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
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.