The British countryside has always been an extended theme park for the rich

My Glaswegian father won't be celebrating the Glorious Twelfth, but the Scottish economy depends on moneyed tourists shooting grouse in a stylised countryside idyll.

Having lunch with my Father in Glasgow a couple of months ago, he was telling a friend about a planned trip abroad during August when his friend interrupted,"But you'll be away for the Glorious Twelfth! I mean, you couldn't possibly miss that."

My father put down his malbec, raised his eyebrows, looked up at his friend and said, "Aye."

'Aye' to a Scot is a word with multiple meanings. The tone, the timing, the context is everything. My Father never has dressed up in tweed, sauntered off to a Scottish moor and shot carefully positioned semi-wild birds - and I am willing to bet any amount of money that he never will. 'Aye' in this context was an able substitute for an expletive filled sentence. 

No one I know in Scotland goes hunting for grouse or partridge. Quite a few fish, and some do occasionally go pigeon-shooting, but never grouse. It is not something that people like me, us, do.

On returning from living in Spain, I began to consciously realise how differently we think of the countryside and shooting things in it. Hunting in most of Europe is something old men do in the country. Villagers get together and hunt: quails, partridge, pheasants. In France, more game is eaten in the countryside than in cities, and it is cheaper there. In Germany, hunting is something done by farmers, often as part of land management, and it is rare to find people in cities who are particularly interested in killing as sport. There is no great celebration in capital cities for the beginning of the season, no rush to be eating the first kill in the best place; it just arrives, as surely as wild mushrooms and figs. Elsewhere, the great Castillian writer Miguel Delibes often said in interviews that he considered himself a hunter who wrote. He would explain that his ability to express the language of the peasant in Castille, to understand the people of small towns and villages came from his many years hunting on the plains and talking to those he was with. I cannot think of any British writer who would say that hunting brought them close to the common man.

The issue, as with so many things in this country, is a class one, and is the result of more than 200 years of the upper classes idealising the countryside.

A perfect example of this is Thomas Gainsborough's painting of Mr and Mrs Andrews in 1750. They have engaged an important portrait artist at considerable expense and have arranged a delightful rural landscape to be at the centre of the painting. Mr Andrews has both a hunting dog beside him and a gun. Mrs Andrews is in a well made, high quality material blue "shepherdess" dress, the 18th century equivalent of an Alexander McQueen peasant gown. There are artistically arranged bundles of wheat and the outline of sheep in a field in the background. This is not the countryside of poor, malnourished peasants tending to the land, or indeed even well-off, well-fed ones; it is a theme park for the super rich.

This rural playground was highly stylised and managed. The great landscape gardener Capability Brown made gardens such as those at Blenheim Palace seem like wild landscapes. The clusters of trees, the artificial lakes systems of dams and canals to create an illusion of rivers, were all an exercise in creating a pleasing, artificially tame countryside idyll.

Nowadays the super rich can hire hunting lodges and go shooting and fishing in a wild landscape that no longer needs Victorian stereoscopes to look like the stylised ideal. Heather is burned and trees prevented from growing to enable grouse to flourish. Moorland has been greatly extended at massive costs to trees and forests, and while certain types of rare wildlife flourish in moorland, the lack of forest affects other, equally important parts of the ecosystem. The wild, untamed Scottish moors are, in reality, about as wild and untamed as a back garden in Surrey.

Grouse shooting brings in an average of £30m per year to the rural Scottish economy, bringing a few badly needed jobs away from the traditional tourist season. £30 million sounds like a lot, until you consider that the pay day loan company Wonga recently posted pre tax profits of £84.5 million.
The Glasgow Herald was in jubilant mood last week quoting Visit Scotland's Chairman Mike Cantlay: "The Glorious Twelfth provides Scotland with a great opportunity to showcase our country sports credentials to wealthy visitors from around the world." Rich people coming to play country aristocrats in rural Scotland brings in £250 million a year. Merlin entertainments, who run Alton Towers, Legoland and Madame Tussaud's, brought in £928.4 million in 2011 and made an operating profit of £222.5 million in the same year.

It is hard to make a living in the countryside; even modern farming is surprisingly difficult to turn into profit. Meanwhile, keeping vast tracts of land in a certain condition for the entertainment of the rich, deliberately creating land masses for the purpose of having enough suitable birds to make it easy to shoot them, making all these things "reassuringly expensive", and having a class-ridden elitist ideal of these sports isn't making enough money anymore either. Entertaining the rich, in these circumstances, just isn't profitable enough.

It seems that these pared-down bloodsport theme parks for the British moneyed may well be finally going out of fashion.

Gamekeeper Alex Hogg makes final preparations for the start of the grouse season on an estate in the Scottish Borders. Image: Getty
Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.