Richard Askwith: Why you won't see me marching for my countryside

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The Independent Online

You can't go far in my part of Northamptonshire without seeing one of those curiously respectable red, white and green posters urging you to march for "Liberty and Livelihood" on Sunday.

You can't go far in my part of Northamptonshire without seeing one of those curiously respectable red, white and green posters urging you to march for "Liberty and Livelihood" on Sunday. They're everywhere: in fields, in garden fences, in the windows of houses and cars. Even if you did miss them, there's no shortage of enthusiasts to ram the message home, some more pointedly than others. "You'll be there," is the usual formula. "Won't you?"

To which the answer, in my case, is, unfortunately, no.

I say "unfortunately" for two reasons. First, many people I like and respect will be going, and feel strongly that others should too. Not just fox-hunters, but people of all kinds and classes who believe – with good reason – that their way of life is threatened. People who, in some cases, will be out of jobs this time next year if the Government doesn't change course. Not to join them in their protest feels uncomfortably like treachery.

The second reason is that I sympathise with the marchers' causes. True, I don't hunt and would not mourn hunting's passing. But the only case for banning it is a moral one, and governments should not legislate exclusively for the moral wellbeing of the governed. That way, tyranny lies; especially if the moral legislation is guided, as in this case, by class hatred. (If it isn't, why aren't we banning angling?)

As for the "livelihood" half of the protest, it's impossible to live in the country and not be acutely aware of the desperate plight of the rural economy. The national statistics are horrifying: 60,000 farm jobs lost in three years; the value of the farm industry reduced by 70 per cent since 1995; a suicide a week among farmers and farm workers. At a local level, the symptoms are as ubiquitous as those posters: farms for sale, shops and post offices closing, bus services withering, pubs and schools struggling, police forces (the same ones who would enforce a hunting ban) evaporating, farming friends emigrating in despair. Should something be done? Damn right it should.

But as for marching for liberty and livelihood – I'm sorry, but I can't bring myself to do it. A protest needs a specific demand: a change of policy that is the protesters' price for going away. What does this protest want? Liberty? Or livelihood?

The two causes almost contradict one another. One implies laissez-faire, the other intervention. Country-dwellers can't tell the townies who govern them to leave them alone in one breath, while demanding in the next that they intervene to rescue their livelihoods. Well, they can; and they will, whether I join them or not. But I don't believe for a moment that doing so will advance both causes equally.

The townies at whom the march is directed will take a single message from it: that is the effect that protests have. And the message they will surely take on Sunday is that a huge chunk of the population is passionately opposed to a hunting ban. The rural economy won't get a look in. Any political benefits will accrue to the hunting lobby.

Fair enough. If the ban gets dropped, I'll be glad. The disappearance of hunting would make no more difference to my life than it would to the fox population, but the thought keeps coming back: first they came for the fox-hunters, but I was not a fox-hunter, and so I did nothing... If someone organised a march explicitly to save hunting I'd be tempted to join. But I'm damned if I'm going to march for that cause if it's disguised as a benefit for the rural poor.

Likewise, I'm thoroughly in favour of any campaign for more vigorous state intervention in the countryside economy. To allow market forces to carry on devastating our rural communities unchecked would be a disaster, just as it was when they devastated our mining communities. A depressed, alienated wasteland of a countryside impoverishes us all; a thriving one would enrich us. If the metropolitan élite who govern us cannot see this, they should be encouraged to do so. I would happily march to make this point – but not if my actions will be twisted (as they would be) to suggest that I believe in the virtues of fox-hunting.

The countryside won't have a viable future until society decides that we all have a stake in that future. And as long as the issue of the rural economy is tied to that of the right to kill foxes, that isn't going to happen. I wonder if it mightn't be smarter for the farmers and their friends to distance themselves from the hunting lobby and instead form a radical alliance with the large and growing band of "soft" country-lovers whom they have traditionally despised: ramblers, day-trippers, second-homers, newcomers and so forth, including all those millions of animal-lovers.

There would, of course, be a price to be paid: hunting – because animal-loving townies are precisely the constituency in which the anti-hunting movement is rooted. But think of the compensatory benefits. Countryside-lovers are far more numerous than countryside-dwellers, and more influential. Both groups have an interest in averting rural blight. Together, they could bring the wellbeing of rural Britain to the top of the political agenda.

Most of Sunday's marchers would probably consider that price too high to pay. But they should bear in mind the opposite danger: that in defending the rights of the fox-hunters so enthusiastically, they may condemn other rural issues to years more of neglect.