End this phoney war between 'townies' and country folk

'If the country hates the town so much, we could say the foot-and-mouth crisis has nothing to do with us'

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There is nothing like a disaster for putting a misfortune into perspective. The language of chaos and tragedy used to describe the aftermath of the foot-and-mouth outbreak sounds misplaced in the light of the Great Heck crash. This time there was no one on hand to blame: not Railtrack, not GNER, not the car driver. There are people to help, patients to treat and relatives who need comforting. And maybe a lesson or two to be learnt - not least about solidarity.

There is nothing like a disaster for putting a misfortune into perspective. The language of chaos and tragedy used to describe the aftermath of the foot-and-mouth outbreak sounds misplaced in the light of the Great Heck crash. This time there was no one on hand to blame: not Railtrack, not GNER, not the car driver. There are people to help, patients to treat and relatives who need comforting. And maybe a lesson or two to be learnt - not least about solidarity.

We could do with it. Laid up for 10 days with a gimpy eye, I have had little to do but listen in to the radio and TV news bulletins and the phone-ins, and I have been struck and a little shocked by the absence of sympathy for the plight of Britain's farmers. People call up to question the notion that farmers could be upset at seeing their herds burned. Isn't this just what happens to these beasts anyway? Are we really supposed to believe that farmers are sentimental about their stock? Especially since they actually enjoy chasing other animals to death.

Others hear the complaints of farmers and resent the inevitable and ever-ceasing (they believe) demands for subsidy, subsidy, subsidy. Not only must those who lose livestock be compensated, but so must those who lose any income as a result of the crisis. Hauliers who choose not to pay higher insurance premiums now expect to be retrospectively indemnified against a hazard of their occupation. But can I get compensation from the state should advertising revenue for newspapers fall dramatically? Already the Government is trying to draw down an extra £170m for farmers, two years earlier than specified, and are they thanked?

And they see and hear farmers and their "friends" blame everyone else but themselves for the outbreak. They blame the Government, they blame the EU, they blame excessive regulations in abattoirs that lead to local ones closing. They blame supermarkets. They blame "cheap imports", they blame the foreign swill some of them feed to their animals. They blame us as consumers, arguing that we have "double crossed" them by first "demanding" cheaper food, and then objecting to the inevitable problems that arise.

Many in the country seem to blame the urban population as a whole. Yesterday, Francis Fulford, a landowner with 12 tenant farmers (so not, one presumes, a poor chap) was quoted as telling a reporter that the cancelled Countryside March would be even bigger when it was eventually held, adding, "these bloody city people have no idea what it means to be infected with this."

Bloody city people, eh? How did "bloody city people" get in there? The word "townie" now litters the twitterings of a tribe of ridiculous columnists who write rubbish from second homes in Dorset proclaiming their closeness to nature and the soil. One such hick hack recently revealed, sorrowfully, that the postponement of the Liberty and Livelihood march had meant, not just the cancellation of her travel arrangements, but also of her hotel and lunch reservations. Absurd socialites, yahs who commute from Market Drayton to PR agencies in Birmingham, then preach on the subject of the rural economy and the loss of what is "real" about England.

It is "townie" indifference that apparently has led to a crisis in rural public transport, yet when the Government puts money into country buses it is castigated for not comprehending that country-dwellers have never travelled much by bus. Townie governments are responsible for closing village shops and post offices. From dawn to dusk, we are lectured on the rural apocalypse as though we were schoolkids. The BBC's Archers series (of which I am a fan) has recently become one long, didactic complaint, raising everything from village schools to farm incomes to transport. Yet when the a fictional farming family - the Grundys - found themselves living in an estate in town, conditions were so bad that they lasted barely a fortnight. What does that tell us about quality of life? At the margins, there is the homophobic vilification of agriculture secretary Nick Brown (accused by one journalist this week of treading through a debate, "like a townie in a farmyard").

We have now been told so often that it's war between the country and the city, that I think some urbanites are beginning to believe it themselves. If that's true, the country lobby should remember that the cities too have their own memories, their own resentments to build on. Was it not the appeasing rural Tories who took us, unprepared, into war, and then watched from their country retreats as the cities burned? Was it not the farm-folk and spivs who ate well for six years while the urban families of the servicemen of Britain prayed for sausage? During the town-crushing recessions of 1981 and 1990, when the country was effectively being run from Ludlow and Huntingdon, did townsfolk march on the true-blue farms and agri-businesses waving placards?

And if the country hates the town so much, then the town could easily take the attitude that the foot-and-mouth crisis has nothing to do with us. They don't have the disease on the continent, so as long as Tesco buys meat in from abroad, why should a townie care? It will, after all, be many weeks before the deli runs out of chorizo.

Tempted though I am by this, I think we can do better. I earnestly entreat intelligent country people not to be seduced by a facile tribalism which temporarily suits some politicians and gives a thrill to fashionable enragés, but does nothing for the nation. For God's sake, change the record. Farmer Simon Gourlay, in yesterday's paper, showed that there can be a tempered discussion of the problems of farming (by far the most important real constituent of an otherwise non-existent rural crisis). Nick Brown and NFU leader Ben Gill have both shown calmness and restraint in dealing with the outbreak.

If the urban population stops being battered over the head by people who are, on the whole, richer, safer, happier and historically more powerful than they, it will make it much easier to have a proper debate on the future of farming and the countryside. Should we help smaller, relatively uneconomic producers to stay in business for the sake of preserving something valuable? What is a reasonable subsidy for the urban taxpayer to give to incredibly expensive village schools? Can we realistically assist village shops without creating unfair competition with other traders? How can we encourage the sale and purchase of local produce, without compromising choice and quality?

The blame-and-divide game is very easy to play. And I'm not suggesting, Pollyanna-like, that there are no competing interests. But I can conceive that it hurts like hell to see your herd go up in smoke and have to contemplate leaving a much-loved farm. Because I can imagine this, and because the British rural landscape is such an important part of what I like about this country, I want to help. I suspect that the people at the Countryside Alliance understand that for this to happen, they have to stop shouting at us first.

David.Aaronovitch@btinternet.com

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