gods - Apollo, Saturn and so forth. By contrast, the name of the little buggy that ventured across the Martian surface was chosen through an international essay competition. The winner, a 15-year-old American, Valerie Ambryce, chose a real-life woman for her nomination - the doughty anti-slavery and women's rights campaigner of the 19th century, Sojourner Truth. She was born into a rural tradition of slavery which millions fought to preserve, claiming that it was their right to practise this aspect of their culture.

Sojourner played a major part in persuading America that this particular tradition's time had passed. The countryside campaigners would do well to learn this lesson.