The hounding of country folk

Max Hastings says that New Labour has shown itself to be horribly old Labour in its often visceral distaste for the countryside A friend of mine said the other day, I don't think many people realise just how close we are to losing the English countryside for good. I've come to the conclusion that we've simply got to aim to survive this government, and pray for something better in the future.' My friend is no alarmist. I agree with him.

I am not approaching this from what we might call a familiar Spectator perspective. That is to say, I do not think the Blair government the worst in living memory. That distinction rests inalienably with Mr John Major. This may not be a very good administration, but it has got some important things right. Only a relentlessly crabby Tory media denies it credit for them.

But New Labour has shown itself horribly old Labour in one important respect. It is still a party of cities and pavements, for all the rural constituencies in which its MPs now bivouac. It possesses a deep, visceral distaste for the countryside, save on its own terms. Its left-wingers have been denied the red meat of class war on the big issue of confiscatory taxation. Instead, they are being thrown the bone of harrying and tormenting the old rural classes.

Peter Kellner, a pundit with a shrewd understanding of New Labour's thought processes, once explained to me why Tony Blair would probably allow his party to ban fox-hunting: To him, it's no big deal. It's not an important issue to give in to the backbenches about. Fox-hunting may matter a lot to people like you, but the government sees it as a very small concession to shut up the Left.'

I was among those who strongly supported the government's decision to displace hereditary peers from the House of Lords. It seems right to remove residual political power from the aristocracy. What seems indefensible, however, is that, having done so, New Labour should continue to harry the poor old toffs in their rural fastnesses, and to destroy the way of life that Millbank associates with them. You and I know that the countryside is not about toffs, but a lot of New Labour still thinks it is. Its grandees even stay away from the Chelsea Flower Show, because they scent a whiff of toffery about the occasion.

In reality, both peasants and squires have almost entirely vanished. Most country-dwellers are incurably middle-class, though an art-dealer acquaintance of mine continues, with a desperation marvellous to behold, to plead his claims to higher status. The countryside is about green fields and chalk streams, struggling farmers and millions of people who want to preserve some part, at least, of a great historic and natural legacy. It is not the legacy of Thomas Hardy, who so vividly chronicled the ghastliness of life for the old peasant class. It is that of the naturalists, the Whites and Hudsons, the rural writers such as Surtees, Sir Edward Grey, A.G. Street, who had no sentimental delusions, but cherished a deep love for the landscape and everything that lived in it.

My father, himself a rural writer half a century ago, used to observe with relish that the principal activities of the countryside are sex and death'. One of the simplest and best arguments for field sports remains the fact that hunters, shooters and fishers merely contribute to the cycle of predation in which almost every wild creature is engaged. A.G. Street, a Wiltshire farmer, said on Any Questions? 50 years ago, I would no more defend fox-hunting than ploughing, sowing, reaping, or any other event in the country calendar.' New Labour, however, is bent upon mix-and-matching the bits of rural life it now finds acceptable, and ruthlessly liquidating those it does not.

For both its supporters and its foes, foxhunting is a symbol -- of personal liberty, of a minority culture, of a traditional ornament to the landscape. In theory if not in plausibility, even if hunting is banned, it could some day be restored by a more liberal government. The countryside faces other perils, the consequences of which could never be reversed if they are not averted.

Anyone who drives today across Hampshire, Sussex or Dorset can see the terrifying scale of suburbanisation in southern England. Some of the most beautiful landscapes we have known are disappearing before our eyes. Now, Mr John Prescott intends to build a further 200,000 houses -- the location of which will be determined, ultimately, by himself.

It is not a cheap shot but a reasonable question to ask whether anyone running a business or institution would regard Mr Prescott as an appropriate person to occupy a responsible post in it. I seem to remember an acquaintance of Mr Prescott's in his ship-stewarding days who once asserted that he was prone to put black polish on the brown shoes. Mr Prescott is one of life's cheerful bunglers, a refugee from the Carry On cast. His only claim upon political authority is that a lot of old Labour types love him. It is fantastic that Mr Blair has now given this man, an embarrassment to his own government, power to silence the voices of the county councils, and to decree almost at will which swaths of green England will disappear under concrete.

A fundamental problem is the government's confusion of housing demand with housing need. Few of us doubt that if the house-builders were allowed to create, say, another million houses in south-east England, they could sell them. In our affluence, we have created absurd fantasies about our right to overhouse ourselves on a huge scale, even as the national birth-rate is relentlessly falling. Sooner or later, there must be a government with the courage to acknowledge that further large-scale building is not sustainable if England is to remain a tolerable place in which to live by the end of the century.

We all share a desire to see affordable' housing made available to relatively poorly paid key workers. But I share the scepticism of Simon Jenkins and others about whether this vast, overblown market is susceptible to central government manipulation; whether making Mr Prescott manager of a national housing estate is going to solve the problem. We shall only begin to make some progress when a British house once again becomes perceived as a place to live in rather than as the only copper-bottomed asset beyond the fiscal grasp of a greedy government.

It would be paranoid to suggest that New Labour is pursuing an explicitly political purpose, seeking to transform southern England into a vast suburbia in which a few traditional farmers and landowners are preserved only for exhibition in safari parks. But it does not seem fanciful to suggest that the party does not care if this is the outcome. By acceding to demands for house- and airport-building, they believe that they are benefiting the highest good: economic growth. The sort of people who make most fuss are those whom it gives Mr Prescott most pleasure to upset.

I suspect that he and his colleagues believe, in their hearts, that their policies will replace a class-ridden Miss Marple rural society (which has not in reality existed for 40 years) by something more comfortably contemporary. Remember the glee with which the Deputy Prime Minister anticipated the abolition of fox-hunting in his Labour party conference speech a year or two ago? When the last manor house has become a conference centre at which Lord Birt keeps a standing account, when the last farmyard has surrendered to the massed ranks of Ms Janet Street-Porter's ramblers from the nearby New Town, Mr Prescott will at last have created an England he feels comfortable with.

There is, of course, a third element in the countryside crisis: the fact that the farming industry is on the verge of collapse. Mr Gordon Brown's promised £5 billion over three years will do more than check the process a trifle. Yet we should be honest and acknowledge that the agricultural issue is the least susceptible to ready government solution. It is an almost inevitable upshot of an attempt to end the follies of half a century of subsidy, which paid farmers absurd prices in the interests of boosting home production. The environmental consequences, and the cost to the consumer, were dire.

I remember a contemporary of mine, farming a modest 500 acres, who was making so much money in the 1970s that he was educating three children, digging swimming pools, and even running the odd racehorse on the proceeds. Farmers grew accustomed to absurdly unrealistic levels of income. A reverent note enters any political conversation when small farmers are mentioned, but who can seriously suggest that a farmer, any more than any other kind of small businessman, has a divine right to expect to support a family on, say, 70 acres?

Change, an injection of reality, had to come. The government's recent Curry report is a pretty sensible document. Subsidy must shift from production to environmental and social support, as some of us have been urging for 20 years and more. Farmers must pay a bitter price, in most respects an unjust price, for the dramatic switch of public opinion over the past generation from blind trust in their stewardship of the land to deep mistrust. The most useful supportive measure government could take is to enforce the same regulatory regime on all food imports that British farmers are obliged to implement. This would help significantly on the margin.

And the huge, traumatic upheaval in agriculture is being overlaid on all the other stresses affecting the countryside. We see a situation in which almost the only people living in rural communities who make good money are those who do not depend on the land for their income, or those who can enrich themselves by submerging grass under concrete.

The farming community is not being helped through its agony by supportive words and encouragement from government. Such figures as Mrs Margaret Beckett and Mr Elliot Morley simply do not know enough about the countryside to work sympathetically with it. Ministers have a vision of the sort of rural England they want, which has next to nothing in common with that of real country people. Indeed, the abolition of fox-hunting and the right to roam' seem the only issues on which Mrs Beckett and Mr Morley are capable of generating personal passion.

Alongside the threats posed by development and the farming crisis, the abolition of fox-hunting may seem small potatoes. Yet for a great many of us, even though our lives will not be directly affected by a ban, it would be a brutal landmark. Stopping hunting would give a signal about the sort of country Britain had become, about the intolerance of its rulers, which would be very hard to live with.

Ministers seek to give tactical reassurance about the safety of shooting and fishing, but there seems no reason to accept this. Unless a fox-hunting ban is acknowledged explicitly by government to be a one-off, class-war measure, then, if the issue is animal rights, no field sport can hope to survive. Once the principle has been conceded -- that it is wrong to hunt a given species of fauna for pleasure -- how can the government in logic fail to act against other sports sooner or later? Fishing is incomparably more cruel' than hunting.

We shall all be out there in London on 22 September for the Liberty and Livelihood March, though I hope very much that the Tory front bench can be persuaded to stay away. It would be foolish to toss such an easy political card to the government. The visible presence of, say, Mr Michael Howard would annul the impact of at least 100,000 marchers.

New Labour's big political success since 1997 has been to convince much of the electorate that it can be identified with a new' Britain, while the Tories are still identified with the old' one. It is the misfortune of the traditional countryside to be stranded on the wrong side of this image divide. Anyone pottering across the fields in breeches carrying a shotgun is perceived by Millbank's focus groups as a political loser, whom there is nothing to gain by appeasing.

Yet all of us, new Britain and old, will suffer the consequences if green England -- and, above all, green southern England -- is allowed to disappear, and if its traditional way of life is stamped out. I am one of those who still wants Tony Blair's government to succeed. If he fails, there is no credible opposition to replace him. But some of us will find it impossible to forgive Mr Blair if his most enduring legacy is the destruction of rural England.

Max Hastings is president of the Council for the Protection of Rural England, but this article reflects his personal opinions, not those of the Council.