The Countryside March in London on 1st March 98 showed the level of hostility among some people in rural areas have to what is going on in Britain. The organisers, the Countryside Alliance, are from the hunting fraternity, but made much of the real problems like lack of services and shops in rural areas, the government's ban on selling beef on the bone, as well as the private member's bill to ban fox hunting with hounds. But at the core was the feeling that 'townies' don't understand the countryside, and that is what brought out an estimated 140,000 people into London.
But the problems of the British countryside are real. They have long, deep roots, going back in some cases several hundred years. While some problems do lie in an urban-centred thinking in society and government, many of them have their roots among country people themselves. Indeed, it is problems among the latter that are the most deep-seated and most harmful, and they are the very problems which the march organisers have for years acquiesced to and usually actively exacerbated. But this is not generally recognised. Therefore I seek here to bring these roots to light. In doing so I do not seek to imply censure, but rather to understand causes.
While the presenting problems are many, their main roots are as follows, and they are intertwined with each other.
"Keep people out of the Glen," was a remark I once heard from a non- Scottish large landowner of part of a Scottish glen. It typifies the attitude of many landowners and other people of influence in rural areas. The cause of rural depopulation lies not just at the door of 'townies'; it is something that many country people have for centuries supported and even caused. Go back to the Highland Clearances, when the landowners threw people off their land to make way for commodities they thought would be more financially attractive. In the rest of the U.K. this was less blatant but landowners still find it convenient to shed people, even though they might not have actively driven people off their land in most cases. Not only was there a pull of the cities and industry, but also a push from landowners.
Because of this, rural issues, needs and problems are seldom seen as vital or relevant. They get ignored and overlooked. But also the rural areas are seen by most people in 'theme park' terms. To business, rural areas are seen as parcels of land awaiting 'development'. The only limit to this way of thinking is by setting up special curbs, such as found in planning: e.g. areas of high grade agricultural land may not be developed, also green belts.
But it has led to problems. First, land has been misused and desecrated, when the landowner or major tenant deemed it in their interest so to do. Second, access to land has been denied to ordinary people - except for the continuous vigilance of those who have kept our rights to footpaths. Ordinary people have been seen as destroyers of the land - and indeed a very few vandals have been - but the majority of the desecration has been by the landowners themselves and their tenants.
The upshot of this, along with the divorce of rural from the rest of society, is that ordinary people no longer see countryside as something directly relevant to themselves (except as mere 'theme park' to use for leisure) and do not feel any responsibility towards it. It is "somebody else's problem" because it is somebody else's "property".
We see it only as an industrial site for food production (farmers), as an asset from which to make money (landowners), as a source of raw materials (quarrying), as a place to build (developers). We have not treated land on its own terms: as a vital and vibrant community of human and non-human life that brings joy as well as food, inspiration as well as earnings, a home as well as a building. Our approach has been utilitarian rather than one of stewardship, creative responsibility and active partnership.
The result of this assumption is that we - both town and country people - have allowed the rich potential of our land to be plundered and destroyed. Using a financial metaphor, we have drained the capital assets and built up an enormous debt - that we now have to start paying off. With interest. That is why the climb back up to environmental sustainability is going to be painful.
So farming has lost its true role, and, in conjunction with the utilitarian approach to land, has in many cases tended to remove any obstacles to maximizing the quantitative criteria by which industry and then business are judged (production figures in the 1970s, profits in the 1990s). Farming has suffered more than most from the divorcing of rural from the rest of society, and farming now has the highest suicide rate of any profession.
But farmers themselves are very much to blame, along with those they allied themselves with in the feed industry, the farm machinery industry and the chemical industry. It is ironic that while Janet George of the Countryside Alliance bemoaned that 15,900 jobs would be lost if fox hunting were stopped, she made no mention of the 3,000,000 jobs that have been lost in farming since the War. No longer are farms little communities of active, creative, cooperating people; they are sterile food factories run by a single manager with machinery, for personal gain.
The rural world view is that we interact with our environment - the weather, the seasons, the sources of our resources, and the activity of the natural world. We gain enjoyment from doing so, and creatively respond to the constraints and stimuli it gives us. We take responsibility to maintain the health of our resource base.
The urban world view is that we have a right to convenience: we shield ourselves from our environment, and obtain our resources 'on tap' - whether
Such an 'urban' attitude has contributed to many of the problems above. Sadly, even many so-called country people have an urban attitude to most things.
While I might be mistaken in some of my suggestions, until the roots of the problems that lie in the country itself is recognised by those in whom they lie, and 'repented' of, the problems will not be solved.