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
Getty
Show Hide image

The "people" have spoken on Brexit - listening to them is another matter

The Athenians had another word for them. 

Commentators are right to point to the fury and frustration of the "left behind", who are, everywhere it seems, rebelling against establishments they believe have betrayed them. 

But they may understate the threat we now face. Many of those who voted for Brexit or Donald Trump were not just rejecting economic injustice or "broken politics" but also perhaps the very principles of our system of government. For them, democracy itself may have lost its appeal.

If that is the case, we can’t blame the elites alone. We, "the people", are complicit. In associating democracy almost exclusively with economic advancement, we have begun to forget that it is also, and principally, about shared values, rights and responsibilities. In the UK and the US, voters in their millions have traded one against the other. The citizens of the Netherlands and France may soon do the same.

It's too early to panic. Perhaps we’ll come to see that Brexit was not the calamity some of us predict; perhaps President Trump will turn out to be better than we fear he may be.  

But we would be foolish to ignore the precedents. 

The great democracy of ancient Greece lasted two hundred years. But then, subverted by demagogues and oligarchs, and overwhelmed at last by autocrats, it disappeared from the world for 2,000 years. For all that time, the citizens of today’s democracies were the subjects of tyrants, elites and ideologues but never of themselves.

Modern history provides no greater reassurance. Even when democracy has apparently been secured, it has consumed itself at the ballot box with awful consequences. We are not in that place. But in the UK and the US we have taken a step in its direction.

Rights and responsibilities

The dilemmas we face are as old as democracy itself.

Almost 2,500 years ago, the Athenian statesman Pericles set out for his fellow citizens the precepts of their remarkable democracy. He spoke of the equality of their rights before the law. But he laid particular emphasis on their duties to each other. The word he used for the "socially useless" individuals who placed self above public interest provides the origin of our own word – idiot. 

What would Pericles make of us? Certainly, we remain jealous of our rights, especially when we feel that they are threatened by others. But our preoccupation with personal aspiration has long since eroded our sense of common cause, whether measured by our engagement in civic affairs, our contribution to community life or the civility of our relations with others.

On these grounds, we are doubtless idiots.

A reasonable principle

But for the Athenians, democracy was founded on a third key principle. Alongside rights and responsibilities, they regarded the exercise of reason as indispensable to good politics. As Pericles put it:

“We reach decisions on public policy only after full discussion, believing that sound judgement, far from being impeded by debate, is arrived at only when full information is considered before a decision is made."

Can we honestly claim that in the EU referendum or the US Presidential elections, voters collectively exercised sound judgment based on reliable evidence, rational deliberation and open-minded debate? 

More likely, we recognise that what passed for public discourse throughout both campaigns was poisoned by deceit. The goal of the politicians who set out to mislead was clear. But instead of punishing them for their cynicism, millions suspended their disbelief and voted for them, often quite consciously choosing not to test their instincts against the evidence or their own opinions against other views. As much as they were misled, they also misled themselves. 

This was precisely the concern of democracy’s earliest critics, Plato and Aristotle among them. They worried that the system was inherently unstable not least because the people could be too easily swayed by their emotions and too readily seduced by shallow populists into decisions which were neither reasonable nor just - nor sensible. 

Representation

But if democracy is in danger, where are its defenders? When the people have been so badly misled and when the potential consequences are so serious, who should protect them if not their elected representatives? Isn’t that why in both UK and US we favour a representative system?

At least until now, we have accepted that our elected politicians have a duty not just to check the power of government but also to mitigate public opinion when it undermines sound or just policy. Our legislators should be the servants but not the slaves of their electorates.

The 18th century statesman Edmund Burke went further than most in believing that he would be betraying his constituents were he to sacrifice his judgement to their opinion. When in 1778 he defied them on the issue of free trade, he expressed the hope that if he forfeited their votes:

“It will stand on record an example to future representatives of the Commons of England, that one man at least had dared to resist the desires of his constituents when his judgment assured him they were wrong."

He lost his seat but perhaps retained his integrity.

As the democratic franchise was extended, other thinkers worried about the potential for conflict between public opinion and sound policy. In the 1830s, the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, a close observer of the developing American democracy, warned against any decision "which bases its claim to rule upon numbers, not upon rightness or excellence". John Stuart Mill, in his great essay On Liberty, feared for the rights of minorities when government is mandated by majority opinion.

All these critics favoured government by elites, be they philosopher kings or aristocrats. Our societies are considerably more liberal than those they envisaged, and that is to our credit. But even if we reject their politics, we should acknowledge that recent events have given their concerns new currency.

Whose people?

Indeed, the EU referendum was everything they dreaded - a triumph for unreason, a basis for unsound policy, a threat to democratic principle and, potentially at least, a suppression of the rights of minorities. 

But at the very moment when our tradition of representative democracy should be protecting us, it seems that Parliament’s responsibilities have been radically reinterpreted. The Prime Minister has repeatedly asserted that “the British people have spoken” and that, even though she herself doubts its wisdom, their decision cannot be challenged. It has taken the intervention of the High Court to remind her of the role of a sovereign Parliament in the making of public policy.

We know, if only because right-wing newspapers have identified them for us, who are the enemies of the people. But who are those "people” whose judgement the PM regards as sacrosanct? 

Are they “the whole nation” for which she has publicly pledged to govern – or the 37 per cent of the electorate which voted for Brexit? Must the overwhelming majority which did not now remain silent and unrepresented? And in such circumstances is democracy served or subverted?

Too many politicians, cowed by campaigners whose objectives they fear, bullied by press barons they despise and apparently indifferent to their own constitutional responsibilities, have set aside their own judgement of the public good and fooled themselves into believing that when the people speak, their will must be done whatever it is and whatever its consequences.

But ultimately there is no such thing as "the people", only an aggregation of groups and individuals with a plurality of beliefs, opinions and interests. Talking about them in the definite article obliterates those differences. Precisely because it is so definite, it is intolerant, oppressive and undemocratic.

Back from the brink

Now, more than ever, we need parties and politicians with the courage not just to listen to but also to lead public opinion, and to stand against it when they believe it wrong. 

More than ever, we need a media which acknowledges its responsibility to inform as well as to influence, and show a far greater commitment to the truth.

More than ever, we the people should recognise that a strong and healthy democracy demands more of us than we seem prepared to give.

Democracies have come and gone – in ancient Greece and modern Europe. If ours is to prevail, we must both individually and collectively acknowledge our responsibilities as well as our rights and, critically, we must restore the importance of reason – and reasonableness – to the ways in which we deliberate, debate and decide.

As it is, we have already entered an age of unreason. Unless we come to our senses, it’s impossible to predict when or where it will end. 

Peter Bradley is director of Speakers’ Corner Trust and a former Labour MP.