Leading Article: Rural toffs rally a rag-bag army

ONE MOMENT there was a small bunch of toffs defending an unpopular cause, foxhunting. The next, a mass movement of the countryside came to town to petition the Government with a list of grievances long enough to start an insurrection. From hunting to a whole "way of life", the list now includes the ban on British beef exports, the ban on beef on the bone, the ban on handguns, building on the green belt, townies roaming, dropping litter and trampling crops, the closure of the village post office, the running down of the rural bus service and the lack of jobs and homes for young people in the country.

Suddenly, all these issues have come together. Like one of those rather unconvincing scenes in movies where a small band of righteous protesters find their ranks swelled by onlookers and passers-by, the red-jacketed hunters find themselves at the head of the massed ranks demanding justice for the countryside against the unfeeling, uncomprehending town. Last night the beacons burned with self-righteousness and all that was missing was the stirring score for violins and a convincing male lead to play the Wat Tyler role.

Let us not be taken in. This is not a new social movement. This weekend's march is a big public relations stunt staged by a group of rich people, many of whom do not live in this country, let alone this country's countryside. But they own much of it and have important vested interests to defend. As we report today, the politics of the march are right, right, right.

The grouse-moor owners, the big farmers and the nouveaux gentry have been astute in recruiting a rag-bag of groups opposed to one change or other - some changes are the responsibility of government, most are generated by economic and social forces beyond anyone's control. What is obvious about the list of grievances from even a cursory inspection is that they are entirely incoherent.

Hare coursing, for example, is a rough working-class sport far removed from the rural idyll of rolling fields and hedges. And the BSE crisis was hardly caused by ignorant urban folk misunderstanding the realities of country life: rather, it was the farmers who eagerly embraced the cost- and corner-cutting imperatives of agribusiness.

The bonfire-burners and marchers are held together by the glue of the romantic self-image of country-dwellers and the cry: "They do not understand us." And, of course, the power of this sense of being misunderstood should not be underestimated. Last night it lit more beacons than the Queen's Jubilee.

Hence the Prime Minister's posture of appeasement. Here is a leader who takes the rhetoric of One Nation seriously. He does not want to start narrowing the gap between rich and poor only to find a different fissure opening between two nations "ignorant of each other's habits, thoughts and feelings". But let us keep our eyes firmly fixed on the real interests at stake. One of the biggest problems in the countryside is the poverty of many of the people who live and work there. If the rural poor are marching against a government that will introduce a minimum wage, they have got it wrong. They should be marching on the gates of their local landowner.