Town and country share the same enemy

Actually, all that is happening is that the vulnerable are being betrayed, over and over again
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The Independent Online

What a ghastly thing it is, this ideological antagonism that has been stirred up anew between town and country. And what idiots partisans on both sides of the treacherous divide are making of themselves. All reason has been abandoned as country champions struggle to disguise the single focus they have chosen to highlight among the multitudinous troubles of the countryside, and urban zealots fight to keep it at the forefront of everyone's thoughts.

What a ghastly thing it is, this ideological antagonism that has been stirred up anew between town and country. And what idiots partisans on both sides of the treacherous divide are making of themselves. All reason has been abandoned as country champions struggle to disguise the single focus they have chosen to highlight among the multitudinous troubles of the countryside, and urban zealots fight to keep it at the forefront of everyone's thoughts.

This single focus, unbelievably, astoundingly, heaven help us all – is fox hunting. This issue is so far down my list of iniquities committed by human beings against animals and against each other that to me it barely exists. Yet for some years now this quaintly anachronistic minority ritual has been treated as if it is one of the final barriers in the pursuit of human perfection.

It also, shamefully, has been allowed to become a major part of the political agenda. For decades Britain has been entertained on New Year's Day by the antics of those anti-globalisation precursors, the hunt-sabs. They were the people who raised consciousness around the fox hunting issue, when they could have spent their time working for worthier, more important, but less fun causes instead.

Why didn't they? Because they too loved the thrill of the chase, the drama of the class frisson, the immediacy of the promise of blood and death in the air. They vastly enjoyed being in the icy morning fields of Britain for a very definite purpose, even though they preferred to keep only to the moral high ground.

How funny it is that the New Labour government is willing to go so far out on a limb to deliver the elderly demands of those activists, even though the very same people, under this same government, are coralled by police behind riot shields for protesting against little things like poverty, disease, pain, hunger, despair and death for human children in a world of plenty. How much easier it is to ban the anthropomorphic projection of cruelty on to a wild creature than it is to wade in and sort that lot out.

That point, of course, is something of a callow, obvious and cheap cliché. All I can say in my defence is that it isn't just me. This whole debate is enmired in cheap cliché. My feeling is that the cliché comes because the debate underlying it is essentially bogus. What other reason can there be for the acres of claptrap it inspires?

One fellow claims that he is abandoning cattle farming because "the badgers are running out of control, spreading disease. He'd kill them if he could but the modern nanny state will not permit it."

Leaving aside the fact that farmers appear to want the nanny state to intervene in a nannyish way to preserve an uneconomic way of life, can we just think for a moment about this cattle-farmer's great ill-fortune? Imagine surviving BSE, foot-and-mouth, the appallingly poor price beef cattle are still fetching, the tiny farm-gate prices being paid by supermarkets for milk (and all else), the competition from lightly regulated meat imported from abroad, and then finally being beaten by badgers. I bet a lot of farmers wish they had troubles like that guy's.

Then there is John Mortimer. Until recently he seemed eccentrically wedded to moderation and good sense. Now he sums up the woolly abandonment of logic that characterises the rhetoric of so many of those campaigning for "liberty and livelihood". "Tony Blair," he claims, "has watched the slow death of farming."

Mr Mortimer's "argument" is that "New Labour's intolerance" has "forced the countryside into action." But if Mr Blair really has "watched the slow death of the countryside", then isn't he the last person to be held responsible for it? I mean, the guy's a twit in many ways, and that rabbit-in-the-headlights promise to ban fox hunting on Question Time was a classic of idiocy. But he's only been Prime Minister since 1997. If the countryside has been suffering a slow death, then he's only been in power long enough to have a hand in the end-game. I know a week is a long time in politics. But I thought a year was a fairly short time in harvest and husbandry. Does "the country" consider five years to be a very long time? Maybe it does. Maybe it is asking for an enormous fox to be set on it, killing it quickly and with dignity, after a stimulating gallop across the golf-courses-to-be.

Whoops, no, I must stop. There is a tendency, in the evil, metropolitan press, for the countryside's anger to be mocked. Last Friday, in the run-up to the march, even Newsnight hazarded a quip. The threat of the Countryside Alliance to bring the capital to a standstill was met with the weary comment: "They appear to believe this is something we're not used to."

But urban hauteur was, in the end, shaken. London is not, in fact, used to demonstrations of the size and dignity witnessed on Sunday. Liberty and Livelihood was quite something (what exactly, being more difficult to quantify). Yet while two years of planning and £1m in funding contributed to the operational success of the march, it seems to have made opponents of hunting keen to expand their side of the argument as well, again to include absolutely everything.

Brian Reade, the Daily Mirror columnist, is a brilliant commentator. But when he says that "I'll admit that there is a thirst for revenge here, about getting back at traditional Tory supporters by doing to them what they did to us 18 years ago", my blood runs cold. Mr Reade is talking about the destruction of heavy industry, and the fact that no country conservatives marched on London to protest against the dismantling of that tradition. But he appears to have fallen for the odd idea, propagated by that mistress of agitprop Beatrix Potter, that there are town people and country people, with never the twain ever meeting.

But actually, all that's happening is that the vulnerable are being betrayed, over and over again. My mother's father lost his farm in the early 1940s. My own father lost his heavy industry job in the early 1990s. The dismantling of heavy industry and the dismantling of the agricultural industry are part of the same process. The process, of course, is globalisation, and it is terrible that we have all allowed this crucial fact to be obscured by the elevation of fox hunting into some totemic measure of our civilisation.

Those who feel so passionately that fox hunting should be banned are just as much to blame as those out baying for blood all season. Both sides, in pointing out the vast gulf between the town sensibility and the country sensibility, serve to hide the fact that everyone is suffering – and exploiting – the same painful, alienating changes.

Local shops closing, small businesses failing, buses being utterly unreliable, education crumbling, crime rising, low wages, high property prices – this is the stuff that city folks are leaving town to escape from. And even though they are hated and resented as the people who are killing the countryside, magically, plenty of people are willing to sell up to the vile townies.

That's the trouble with globalisation. Everybody knows it's killing livelihood and liberty, in the country and in the town. But if there's a profit to be had from it, then most people are already limited enough in livelihood and liberty to take it, no questions asked. Fox hunting may be vicious, but at least it's not a vicious circle. The town versus country debate can never be anything else.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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