Deep in the bowels of the old West Stand at Murrayfield, a Kelso rugby team listened to an impassioned, pointed and very brief pre-match exhortation from its captain. The opposition was Edinburgh Wanderers, recent Scottish champions, and the game was to be played on the international pitch. “Right boys,” growled the Kelso skipper, a 17-stone farmer not noted for his rhetoric, “this is a city team, just a lot of solicitors, accountants and jessies. Get out there and be physical. And remember – retaliate first.”
And they did. While the Kelso forwards followed their captain’s uncomplicated example and pounded the Edinburgh Wanderers’ pack into the Murrayfield mud, the jessies were busy up the other end scoring tries, kicking goals and winning the match. As usual, city slickness bested bumpkin brawn.
Allowing for a little theatricality, this sort of sporting occasion has provided a handy and very durable paradigm for the general relationship between countryside and city for generations. These weary stereotypes seemed set to last even longer under a Labour government which was content to see an obscene amount of money spent on the Dome (in a city which already enjoyed vastly more subsidy than anywhere else in Britain), and which wasted little time in announcing plans for a ban on foxhunting. Meanwhile, country people continued to suffer the nightmare effects of the BSE crisis, poor or no transport, departing local industry and new levels of rural poverty. Over the past two years, the Scottish Border Country has reeled from one battering to another while government was making other plans. Labour, it seemed, had discounted country places for simple but brutal reasons. Rural constituencies contain few votes and most of those go to the Tories or the Liberal Democrats in any case. So why bother?
A wintry gloom seemed to descend over the farms where lambs sold at 50p a head and villages where a vicious circle dictated that car ownership was a necessary precondition for finding a job of any sort.
On 1 February, the Prime Minister went to the National Farmers’ Union AGM at the Park Lane Hilton to give a speech which had been well trailed in the weekend papers. Apparently, farmers were not to expect more increases in state aid for their ailing industry. Tony Blair was painted as no friend of the countryside. The stereotypes dusted off their costumes and rehearsed their lines.
In fact, his speech makes very interesting reading. What Blair proposes is a meaningful partnership between farming and the government which is not based on a series of annual arguments about the level of subsidy. He advocates a strategic planning mechanism which lays a framework for a more flexible industry that can cope quickly with changing consumer tastes. And, recognising that European Union policies are central to any strategic direction, he seeks the backing of the NFU in leading a more aggressive charge to reform the archaic CAP. Despite some woolly stuff on the rural applications of IT, there are good initiatives on agri- environmental schemes and sensible thinking on branding British food products and stripping away regulatory red tape in agriculture in general.
But the clearest note Blair rings in his speech is a positive one. His words and thoughts show that he understands that the countryside is not just the space between cities or simply scenery. Ignoring what looked like classic weekend counter-spin – seeming to anticipate something nasty on its way from government which actually turns out not to be quite so nasty, so that in the end it seems OK – the farming community should take heart from a Prime Minister who has at last identified with its cause. Now that Blair has volunteered his own involvement in the detail of agricultural policy matters, the NFU should take him at his word and begin to think and plan positively for a different and better future.
However, not everything in the speech smelt as sweet as the first cut of hay. There is this Delphic utterance early on: “Farming is not the same as the countryside, but the countryside without farming is a contradiction in terms.” Despite its logical uncertainties, that sentence has an ominous ring to it. At the last party conference, Blair was clearly irritated by countryside protesters and it may be that he remains so. Perhaps his efforts to find accord with farmers will allow his government to suffer discord with the pro-foxhunting lobby. Now it will be difficult to accuse Blair of being anti-rural.
However that may be, the Prime Minister’s speech to the NFU has encouraged some tentative seedlings of hope to sprout in the countryside. Even though, as a lawyer, Tony Blair might have got a game for Edinburgh Wanderers, the Kelso captain would have waited to hear what he had to say before retaliating first. And that represents progress.