Countryside excluded from 'one nation' world
There will be many Western Morning News readers who remember July 10, 1997, very well. My experience would have been fairly typical.
I had organised for someone to look after the farm for the day and very early in the morning met a few friends at Thelbridge Cross in Devon, where a coach from Chumleigh stopped to pick us up. We did one more pick-up in Nomansland, heading on the long road to London.
We were not off to a cricket match, or a day of culture in London's museums and galleries, we were going to something none of us had experienced before: a political demonstration.
Three on the bus had never even been to London before. As we reached Bristol and turned right along the M4 we all started to understand that something very special was happening. Our coach was not, shall we say, in the prime of youth. It chugged along the inside lane at not much more than 50mph and from behind us came coach after coach filled with people not unlike us who recognised the "Taw Vale Beagles" banner hanging across our back window and waved their own banners as they overtook.
Business Cards From Only £10.95 Delivered www.myprint-247.co.ukView details
Our heavyweight cards have FREE UV silk coating, FREE next day delivery & VAT included. Choose from 1000's of pre-designed templates or upload your own artwork. Orders dispatched within 24hrs.
Terms: Visit our site for more products: Business Cards, Compliment Slips, Letterheads, Leaflets, Postcards, Posters & much more. All items are free next day delivery. www.myprint-247.co.uk
Contact: 01858 468192
Valid until: Friday, May 31 2013
Hunts from Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, South Wales, Herefordshire, Gloucestershire and many other counties were on the march and we knew that on other motorways thousands of others would be heading into London from different parts of the country.
Our destination was Hyde Park and after a short walk from our designated parking spot we reached the edge of the park.
The two memories that remain with me most clearly were the huge barrage balloons, one for each county, which flew above the rally, and the moment when we joined the back of the crowd and realised that there were not just a few people between us and the stage but a sea, hundreds of yards and thousands of people deep.
The impact of that demonstration on politicians and the media was profound, but I think its impact on us was even greater. Coming from rural communities, many of them isolated and tiny, it is very easy to become defeatist about the dominance of the urban, sometimes unthinking, majority. How can the few of us in our village in Devon, Cornwall, West Wales or Northumbria ever challenge the millions who pack into the towns and cities of Britain? What July 10, 1997, showed us was that we were not alone, that there were tens, even hundreds, of thousands like us and that together we could make people stop and think.
We came again in 2000 and marched past Westminster, a quarter of a million strong and then, in 2002, by which time I was working for the Countryside Alliance, an extraordinary 407,000 people marched for Liberty and Livelihood in the biggest civil liberties demonstration in British history. I am absolutely convinced that the solidarity and confidence those demonstrations brought to the countryside have played a vital part in helping rural people through 15 years of extraordinary social change, intermittent crises and the symbolic assault on our way of life that was the Hunting Act.
That is why the words of Shadow environment secretary Mary Creagh brought me up short when I read them last week. Ms Creagh said that those demonstrations were "a kind of luxury protest, to talk about what you do at the weekend". It is bad enough that she obviously feels it is acceptable to dismiss any demonstration with which she does not agree, but the presumption that our protest was just something we did so we could chat about it later is simply offensive. Imagine the reaction if a politician had described the demonstration against the Iraq war as a "luxury protest for the chattering classes".
What makes those comments even more extraordinary is the commitment Labour leader Ed Miliband has made to "One Nation" politics. Mr Miliband has talked about bringing the country together and never accepting "nasty, divisive politics". Yet his shadow cabinet colleague does not seem far removed from the Labour MP who admitted the Hunting Act was about "class war" just after it was passed.
Labour won 100 rural seats in 1997 nearly all of which have since reverted back to the Lib Dems and Conservatives and in 2010 Labour won just 18 per cent of the vote in the 150 or so most rural constituencies. Labour will not win a majority without returning MPs for rural constituencies which is something the party clearly understands.
Yet words and deeds remain very far apart: rural protests are dismissed as luxuries and every rural issue from badgers to horse meat are played out for party political gain. The countryside wants to be part of one nation yet, again and again, Labour politicians play politics with rural issues. The question for Ms Creagh and Mr Miliband is whether their "one nation" includes the countryside because at present we feel excluded from their world.