In retrospect, the Countryside Alliance march points to a voting constituency political analysts would later neglect. Photo: © SCOTT BARBOUR/GETTY IMAGES

The other left behind England

Fed up since the hunting ban, rural England provides a ready-made base for the Brexiteer right. But the Tories should be wary of chasing after a lost past
May 5, 2019

I have been on two political demonstrations in my life. The first was the Countryside march in 2002, at the time the biggest in history, which protested against New Labour’s proposed ban on hunting with dogs. The second was the People’s Vote march for a second referendum on 23rd March this year. In going on both marches, I suspect I was in a small minority. Whereas the UK-wide Brexit vote was 51.9 per cent, across the English countryside as a whole it was appreciably higher, at 55.3 per cent, and in some thinly-populated areas the difference was striking. Boston and South Holland in Lincolnshire notched up Leave votes of over 70 per cent; in West Somerset it was over 60.

And yet much of the analysis about Leave voters since the referendum has focused on so-called “left behind” post-industrial urban centres. This has warped our understanding of why Brexit happened and affected how we have dealt with the aftermath. Theresa May has earmarked a £1bn Stronger Towns Fund, an undisguised sop to those parts of the Midlands and the north whose Brexit vote her Tory government has chosen to interpret as a cry of anguish.

There is—as yet—no equivalent pot targeted at rural leave areas, although they, too, often feel “left behind,” albeit in different ways. Money alone is not necessarily what they want. For many rural Leavers, their vote was as much about culture and identity. Looking back to the battle over fox hunting, we can see the first stirrings of the embattled rural identity that has since found expression in the 2016 vote to leave the European Union. It comes with a way of thinking that might be called nostalgic, and which can often be out of step with England’s urban/suburban majority.

That was seen in 2017 when the Tories’ promise to review the hunting ban was blamed for alienating many young voters, and Jeremy Corbyn’s vow to defend it likely helped him pile on votes in the big cities. But the rural identity is not something which a Tory party pushed back into its heartlands could safely ignore—even if it wanted to. Indeed, the regional skew of the Conservative membership points to relative over-representation of the rural and provincial places, -compared to the big cities. Seeing as this membership is the selectorate that is set to pick our next prime minister, the restive identity of rural England could before long determine the next occupant of No 10.

Queen and country

Even though I was brought up in the commuter belt, disparaged by many of the Countryside marchers, my identity has always been bound up with the countryside. For me and the other demonstrators in 2002, the march was an opportunity to show that we cared as passionately about our local hunts as football fans did about their clubs. I told Tony Blair as much when, on a press trip to the Middle East, he called me to his private cabin to ask me what the fuss was about. I explained it was part of a way of life, essential to the sense of self of many of my neighbours—and not just the better-off ones. I personally could live without hunting, but for others it was the glue that held their communities together. Defence of your own community—when you feel it is under threat—is a powerful political motivation.

The banners carried at the Countryside march expressed the same defiance and sense of grievance that fuelled the Leave vote; some of the prominent political faces—Kate Hoey, Iain Duncan Smith—were the same too. The demonstrators in their caps and tweed felt like a persecuted minority, in much the same way as the miners had during the strike.  (The headline in the Telegraph that morning was “Cry freedom.”) The enemy was the metropolitan elite personified by the prime minister. “Bugger Blair” was one of the politer slogans. Ostensibly the march was about making the voice of the countryside heard and protecting rural livelihoods; but it also vented fury against outside interference, and a defence of a traditional way of life that felt under threat.

The other thing that united them was a faith in Queen and country (and a confident belief that the royal family was on their side). As they passed by the Cenotaph, the marchers fell silent in respect. For the most part, they saw themselves as the defenders of traditional British values. They did not carry Union Jacks like pro-Brexit demonstrators now do, but they implicitly wrapped themselves in the flag.

Of course, the Countryside Alliance marchers were only a fraction of those who live in the countryside. Many rural residents are opposed to hunting and much more concerned about issues like poor public services. But overall, rural voters are today well to the right of urban ones: gay marriage still raises eyebrows, benefit claimants are regarded with more suspicion than in towns, and it is not only the cons but also the pros of smacking of children that get discussed. At the 2017 election the Tories lost their majority nationwide, but crushed Labour by 54 per cent to 31 per cent in rural England. As with the Brexit vote, the more rural the areas, the greater the strength of the Tory vote.

The rural/urban divide is nothing new in politics. In the 1860s, the Tories’ opportunistic political playboy, Benjamin Disraeli, enjoyed “dishing the Whigs” by extending the franchise to working class -householders in the boroughs, but he wasn’t ready to run the risk of entrusting farm workers in the shires with the vote. In the event, when the rural poor were eventually brought into the franchise by Gladstone’s Liberals, the shires mostly remained relatively conservative, although pockets of rural radicalism were found in Nonconformist areas.

Over the many generations since, the English countryside has come to be, or at least seem, gentrified everywhere—so much so that some academics speak of “rural apartheid.” Among the horsey people who made up most of the marchers, it was almost a given that you vote Conservative. I remember taking my ex-husband, then a Labour Party member, to a point-to-point race meeting in 1997 where the commentator breezily urged race-goers in his well-bred voice to canvass for the local Conservative candidate. Nothing much has changed since then, apart from the upsurge in 2015 of Ukip, and now the Brexit Party. It is just about respectable in these circles to admit you vote Liberal Democrat—but only just.

There is a venerable left-wing rural tradition, but it is increasingly hard to discern. After the 2017 election, the Fabian Society produced a report with the Countryside Alliance, optimistically entitled “Labour Country,” which recalled how industrialisation and enclosures had driven people from the land and inspired radicalism and solidarity. The unions do have some rural roots. In 1833, the Tolpuddle martyrs were deported to Australia from deepest Dorset for organising a trade union.

Go to villages like Tolpuddle now, however, and many of those on low incomes vote Conservative. In the neighbouring county of Wiltshire, I know one unemployed man with eight children who lives in a run-down three-bedroom terraced house. I asked him why he voted Tory. Labour, he said, was for trade unionists and people living in towns, not people like him. He had voted to leave the EU because he wanted to recover Britain’s past glories, and be free to trade all over the world.


Progressive puzzle

Progressives, especially in the cities, will find this sort of attitude mysterious, perhaps infuriating. Austerity, after all, has hit rural England hard: public services have been cut, school budgets run down, shops closed. If you don’t have a car, you can’t get to work. If you are unemployed it may take a whole day to get to the Job Centre and back. Apprenticeships are scarce: there are few large employers who can afford them. Rural unemployment may be lower overall than in the cities, but people in local jobs often earn less and many others are self-employed doing odd jobs.

None of this, however, jolts the politics in the way city-dwellers might assume. Rural poverty is more dispersed and often hidden. The underclass has the same general concerns as the urban underclass, such as benefit cuts, but different priorities: transport and the cost of petrol are far more important in the countryside. Public services these days are far bigger rural employers than agriculture, but self-employment remains a way of life. In the past, many families scraped a living by stitching together a patchwork of part-time jobs but this has become more difficult as even basic manual jobs demand training and certification. That, in turn, has led to resentment at “health and safety”—another thing blamed on “outsiders,” be they in London or Brussels.

Instead of Labour, which they associated with trade unions and the big state, progressive working-class voters in rural England have tended to back the Liberals, who appealed to their -individualism forged over generations by living in isolated areas where you depended on yourself first, and your neighbours -second. So however much spending cuts hurt, in a bad year for the Lib Dems, rural Tories clean up, as seen spectacularly in 2015.

Perhaps the greatest difficulty facing budding rural reformists is that the root social problem in rural England—the acute lack of affordable homes—has proved so hard to solve. (I declare an interest as a member of the board of the Hastoe Housing Association, which specialises in meeting this need.) This is partly a story about class, of course. Cottages, which once housed farm workers, are now far too expensive for people on local wages and are often bought as second homes by outsiders, or by families who commute to cities for work. But increasingly, there is also a narrative about age. Because they bought their homes before the property price explosion, locals who can afford to stay in villages are often older. Their children, often better educated, have to move out to afford a property and retirees move in. The net result is an aging rural demographic. The generation divide, so often discussed in theoretical terms, is a real one in terms of geography, and will only get worse without more housing.

Progress is painfully slow, and often bitterly contested. Rural residents are deeply conflicted. They want their children to live locally yet loathe the idea of large developments to meet the demand from outsiders, which could subsidise the very affordable local homes that they want. The Campaign to Protect Rural England campaigns at a national level for more -affordable rural housing, but the organisation struggles to bring local groups along with it when it comes to sites in their backyards.

All this has an impact on both services and politics. Schools close because there are fewer children in villages, and as the population ages it becomes more conservative. In such circumstances, it is easier to see a politics of grievance than a politics of solutions thriving. And indeed, older people who own their own homes outright were four times more likely to have voted for Ukip than the average British voter, and much more likely to have voted Leave.

There are, of course, many rural Remain voters to be found, even in unlikely places. At another recent local point, where the races are often secondary to the socialising, I met up with several of them. But for them Europe was a lower-order issue than the prospect of a Labour government, which might raise taxes—or tighten up the hunting ban.


Yesterday’s countrymen

The sense of community remains one big attraction of village life. And some of those who move to the countryside undoubtedly help sustain it, pitching in at events, providing lunches for the elderly or giving lifts. But a tight community can also engender a parochialism verging on a kind of rural xenophobia.

Outsiders are often regarded with suspicion, and this expresses itself politically as opposition to immigration—although there are relatively few immigrants in rural areas. One local man, a fence builder by trade, told me he voted Brexit in part because he didn’t like immigration. I pointed out that there weren’t many -immigrants around locally, and he replied that there “were thousands in Swindon,” about 12 miles away.

Some farm workers believe their jobs have been taken by immigrants, and there is an element of truth in this, in Brexit-voting hotspots such as Lincolnshire. But this is partly because the nature of agriculture and the food industry has changed. Rather than employing a worker full time, and possibly having to house them, farmers bring in seasonal workers.

Older people look back nostalgically on a time when farms employed a steady workforce, before gastropubs were invented. And nostalgia, more widely, is much in evidence in rural areas, and sometimes misplaced. In the 19th century, radical reformer William Cobbett travelled the Downs on his Rural Rides describing some of the worst poverty he had seen in England. Now those same villages are immaculate, and Cobbett is remembered in the names of thatched cottages that look like tea cosies. His views were extraordinarily eclectic—alongside the political and economic liberalisation he is best known for, he defended bull-baiting and mightily mistrusted the “Great Wen,” his name for London, which he dubbed a swelling on the face of England. Some of that suspicion lingers: of the group that I travelled with to the Countryside march, three had never been to London in their lives.

Whereas in cities younger people tend to think change makes things better, in the country there is an assumption that change makes things worse, and especially when it touches on rural life. Michael Gove’s moves last year against electric shock collars for pets may play well with urban animal lovers, but such posturing goes down badly on farms where such collars stop dogs worrying sheep and getting themselves shot. Just this April, Natural England sided with green god Chris Packham against farmers in restricting the shooting of crows and pigeons. More generally, the conservative disposition as it was defined by the philosopher Michael Oakeshott is much in evidence: “to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried… the near to the distant.”


Tory temptation

The rural-city divide is becoming a political faultline around the world. Trump, after all, prevailed in small towns and sparsely-populated counties. In France, rural areas provide Marine Le Pen’s National Rally with the bedrock of its support. In both cases, the appeal is not merely nationalism but nostalgic nationalism: Make America Great Again.

There are, of course, liberal Tories living in the countryside in the one-nation tradition of Francis Pym and Charles Morrison. But in this global context, and after much internal rumbling over David Cameron’s gay marriage reforms, it is not hard to see why some rural Conservatives might calculate that a reactionary, hard Brexiteer-led Tory party could excel on their patch. In rural areas, Europe was long seen as the Great Interferer, imposing change on Britain in the same way Westminster has tried to impose change, not only by banning hunting, but wanting to build on the countryside and allowing walkers to roam on it.

The fact that farmers benefited vastly from the Common Agricultural Policy was largely ignored, in the same way the workers of Sunderland and Stoke-on-Trent ignored the benefits of EU membership for their local industries. Nor was there much awareness that the pro-hunting lobby tried to use European law to block the ban. However badly Brexit might play out in practice, don’t assume rural Leavers will jump to think they made a mistake; the mood will much more likely be to blame Westminster for not doing it properly, or Brussels for screwing us over.

Yet there are real dangers lurking—not only for the countryside itself, but also the Conservative Party. As that Fabian pamphlet pointed out, Phillip Larkin’s idea that “beyond the town/There would always be fields and farms” is a comfort. But under a new post-Brexit agricultural settlement, can rural England rely on city dwellers? As the Ramblers Association is painfully aware, the countryside is a foreign country for many black and Asian people. Unless the nation as a whole, in all its diversity, has some sense of collective ownership of the countryside, then it shouldn’t be assumed the cities will cheerfully pay their dues to sustain it. A reactionary turn in rural and national politics could make that vital sense of shared ownership harder to achieve.

But what’s consuming the Tories at the moment isn’t rural policies, but their existence as a major force. The horror for them would be if Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party proved capable of seriously splitting their traditional vote in the countryside, not just in the inevitably eccentric looming European elections, but in Westminster too. Although it might be tricky for Labour to “come through the middle” and snatch many rural seats, there are a number of semi-rural constituencies where it could. Jeremy Corbyn, a Shropshire lad don’t forget, may terrify many rural Tories back to the fold, but the party can’t rely on that forever.

The understandable desire to protect the countryside, which gave the 2002 marchers their first taste of militancy, could provide those who claim to represent the true spirit of English Conservatism with a solid base, in terms of volunteers, voters and financial support. But if they make that trade, it could come at a cost. Already, my Conservative MP in Wiltshire, Claire Perry, has been threatened with de-selection for taking a relatively soft position on Brexit.

Before descending into a full-blown purge for Brexit purity, the party might do well to stop and glance back to the great schism of 1846. The policy divide, then, was over the corn laws. In social terms, however, the split represented the retreat of the conservative mainstream into its rural heartlands: it decided it had no truck with Robert Peel, the rising factory workforce or the industrialists who employed them, and decided to throw in its lot instead with the agricultural lobby. Within a few years, it beat a retreat on a policy that was overtaken by a changing society and hard economic realities. But in making a defining initial choice to stand firm against urban Britain, the Tories put themselves out of contention for a generation.

In the later 20th century, the demographic drift was away from big cities to the suburbs and new towns, which might have helped the Conservatives avoid having to make a similarly traumatic choice between rural tradition and urban modernity. But the demographic story of the 21st has been an influx, particularly of more educated and prosperous young people, back into the big cities. A party might thrive for a time in the waters of resentment against that drift, but it will be swimming against the tide.