Who do you want in charge of the countryside?

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The Independent Online

Billy Bragg has been in fine voice recently. Occupying the thoughtful-celebrity spot on the Any Questions? panel, he spoke out boldly on the various crises that beset rural communities. He expressed sympathy to farmers and the difficulties in which they now find themselves.

Billy Bragg has been in fine voice recently. Occupying the thoughtful-celebrity spot on the Any Questions? panel, he spoke out boldly on the various crises that beset rural communities. He expressed sympathy to farmers and the difficulties in which they now find themselves.

But, he added, he would be much more prepared to support government action and aid if those who lived in the country gave up their ridiculous opposition to the will of the majority, which has decreed that hunting with dogs should be banned.

The programme's West Country audience seemed a little stunned by this lordly pronouncement which, with cunning worthy of a politician, disguised its bullying message in the clothes of reasonableness, but I imagine it reflected the views of many urban and suburban listeners. It is time, they believe, for country people to modernise, bring their attitudes into line with people like them. Otherwise, rural communities could only blame themselves if they were abandoned.

A tiny advantage of a crisis like today's is that it helps one to see wider issues more clearly. Bragg's politics have always been refreshingly old Labour, representing a bracing, if sentimental, view of England and its working people. But such is the gaping divide between town and country that he now finds himself in very peculiar company indeed.

In a Newsnight debate this week, a besuited economist from something called the Cranfield School of Management - as far from the Bragg world-view as can be imagined - plumply offered a businessman's view of the foot-and-mouth epidemic. Its significance was hugely exaggerated, he seemed to be arguing. The country's larger agribusinesses would survive and, as for the rest, they were uneconomical, anyway; 48 per cent of all farms were what he termed "hobby farms" - presumably a reference to the fact that many who work on the land now have to take outside jobs to survive.

These attitudes, which cross the political spectrum, are revealing in a way that the hunting debate never was. Those on the Bragg side of the debate, who take a briskly prescriptive view to the countryside, stand shoulder to shoulder with hard-eyed business types who put the interests of supermarkets before any tiresome environmental, social or aesthetic concerns.

One sees the landscape developing into a well-ordered and smoothly run theme park that ramblers from Hampstead can safely visit. The other will happily see the countryside's uneconomic aspects - its hedgerows, ponds and unprofitably small meadows - destroyed to make way for a viable, food-producing factory stretching across the land.

Reaction to the crisis away from large towns has been intriguingly different, proving that, at times like this, country people have a sense of community that sneering metropolitans cannot begin to understand. Within hours of the foot-and-mouth epidemic being confirmed, the Countryside Alliance postponed the march that has been the focus of their efforts for the past 12 months. The horse-racing industry, without any prompting from government, effectively closed down at huge financial loss. In all rural areas, there has been none of the bossy attitudinising evident elsewhere, but a powerful sense that the only way to defeat a crisis of this type is to act together.

It would probably be facile, if not entirely inaccurate, to say that those who live in the countryside, who are in touch with the seasons and work with animals, have a more secure idea of neighbourliness and are generally more generous than town-dwellers. On the other hand, it is worth asking a simple, basic question. Would you prefer them to be in charge of the rural landscape - or those who this week are carping and criticising from the sidelines?

terblacker@aol.com

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