Why country folk want to hang a `do not disturb' sign on their gates

The country comes to the city next week, to protest in London about not being `understood'. Andreas Whittam Smith understands only too well
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The Independent Online
IT IS always important when people take to the streets. Let there be no doubt that the huge rally of rural folk due to take place in London next Sunday is a significant event. In my lifetime, coal-mining communities and anti-nuclear arms protesters have staged marches on a scale that has compelled attention. We should take the countryside protest with equal seriousness, even though we are promised that it will be peaceful, picking up its litter as it goes, and that it will dispense with the inflammatory speeches normal on such occasions. Probably the 2,000 beacons which are to be lit across the countryside at dusk on Thursday will be just as eloquent as a tirade by Arthur Scargill or Michael Foot.

Yet the march is puzzling. What could possibly bring country people in such number - over 100,000 are expected - to the heart of the capital? They hate London. They despise people who live in towns. For decades the shires have been peaceful. Rural depression once caused Norfolk to elect Labour members of Parliament. But that is all. Indeed for over 50 years now, we have heaped such riches onto the farming community in terms of subsidies, fixed prices, compensation against any untoward development, special tax breaks, that it is very surprising that the countryside should dare to protest. If banners are to be carried on Sunday, I think it would be appropriate if they simply displayed the words "Thank you" to acknowledge how well the 80 per cent of the population that is urban has looked after it country cousins. If we stopped sheltering agriculture from market forces, we would have much cheaper food and lower taxes. That is the sacrifice that the town makes to the country. Many industries and millions of urban workers have faced and do face much greater difficulties. There have been no guarantees for factory work as there have been for farming.

This is why I doubt whether the primary motivation of the marchers on Sunday will be economic, even though rural incomes evidently are under threat. For example, the Government is conspicuously refusing to apply to Brussels for the compensation that British farmers could expect to receive on account of the appreciation of the pound. The Secretary of State for Agriculture, Jack Cunningham, has signalled that the days of unlimited subsidies are drawing to a close. Among agricultural ministers, he is not alone in this. The nations of Europe wish to spend less on farming in order to keep their budget deficits under better control; at the same time international trading rules are beginning to outlaw many forms of agricultural support. The forces bearing down on farm incomes are powerful and pervasive and international in character. No amount of marching would make an iota of difference. In its heart, the farming community must know this.

Is the clue to why country folk are marching to be found in their most often repeated complaint, albeit the most vague - we are not understood? Here are some of the comments that rural protesters have been making: "a largely urban Parliament does not really understand rural issues." "We are all in crisis through lack of political understanding and are desperate for recognition." "People in towns don't really seem to want to know or care."

My immediate response to this is to say that urban people understand only too well. Not only do we realise how heavily we subsidise the countryside, we also know that country dwellers are poor protectors of the environment. Some of the people marching in London on Sunday will have been busy destroying hedge rows in the past few months. No sooner did farmers realise that legislation will shortly come into force that will increase the protection of ancient hedgerows, essential shelter and habitat as they are for wild birds, animals, plants, insects and the like, than they engaged in a frenzy of hedge destruction in order to pre-empt the new regulations. About one third of the hedges of England and Wales are thought to have been lost between 1984 and 1993. The Council for the Protection of Rural England estimates that more than 2,000 miles have been ripped up in the past nine months - an increase of more than 30 per cent on the same period a year earlier. In light of this, one could say that the countryside is too precious to be left in the charge of country people.

But there is something else that may not be understood sufficiently well. Another remark quoted recently put the point: "There's support for the rally ... because there's a general attack on our liberties. Everywhere our freedom of choice is disappearing." The liberties under threat are by now well known. They comprise the right to go hunting foxes with dogs, which is banned in the awkwardly named private member's measure currently in Parliament - the "Wild Mammals (Hunting with dogs) Bill". In the same list is the right for owners of mountain, moorland, heath, downland and common land - some 12 per cent of the entire land of England and Wales - to forbid walkers to roam freely across their estates. This will be the subject of a Government statement to-morrow. The beef-on-the- bone ban also figures, although its effects are felt by all hearty eaters, whether town or country. Likewise the threat - from Brussels - to the production of unpasteurised milk and cheese is lumped in.

The principles underlying the four examples are different. In the case of hunting the issue is the right of minorities to pursue their ancient customs unless - as with cock-fighting or bear baiting - they are exceptionally repugnant. It is the principle of tolerance. The United Kingdom has stricter laws preventing cruelty to animals than most nations, yet fox hunting has always been allowed to continue. The right to roam, virtuous though it may seem, is an attack on the rights of property owners. Whatever the disgraceful circumstances in which the old landed estates were put together, or whatever the hard-faced arrogance of owners who erect "no trespassing" signs on the gates opening out to vast stretches of wilderness, the right to privacy on one's own property is a powerful and long-established rule. In the same way, Mr Cunningham's ban on beef-on-the-bone is an interference with our liberty to lead our own lives.

The marchers on Sunday, therefore, do have something to say, which despite all my irritations at country people appeals deeply to me. They are protesting at what they perceive as an attempt to reduce the boundaries in which we conduct our private activities. That is what will bring tens of thousands of people into the London streets on Sunday and that they are concerned exclusively with rural activities is besides the point. But I doubt whether the countryside will need to hold any further rallies. It looks as if the Government has taken the point. The marchers have already attained their objective.