JW Robertson Scott: the original champion of the countryside

Tories should not assume the rural heartlands will always support them—as Scott’s work shows

July 08, 2022
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Greyhounds, where the Countryman magazine was published. Photo: Flo Smith / Alamy Stock Photo

Tory rural strongholds are no longer secure—we have seen that in recent byelections. Tiverton and Honiton set the record for overturning a majority. Much of this may be an immediate reaction to perceived corruption—or incompetence—in Westminster, but repeated complaints by voters that they are neglected by London suggest much deeper problems.

Tories are either complacent or foolish to assume that the countryside will always be a political bastion for them. While constituencies such as North Shropshire may have returned Conservative MPs from 1906 until the 2021 byelection, many rural seats were much more fluid in the middle of the last century. This was recorded by the liberal, campaigning journalist and editor, JW Robertson Scott, who established the non-partisan journal, the Countryman. Scott’s work is worth remembering if we want to understand the predicament of the Tories in their rural heartlands today.

Born in Wigton, Cumbria in 1866, Scott had worked on a number of newspapers, including the Pall Mall GazetteWestminster Gazette and the Field, writing primarily on country matters before retiring to Idbury in Oxfordshire in 1923. The author of hard-hitting polemics for the Nation and books such as The Dying Peasant and the Future of his Sons, he reads as a George Orwell of the countryside who wrote about its hardships and problems rather than idyllic celebrations. He was, as the writer and historian Neil Philip points out, “a very unlikely rural squire,” being a freethinker, vegetarian and pacifist. Idbury, on the other hand, was an all-too familiar type of post-war English village, having declined from a population of 113 residents in 1851 to just 41. Within a decade, however, the village was thriving—not least because of the construction of council housing on land donated by Scott and his wife, Elspet Keith. The couple also instigated talks and social events to enhance local cultural life and were instrumental in bringing radio to the village. Having made his fortune in newspapers, Scott was a philanthropist who wanted to improve the lives of the poor he had written about at such length.

The impact of the Scotts on Idbury was immediate. In the general election of December 1923, Scott encouraged electioneering for the Liberals and excitedly wrote that most of the village had voted for their candidate the famous cricketer CB Fry, who lost the Banbury constituency by a mere 219 votes. Scott’s influence, however, was felt more widely through his journalism. Although in semi-retirement in the 1920s, he continued to write for the Nation on the problems of rural decay and poverty. His essays were republished in 1926 as England’s Green and Pleasant Land

Scott offered a grim vision of the realities of life in the English countryside, describing semi-derelict cottages where retired pensioners lived in rural squalor. Sharing many similarities with Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier published just over a decade later, Scott’s work took aim at the cant of post-Romantic depictions of rural life, contrasting “nice watercolours” of the cottage homes of England to the “stinking privies” used by actual cottagers. 

Scott detailed the lives of the better sorts of the countryside, whom he thought “kindly and well-intentioned” but also utterly ineffectual in terms of improving the lot of their poorer neighbours. Like Orwell, his task was not to win friends but to change habits, and to this end he established the Countryman in 1927. He would edit the magazine for the next 21 years before passing that role to John Cripps, son of the distinguished socialist Stafford Cripps.

As the literary historian Alex Murray points out, the Countryman did not include articles on hunting, which Robertson vehemently opposed, or “fawning” profiles of the great and the good. Instead, it was devoted to discussion of serious issues facing the countryside with contributions from liberal and socialist as well as conservative writers. Scott was far from perfect—Philip observes that staff on the Countryman were overworked and underpaid—but he profoundly believed that the English countryside was not destined to stasis and decay.

And yet, almost a century after Scott set up the Countryman, the assumption is that villages and rural towns are precisely those parts that do not change—even as many fall into decay or become stopovers for second-home owners. For many in the Conservative Party there seems to be an over reliance on historic loyalties, and an assumption that the countryside is automatically theirs, while they ignore the underlying structural deficiencies of rural England, most notably the flight of the young. Most city dwellers are likely to be in their twenties and thirties, but for those in rural areas the largest age group is 50 to 59. A 2020 report by researchers at Cardiff, Queen Mary and Exeter universities found that many rural local authorities had been “hollowed out,” with the closure of libraries, youth centres and transport as well as harsher sanctions against Jobseeker Allowance claimants.

It is the sense of being taken for granted—as well as being taken for fools—that could lead to a swifter demise of the Tories in parts of the English countryside. A swing to Labour in such seats, even on the small scale that took place during the 1997 election, is unlikely, but the Liberal Democrats are clearly less toxic now than they were in 2015. 

Brexit had appeared to return the countryside to the tribal loyalties evident during the second half of the twentieth century. It is increasingly clear, however, that many of those who voted to leave the EU were motivated as much by issues of economics as by those of identity. Since then, organisations such as the Rural Services Network have pointed out that there is little on offer to the countryside in the Levelling Up agenda. As such, a government that has no real idea of how it can help those in rural areas cannot hope on empty culture wars to bring it electoral success in such places. 

Scott’s magazine, the Countryman, was explicitly non-party aligned, but all his life he had written for liberal and progressive causes. In establishing a new voice of the countryside, he wished both to conserve ways of life that were disappearing in the 20th century, but also to bring about change for those who lived in small towns and villages and were being left behind. Through improving the lot of farmers, enhancing education in the country, and addressing issues of economics and conservation, Scott’s manifesto was to build a better life in England’s green and pleasant land.