Magazine article The Spectator

Rural Poverty

Magazine article The Spectator

Rural Poverty

Article excerpt

Can you imagine Tony Blair's reaction if you had told him, as he entered Downing Street four years ago, that ordinary country people would provide the toughest opposition to his government? His New Labour party represented a slick, rich, self-consciously fashionable metropolitan clique who saw country people as providers not of bread but circuses. They would be harassed for the entertainment of the mob. Things didn't turn out at all as they expected.

In June 1997 the Countryside Alliance burst onto the public stage when 100,000 people gathered in Hyde Park to protest against a proposed ban on hunting with hounds. Government and press were stunned. Wasn't fox-hunting a sadistic sport enjoyed by a few toffs and their inbred peasants? Wasn't banning it supposed to be an enjoyable distraction from the difficult business of doing very little? Millbank hoped the rally was a freak event. But then, in the spring of 1998, came the Countryside March. Three hundred thousand people of all ages and classes walked together through London. They complained that rural concerns were being ignored and its traditions assaulted by those who didn't understand them. For the first time New Labour was recognised as a closed oligarchy and not the party of the 'people' it purported to be.

With the government on the back foot some of its members attempted to link the Alliance to the National Front and the American gun lobby. However the obvious ordinariness of those on the march refuted such slanders. Other Labour supporters interpreted events as an attack by Conservatives frustrated to find themselves out of power. This was to flatter the Tory party. While the Conservative party was beginning to ask how it might harness rural discontent, it was still essentially a party of spies in cheap suits who despised the kind of people who were on the march. In any case many of the Alliance's supporters were from the Left. Kate Hoey, now a government minister, was an outspoken member of the Labour organisation Leave Country Sports Alone, while in journalism the Guardian's Hugo Young wrote in support of their aims.

After 1998 rural opposition to the government grew and widened. The reason the hunting issue dominated the rural agenda early on was that hunts have exceptional fund-raising experience at their disposal. …

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