SATURDAY SEPTEMBER 29 2001

Save us from Morley's crazy sheep

MAGNUS LINKLATER

Confidence, says the Prime Minister, is the key to ensuring that normal life continues, despite the talk of war. We must not let these events shake our confidence in ourselves, our country and our way of life, he says.

He is right, of course. It is at times such as this that we need to cling to the old certainties, the unshakeable traditions, the things that tell us that, whatever threats surround us, some things are immutable. Mostly, in times past, that has meant the countryside, a source of comfort and a restorer of confidence in times of war.

 

On the day war was declared in 1939, Alec Douglas-Home went down to Kent with his brother Henry to look for Large Blue butterflies. Neville Chamberlain came back from Munich and travelled to the Scottish Borders to recuperate. That same autumn, Harold Nicolson records going down to bathe in the lake at Sissinghurst: Even as when someone dies, one is amazed that the poplars should still be standing, quite unaware of ones own disaster.

 

Unfortunately these days the one thing lacking in the countryside is confidence. Down on the farm, tradition is wilting, immutability is in short supply. Still reeling from foot-and-mouth and the aftermath of BSE, with markets closed and tourism in shreds, the prognosis for our rural economy is grim. The terrorist attacks in America have meant that air travel, the life blood of the tourist industry, is grinding to a halt. Bookings have been cancelled, golfers and anglers stay at home, hotels lay off staff.

 

One might, in theory, argue that rural life in Britain should benefit from all this, that instead of booking holidays to far-flung places, the case grows for a bed and breakfast in the Cotswolds, or a self-catering holiday in the Highlands. Better, surely, to play safe and stay at home than venture, perilously, abroad.

 

It does not quite work like that. When people are uncertain about world events, their first instinct is to stay at home, to hold back from any plans, however modest, and, of course, to stop investing in anything except the essentials. In war, the first casualty is spending.

 

In these circumstances, one might have thought that ministers would strain every sinew to bolster confidence, to stand should-to-shoulder with those who live and work in rural areas, or at least to show some understanding of the problems they are grappling with. This Government, however, has neither instinct nor sympathy for the countryside.

 

 

Thus it was that in the immediate aftermath of the attacks in America, as the world reeled from the outrage of terrorism, the Scottish Parliament doggedly pushed through the first stages of an anti-hunting Bill. Ignoring the fact that its own rural affairs committee, after 18 months of taking evidence, had concluded that it was an unworkable Bill, flawed and poorly drafted, a large majority of members, including every Executive minister, voted to approve it.

 

The fact that the Bill is seen by country people as a direct assault on their way of life was brushed aside. The reaction in the countryside has been one of bitterness and immense depression  the Scottish Parliament is now seen as a hostile body.

 

Even this pales in comparison to the crass ineptitude of Elliot Morley, the Minister for Rural Affairs, who has presided over the foot-and-mouth debacle, and who chooses this moment of all moments to announce contingency measures for dealing with BSE in sheep.

 

There is, of course, no BSE in sheep, but Mr Morley and his department, the dreaded Defra, have decided that there might be, and, should the worst come to the worst, all Britains 40 million sheep may have to be slaughtered. In vain does Mr Morley now claim that this is a worst-case scenario  the damage has been done, and morale among sheep farmers, already rock bottom, sinks into the slurry pit of despair.

 

I do not know if any of this conforms to Mr Blairs idea of defending our way of life. He has doubtless been too busy to consider it. It might, however, be worth his sparing a moment from his summit discussions to think about the meaning of confidence and how it might be instilled.

 

Come to think of it, a day spent looking for Large Blue butterflies in Kent would be an excellent way to do it, so long as they are not, by now, extinct.

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Opinion

September 28, 2001