Melanie McDonagh: Happy roaming. But let's still doff our caps

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A happy weekend, this, for the ramblers of Britain. They're off exploring the "mountain, moorland, heath, down and registered common land" that are now open to the cagoule-wearing community courtesy of the right to roam, which has just come into effect. But not for Alun Michael, the Rural Affairs minister, whose right to roam is strictly limited to urban areas, having enraged so many in the countryside by his volte-face on hunting that the police advised him to stay at home.

A happy weekend, this, for the ramblers of Britain. They're off exploring the "mountain, moorland, heath, down and registered common land" that are now open to the cagoule-wearing community courtesy of the right to roam, which has just come into effect. But not for Alun Michael, the Rural Affairs minister, whose right to roam is strictly limited to urban areas, having enraged so many in the countryside by his volte-face on hunting that the police advised him to stay at home.

The ramblers had better make the most of the open countryside while it lasts, though, because if the New Statesman has its way, there may not be much of it left a great deal longer. It has launched a campaign to liberate the land of England from the landowners of Eng-land. "No one," it says in a stirring editorial, "can easily defend the situation ... whereby 158,000 families own 41 million acres while the rest of us - 24 million families - live on just four million acres. Still less can anyone defend the system whereby, through the European Union, the big landowners receive subsidies from taxpayers."

Well, that last bit is being sturdily defended by the Department of Rural Affairs, for one. What the NS is complaining about is the dissociation of subsidies from farming production, which is part of the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, for which every environmental group in the country has been campaigning for years.

In launching this exciting campaign, the NS follows the lead given by Sir Ferdinand Mount, Margaret Thatcher's former policy adviser, who has written warmly in his latest book on the modern class divide, Mind the Gap, about the iniquity of planning legislation that limits the rights of the people of Britain to build on the land of Britain. By liberating land for building on, he wants "to help the Downers [viz, the underclass] break out of their ghettos...".

If this sounds rather familiar, that's because we have been here before. In the early years of the last century, the British government gave small Irish farmers (the farms were small, I mean, not the farmers) the right to buy their farms from the big landowners. It worked. Similarly, G K Chesterton in the Thirties led a movement, Distributivism, which campaigned for the people of England to be given plots of land to turn them into independent peasant proprietors like those in France.

The observant reader will have spotted, however, the difference between the Mount/New Statesman campaign and its predecessors. Whereas the former movements to redistribute land involved creating a mass of small farms, the new redistribution would involve creating several million Barrett homes.

They like to refer to Ireland as a state in which any citizen can buy a plot of land and build a bungalow on it. Quite a few of my schoolfriends did just this, and it's an object lesson in what not to do. You end up with a rash of incongruous and unpleasant houses, with American-style porticos, scattered randomly throughout the countryside in a fashion that makes tourists weep. And that's in a country of four million people. Britain has 60 million.

Ramblers, bird-fanciers and environmentalists may have had their differences in the past with the landowners of England. I fancy, though, that in this particular class war, they will find themselves squarely behind the dukes against the new champions of the proletariat. They've won the right to roam - over concrete?

New Best Friend

My, Cherie Blair's birthday celebrations last week sounded like fun. Poor Melvyn Bragg was in the doghouse. And then there was Carole Caplin, sulking visibly. Possibly because she was elbowed from her rightful place next to Cherie at dinner by Mrs Blair's new best friend, Martha Greene, 48, an American-born restaurateur. They met at Holmes Place gym. This may cheer up Mrs Blair's previous adviser, Fiona Millar, who has described being supplanted by the "flaky" Caplin.

But if Miss Caplin's influence has been problematic, Mrs Greene's doesn't sound much better. Her role is apparent in a photoshoot for the forthcoming Harper's Bazaar in which Cherie lounges on a couch in a Vivienne Westwood (read bodice, read cleavage) ballgown, with very dark eye make-up. Like so many brainy women, Mrs Blair seems captivated by the chance of looking glamorous. And like so many brainy women, she has rotten judgement in Best Friends.

One real campaigner for the underclass was Harold Davidson, the vicar of Stiffkey (pronounced Stookey, just to trap the unwary) of immortal memory, who fell spectacularly from grace more than 70 years ago. His career is the stuff of legend: the vicar of this rural Norfolk parish specialised in a ministry to fallen women. Most of his week was spent in London, helping prostitutes out of prostitution, and quite often he would bring them home to meet his wife and five children. Indeed, on one occasion he was so late back home that he rode his bicycle up the aisle of the church to make it in time for Sunday communion.

I know what you're thinking and you ought to be ashamed of yourselves, but the suspicions roused by every male philanthropist who engages with prostitutes (including Gladstone) did indeed fall on the poor vicar. He was accused and condemned of immorality by a consistory court after a set-up in which a young girl removed her clothes in front of him and a couple of photographers to make a sensational picture for the papers. Defrocked and embittered, he finished his career as an exhibit in a circus. He was devoured with zeal - by a lion, whose tail he trod on.

It is pleasing to record that this ornament to Anglicanism is now being rehabilitated in a new biography by Jonathan Tucker, who found that one prosecution witness against the vicar admitted that she had been given money by his enemies to testify against him and her revised evidence was never allowed. It all goes to show that no good deed goes unpunished. But am I alone in thinking that if the Church of England could boast more clerical eccentrics like the vicar of Stiffkey, it would have a securer place in the affections of the nation?

There was grateful approval from all those opposed to the war in Iraq for the declaration this week by Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General, that the war was "illegal". And, duly, all the MPs who discussed his pronouncement spoke reverently about their "respect" for Mr Annan. But, granted his utility as a stick with which to beat the Government, does the man deserve respect from anyone?

Earlier this year, Mr Annan played a prominent role in the UN commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda. Not just because of his present position in charge of the United Nations, but for his role back then when he was in charge of UN peacekeeping military operations. In that capacity, he not only ignored warnings of the planned mass murder, he also presided over the scandalous flight of Belgian UN peacekeepers from Rwanda, leaving the genocide to take place unhindered. The appalling consequences of his moral and political failure to prevent the murder of nearly a million people were articulated in a damning report for the UN by the former Swedish prime minister Ingvar Carlsson in 1999.

To his credit, Mr Annan has admitted that there was more that he "could and should" have done to prevent and curb the genocide, but does anyone else find it extraordinary that, having presided over the UN's single greatest failure, the man can then go on to become its Secretary-General? And be regarded with "respect" by Britain's amnesiac parliamentarians?

Janet Street-Porter is away

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