In England's green and far from peasant land

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WHO KILLED Farmer George? Once he was a cartoon personification of England, John Bull with straw in his hair. Now, though, the English seem to hate their farmers. They accuse them of having kidnapped England and then poisoned her.

With my French nephew, a farmer, I sat and watched last week's Panorama programme about set-aside - the policy of paying farmers to take land out of cultivation. At the end, he turned to me and asked in amazement: 'Why do the English think the land belongs to everybody - that the farmers have no right to it?'

I saw just what he meant. The talking heads on that programme assumed the land of England was the 'heritage' of the whole nation: not just of rural people but of the urban millions as well. Farmers, they implied, were just park wardens. Their duty was to keep the land fresh and fit for hedgehogs, ramblers, botanists, archaeologists and little green men who make crop circles. In return, farmers were permitted to grow things and make money out of it if they could. But let them not get too big for their wellies and imagine that the land was theirs . . .

Many readers will agree with this view of farmers. Subsidised through the Common Agricultural Policy, addicted to razing immemorial hedgerows and drugging the soil with nitrates, they should take a more penitent view of themselves. 'Sorry, England] From now on, we will wear green National Trust overalls and will stop draining our water meadows.'

There are - of course - solid and progressive arguments for this 'trustee' view of farmers. But my question is why the English, unlike other Europeans, have come to hold that view. Tenderness for the environment? That is the trendy surface. Below, more antique motives are lurking.

A few weeks ago in Sutherland, I was listening to men and women from the Assynt Crofters' Trust. They are trying to buy the North Lochinver Estate, the majestic landscape where they live and work, from the receivers of a bankrupt speculator. Allan Macrae, their chairman, spoke passionately about 'giving the land back to the people'. He denounced the wickedness of abandoning whole communities, with the land that had kept their ancestors, to the whims of absentee proprietors.

That was a European language which I know well. It says: 'A community and its land are indissoluble. A people and its culture begins with those who till this particular earth and keep herds on these hills. When that primal population is forced off its earth and its cottages are unroofed, by landlordism or market forces or both, then a nation begins to die.' Polish peasants say confidently: 'We feed; we defend.' Without their potatoes and pork, without their pikes and rifles, Poland would starve and surrender.

The same sense that the small farmer is the backbone of the nation (not necessarily of the state) underlies French attitudes. As a social class, the peasantry in France is rapidly dwindling. But the small 'cultivator' is still protected, both by laws about who may buy land and by the Common Agricultural Policy. When Allan Macrae spoke about land in the Highlands, where most smallholding tenure and rents are controlled under the Crofting Acts, he was talking in a way comprehensible to French and Polish peasants but also to the Irish. Militancy and radicalism about Scottish crofting land go back to the Land Leaguers of the last century. But they drew their inspiration from the vaster and angrier Land Leaguing of Michael Davitt in Ireland, which in the most natural way combined hatred of the landlord with Irish nationalism.

That combination - the passion for the distant goal of national independence, married to the very practical wish to break the grip of feudal or capitalist proprietors on the land - made modern Europe. The link between the two is a vision of community and responsibility. At best, this kind of politics produced a sober kind of self- managing democracy which was sceptical about the worship of money or power. At worst, it could degenerate into a 'blood and soil' populism which, in the Thirties, often became a tributary of Fascism. Both versions, however, assumed that a just state ought to help its rural population to stay on its land, by land reform or protectionism or a mixture of the two.

Now, in the age of the free market, the European peasantry is dissolving. The CAP remains, but as a Hadrian's Wall, protecting only a memory. And yet these attitudes to the farmer - that he stands for the old virtues and that his symbiosis with his land forms the primary national community - have not yet passed away. Except in England.

As usual, England is different. People talk about farmers these days as if they were usurpers, unfairly privileged squatters who prevent the English from enjoying their birthright. Once it was not so. In the days when the English thought (often wrongly) that they were eating bread made of Sussex wheat and bacon from Berkshire pigs, they talked proudly about 'yeoman stock'. Abandoned to their fate during the Depression, the farmers of England became heroes again in the last war when everybody had to 'Dig for Victory'. But now, when basic food all seems to come from some factory in Benelux, it is supposed that English farmers no longer feed anyone but instead reap subsidies from Community surplus mountains.

There are, I think, several reasons for this anti-farmer mood. One, the most respectable, is concern for the natural environment in a small and overcrowded country. Large-scale intensive farming has decimated the fauna and flora of England, and helped to poison its water. Another is resentment of a social group which has kept its subsidies when other citizens, who work just as hard, have lost theirs.

But green thoughts have spread rapidly through England precisely because farming is perceived as mere business - because there is no English peasantry. At this, the historian's divining-rod twitches, for here lies one of the underground rivers of English thinking.

There once was an English peasantry, but the peasants were wiped out by the enclosure movement, mostly in the 17th and 18th centuries. Their strips of land were swallowed into large capitalist farms. The peasants themselves were reduced to landless agricultural labourers, then to factory-fodder in the new industrial towns.

Next to the Tudor church settlement, the enclosures left the most lasting imprint on English attitudes. Even the long awfulness of English food was a consequence of the peasantry's extinction. More importantly, though, a bitterness remains. The English have not forgiven the enclosers. Much small farming survived, on poor soils, but the tribal core-community had been swept away. And that has had political consequences.

The idea of the peasant community as the embryo of a nation is a sentimental myth. But it is also a democratic myth - a way of saying that power begins with the people at the bottom of the heap. Most European nations hold to the doctrine of popular sovereignty, which owes a lot to their myths of peasant origin. The British state doctrine is the opposite: power and sovereignty start at the top, with the Crown, and trickle downwards.

Hating Farmer George, in other words, means nostalgia for a lost age of 'free-born Englishmen'. But it also conceals a dream of reconquering England - its government as well as its fields - in the name of the people.