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Listen to the countryside

Matthew Fort
Sunday September 19 2004
The Observer


In spite of what has been said, declared or, in most cases, shouted, the bill banning hunting with dogs is not really about cruelty to animals. Still less is it striking a blow against the class system. It is about the final triumph of town over country. It is about the contempt that urban Britain has for rural Britain.

Today, 81 per cent of the British population live in metropolitan areas. Those who were born in cities, became rich in cities, decided to stay there - except at weekends. There simply isn't enough money in farming, or any part of the rural economy, to make it worth their while buying anything other than a weekend retreat.

These new, part-time country folk do not buy into rural social structures, activities or principles. They bring with them their urban habits, their urban pastimes, their urban values. They complain about sheep on the road, smells in the air and the sound of church bells ringing on Sunday morning.

And they are only a minority. The vast majority of city dwellers have hardly anything to do with the countryside, visiting it as they would the hinterland of Spain, Greece or Italy when they can't visit Spain, Greece or Italy, viewing it as tourists, with curiosity but no understanding.

The depth of that misunderstanding has been revealed by several columnists commenting on this brouhaha, who have equated those who live in the country with the moneyed, land-owning class or their forelock-tugging dependents, as if all people who did not live as they did conform to the stereotypes which suit their argument. And, of course, economics as well as history are on their side. Agriculture only contributes 1.7 per cent to GDP, businesses located in the countryside even less.

Financial and political power reside in the cities. The fact is that rural Britain doesn't matter politically or socially any more. The sense of marginalisation and estrangement of the rural underclass, which is defined not by income or social back ground, but by where they live and work, has bred anger and despair. They sense viscerally the contempt and triumphalism of the urban mass overclass.

No other topic brings out this divide more clearly than the debate on hunting with dogs, nor illustrates the hypocrisy of public attitudes to animal welfare. Fox hunting seems to elicit a degree of sanctimony, humbug and sophistry unparalleled in modern politics. Even the most committed anti-hunting commentators admit that, in terms of animal cruelty, fox hunting rates low on the list of atrocities we allow to be routinely inflicted on various animal, bird and piscine species. Somehow the fox elicits tender feelings in the breasts of politicians and the urban majority that they deny chickens, pigs, cows and salmon.

There is no denying fox hunting is cruel, and that it is done largely for pleasure, but is there any moral difference between consciously inflicting cruelty for pleasure or consciously inflicting it for profit?

The scale of cruelty, its intensity and constancy that society tolerates on creatures bred in the name of the consumer far outweighs anything done in the name of sport to the fox. The truth is that, as an urban society, we no longer care about the provenance of our food, as long as it comes in sufficient quantities and at low enough prices. Urbanisation has led to us being separated from the food chain. We don't really want to know more about the mucky business of looking after living beasts or converting the living ones to the dead ones. We are happy to find animals reduced to indefinable lumps of protein trimmed, neat and tidy, beneath their shiny clingfilm armour.

The process of urbanisation inevitably goes hand in hand with increasing institutional control. Cities depend on highly geared co-operation. Without it, they would disintegrate into chaos. However, this can only be achieved by institutional, usually state, control. Little by little, urbanites have ceded freedom and responsibilities to the state in exchange for rigorously regulated harmony.

Except in carefully defined areas, city life is defined by the absence of freedoms, independence and responsibility. This underlying principle is now being foisted on rural Britain.

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