The stacking of the rendering pot that reflects the tired ideals of legacy politics in the UK is well underway, awaiting a final nudge to the full heat of a General Election. That pot will boil and spit toward some form of weary electoral conclusion no doubt, as the First Past the Post system aims to punt at another set of forlorn fixes to our current economic, societal and political malaise.
Same-old, then? But no — for the British countryside it is more critical this time round. For those who live in the countryside; those who work in the countryside; those who cherish it as home; or who simply love what it is, the political stakes for the future have never been higher. Quite simply, the next election heralds an existential reckoning for the British countryside.
As appears to be their want, as inexplicable as it is foolishly complacent, the Conservatives will wake to the challenge of the countryside vote – in 2019 their vote, winning 89% of all rural seats – overly late. No amount of warning will stir them from their torpor now: the countryside is lost to the Conservatives; its rural standing wounded, weakened and diminished.
For Labour, it cleverly tacks to a charted plan, a decade-long in the making, to seduce rural constituencies – the Tories’ very own ‘Rural Wall’ – to a position of strategic capture. This has moved Keir Starmer to a full-blown love-in with the National Farmers’ Union (NFU): at the NFU’s recent conference in Birmingham, Labour promised farmers “a new relationship with the countryside.”
In a foreword to Ed Rowlandson’s ‘The Elephant in the Countryside – Labour’s Rural Problem’ (2020), Labour peer Baroness Anne Mallalieu is succinct, wielding a stiletto-sharp point: “No party can afford to ignore the rural vote if it is serious about forming a government.” Labour now doubles down on strategy first proffered by Maria Eagle MP in a seminal report, ‘Labour’s Rural Problem’ in 2015. Not to labour a point, but — Labour needs the countryside…
The problem for Sir Keir, despite assurances that he represents now “a changed party from top to bottom”, is that the countryside has a memory. That memory, sufficient and deep, recalls yet viscerally the worst excesses of a previous Labour administration. It too attached to itself the identity and hope of the new only in time, to succumb, predictably, to the same prejudices and spite of the old. The loss to the countryside is still being borne today.
For party political machines attention is most acutely focused toward the urban. Cities and larger towns have the frenzy of modern political progressiveness about them: constituency-dense, campaign-efficient, tradition-lite, culturally-plastic; inclined to a potency of shifting opinion and electoral-swing. The countryside in contrast is none of this: the politics of the countryside is different: hard to move, slow to gain, sceptical of change.
It is precisely because a minority countryside sits as an aside from the majority urban that the countryside is impacted so greatly; little more than the mere dumb hostage to the vicissitudes, mechanisms and machinations of the body-politic and its hard-wired urban bias. The countryside has things done to it, imposed upon it, rather than with it and for it.
The countryside needs a direction; a future of its own making: A Countryside Manifesto. And not merely a broad policy brush, an unworkable mush of jargon, that amounts to nothing more substantive than a public relations exercise. A Countryside Manifesto would not simply pay lip-service to ‘environment’, to ‘habitat’, to ‘wildlife’, to ‘agriculture’, to ‘diversification’, to ‘recreation’, etc. It would frame once and for all the most important element of all in the countryside: its ‘people’.
It must be recognised that within the culture of the countryside, within local knowledge and skills, rests the key to achieving the aims of a Countryside Manifesto. Traditional and time-honoured practices would be acknowledged as principal policy drivers as, in the considered words of Roger Scruton in his book ‘Green Philosophy’ (2012), these are not “mere arbitrary rules and conventions”, but in fact “answers that have been discovered to enduring questions”.
Awareness, recognition, values, renewal, education and training would be core themes of a Countryside Manifesto. To that end, the significance and prominence of county-based agricultural/land-based colleges would be vigorously re-established. Established once as critical rural institutions under the 1947 Agriculture Act and attracting respect and a collective reputation for excellence throughout the world, since 1997 this unique and proudly specialist sector has been deliberately gutted.
Re-invigorated, agricultural/land-based colleges would embrace a new role as county/region-focused rural development hubs: locating relevant business and investment expertise at the very heart of the rural communities they intend to serve. Banks and other funding institutions would campaign and bid for on-campus presence at each of the colleges. Operational independence, once a proud and respected feature of this highly influential land-orientated training sector, would be restored again in full measure.
Food security, biodiversity and sustainable land management together now mean more to the nation than, arguably, ever before. Yet with the politically inspired demise of the county agricultural/land-based college over the last three decades there is barely anyone left capable of evolving and teaching the practical skills, nurturing and extending the specialist managerial talent necessary to built and prepare the countryside for the future. The agricultural/land-based college system must be saved.
A trend aimed at restricting agriculture slowly gains momentum throughout Europe. Much of this can be associated with, at the very least, debatable environmental policy; some of it, at the most extreme, an arguably plausible agenda to nationalise land and drive people from it. If history has taught anything, it is the often-deep association national populations have with land. This is becoming, certainly across the European Union, a recipe for protest and organised political activity.
The rise of the of the farmers’ protest movement in the Netherland is a case in point. The Farmer-Citizen Movement (BoerBurgerBeweging – BBB) was formed in protest to Dutch government policy to reduce nitrogen pollution on farms by forcing thousands of farmers from their land. With a surge in popular support, the BBB won around 20% of the vote for the Dutch Senate in March of this year. “Nobody can ignore us any longer,” said BBB leader Caroline van der Plas. “Voters have spoken out very clearly.”
In the UK context, it is the heedless rush to the political grail of ‘Net Zero’ that drives both our main parties, Conservative and Labour alike. Re-assurance is important to any farming business, indeed to all forms of land management. Without it doubt and hopelessness take hold.
Confidence is currently being bled from British farming, and although several reasons can be cited for this, the prospect of Net Zero is the most significant. For example, a combination of livestock restriction, on-shore wind power development and carbon-off-setting by tree-planting, both subsidy-lucrative, could well end traditional upland farming in the UK forever – along with the families and communities who call those places home.
The Countryside needs a voice. The countryside needs a leader who can put a meaningful Countryside Manifesto together and who may champion the kind of message that the people of the countryside and their supporters can stand full-square behind. The politics of the countryside is different. That must be completely understood and appreciated in all its colour, shade, nuance, texture and complexity.
The countryside can actively rise. The countryside can politically engage. If the countryside is to retain its identity – its culture, traditions, liberty and values – it must succeed in both. The Conservatives have forgotten what the countryside is; taking its vote for granted. Labour works to a plan; if the plan prevails, the elite progressives in its metropolitan strongholds and the vengeful Left who do not leave old inclinations so lightly will have their way: Labour will fail the countryside.
Within the excellence of his thinking, Sir Roger Scruton invokes the theories of Edmund Burke (1729-1797) in attempting to explain how the countryside is. He writes of “the little platoons”, suggesting that in families, associations and gatherings, in long-shared interests, lay the foundation of social cultural traditions built on “affection and loyalty”. To Burke, Scruton tells us, traditions are “forms of knowledge” the “inherited solutions to problems that we all encounter”.
“Social tradition exists because they enable a society to reproduce itself,” offers Scruton. That is why tradition is so important in the countryside: tradition is required in order to exist. “Destroy them heedlessly,” Scruton warns, “and you remove the guarantee offered by one generation to the next”. To the countryside, passing on values to a future and the meaning attached to the past counts for everything.
Pay attention to the little platoons, understand them, offer them fair claim to a future, then you just might find you have an army prepared to march again, and this time one fully prepared to vote.