Few recent events seem to have astonished my urban friends so much as the rise of the Countryside Alliance. Growing out of, and replacing, the British Field Sports Society, it quickly became a mass movement – and one that, by British standards, has been astonishingly successful. The Alliance now has 100,000 members – well over twice the membership of the RSPCA. Membership of the Alliance means raising funds, going on marches, writing letters, attending meetings and, in general, making oneself heard above the din of modern politics in a way that goes against the grain for most rural people.
What has astonished urban opinion is that this mass movement should arise in response to a single and, to many people, trivial issue, which was the threat to ban hunting. Those of us who live in hunting districts, and who witness the social significance of a sport that is as intricately woven into the fabric of rural society as football is woven into the life of the towns, were less surprised. But what the Alliance has brought home to all except the determinedly mythopoeic is that the freedom to hunt engages with the deepest feelings of many rural residents, and that a great many farmers and landowners simply do not regard this freedom as negotiable.
Having organised the most heavily attended demonstrations that the capital has witnessed in recent years, conducted a successful campaign to influence public opinion and received a fairly unambiguous endorsement of its principal arguments from the government’s inquiry into hunting with dogs under Lord Burns – so that the previously neutral Lord Burns voted against a ban when the recent bill went through parliament – the Alliance was riding high. It was convinced that its strategy was the right one, and that its members were fully behind it. In comparison with its principal opponent – the League Against Cruel Sports, whose leading officers resign or are sacked one after the other for making the cardinal error of seeing their opponents’ point of view – it seemed to be a model of moderate and consensual campaigning: cohesive, cool and with the mass support of a law-abiding minority.
Then suddenly everything changed. The foot-and-mouth epidemic jeopardised the whole social and economic order on which hunting depends. Campaigners for animal rights might go on pretending that the only significant rural question is that of hunting, but for rural residents themselves such a position became instantly ridiculous. The Alliance had to show that it was capable of advancing the interests of a constituency that was now in complete despair over its future. Forced to cancel a march that would have been its final and (it hoped) unignorable statement on the hunting question, and obliged nevertheless to pay for all the preparations, it found itself with seriously reduced resources, without an immediate tactical objective, and with a constituency clamouring for help of a kind that the Alliance was not yet organised to provide.
At this point, the chief executive, Richard Burge, began to emphasise what was in fact a long- standing philosophy, publicly declaring that the future of the countryside must be entirely rethought, with a new emphasis on sustainable development and alternative uses of land, and with a move away from industrial agribusiness in favour of a localised food economy. These things were already in the minds of many who had joined the Alliance, but they were a long way down the agenda. Then, quite suddenly, they were the agenda, phrased in language calculated to make the Alliance a significant voice in “the world after foot-and-mouth”.
Not everyone was happy. Bill, a local farmer, said to me: “I am all in favour of village post offices, pubs, shops, abattoirs. Yes, and if people want to go organic, good luck to them. But so far as I’m concerned, there is only one real question, and that is hunting. That’s why I pay my subscription, that’s why I raise funds, that’s why I go marching to London and do all the other things I’m told. If the Alliance is going to back down on hunting, then I’m going to back down on the Alliance.”
Bill’s view is widespread. And it has been fuelled by the knowledge that Burge is a long-standing Labour supporter, and that John Jackson, the Alliance’s chairman, is a Fabian. The Alliance’s principal representative in the House of Lords is a Labour peer, Baroness Mallalieu. How can they be members of the party that wants to destroy us, asks Bill, unless they want to destroy us, too?
The old British Field Sports Society was often seen as a club of barking colonels and Tory squires, who could be relied upon to ignore everything that was happening in the countryside which did not bear on their recreations. In comparison, the new Countryside Alliance was beginning to seem like a left-wing urban pressure group, with a far-reaching Green agenda and hippy views.
Suspicions came to a head earlier this month, when the Alliance announced the wholesale sacking of its regional officers – those staunch hunting types who had joined up as though in response to Lord Kitchener’s index finger on the first day of battle. Coinciding as it did with other announcements partially endorsing both Lord Haskins’s report on rural recovery and the government’s call for diversification, it looked for a moment as though Bill’s worst fears were confirmed. The Alliance, like the BBC, the Rural Task Force, the National Farmers’ Union and The Archers, was being written off by our farmers as just another new Labour front.
A closer look at what has happened belies those fears. Burge, Jackson and Mallalieu have tried to make the debate about hunting internal to the Labour Party – surely a sensible move when the party dominates parliament. Lord Haskins, as a wealthy middleman who has profited from the constant lowering of farm prices, is scarcely a friend of the Alliance’s constituents, and certainly not an impartial judge of their future. But how and by whom are those constituents to be represented, in a debate led by Haskins? Certainly the NFU will not do the job, identified as it is with absentee agribusiness and the global food economy. Nor is there any other lobby that represents the people who live and work in the countryside, and who do most to maintain its fabric. The National Trust and the RSPB are worthy institutions (or worthy-ish, at any rate), but their members are mainly urban, motivated by an idyllised image of the countryside that corresponds only marginally to the interests of those who live and work in it. Only the Alliance has proved itself to be a genuinely rural lobby. And it proved itself by defending the one rural activity that town people wish to stop – namely hunting. For that very reason, however, the Alliance cannot speak for rural Britain if it is perceived merely as “the hunting lobby”.
But what about those regional directors, those old yeoman farmers who wanted to do their bit for the country – where country means not countryside, but cantering across it after Charlie? The Alliance insists that new posts are being created, that restructuring is necessary, and that all those old stalwarts will be free to reapply. What people like Bill are waking up to, however, is that nothing in their world is now what it was – not even the mass movement that they themselves created.