The Countryside Corralled
Jim Carey mingles with the tweeds and Barbours at the Countryside March and investigates the landed property interests masquerading as a popular uprising.
Squall 16, Summer 1998, pp. 24-25.
"So which issues were you here for today?" I asked the tweeded gentleman standing next to me on the tube back from the Countryside March. "Oh all the issues," he insisted: "Hunting, shooting and fishing."
According to the Countryside Alliance - the organisers of the Countryside March - 284,000 people marched through London on March 1st in support of a variety of countryside issues including "support for farming" and "opposition to green field development". Despite these persistent attempts to portray the marchers as ordinary folk concerned with the future of the countryside, the veneer washed off quickly on the day.
For it was the hunting horn the corralled marchers were responding to, whilst voluminous media blurb attempted to persuade us all that Britain is now populated with two distinctly separate species; the oppressed rurals and the fascist townies. The usual 'Socialist Worker' logos on the placards were replaced by 'Horse and Hound': "Say no to the Urban jackboot." "Vive La Revolution!" trumpeted The Daily Telegraph, announcing its new found zeal for direct action with a vast acreage of pro-hunt column inches; all vestiges of impartial journalism abandoned.
Its huntsman editor, Charles Moore, wrote: "The power of landed interest in politics, which lingered long after the economic facts had changed, encouraged country people to be lazy about their causes. With the new Labour government that power has at last entirely collapsed. The country can no longer assume it has friends in high places."
Arise you slumbering masses to fight the people's fight! And yet of course the vested interests still rife in the countryside undoubtedly still have friends in high places. Charles Moore himself being one of them.
Other such friends went to see Tony Blair in February and came away with what they wanted. After meetings with the Country Landowners Association (CLA), Blair decided to postpone Labour's long expressed commitment to the right to roam. The CLA described Labour's original proposal as "the greatest erosion of landowners' rights this century", whilst The Daily Telegraph referred to Labour's U-turn as a postponement of "the evil day".
The people's mask slipped further from the face of vested interest when the Ramblers' Association were told not to attend the March by the organisers.
Other people, however, were 'required' to attend. According to journalists at the Telegraph, Charles Moore let it be known that every member of staff should attend the march. Andrew Lloyd Webber (Lord Webber to friends in high places) employed a similar tactic, bussing the entire 40 strong workforce from his large Hampshire farm up to London. The Duke of Northumberland on the other hand paid the train fares of some of his peasants. "Rubbish," said Vicki Knox, a huntswoman and tenant of the Duke. "People bought their own tickets in the main but a few were given because their wages are so low." Quite.
Those on low wages - and judging by the quantity of manicured accents, there weren't many - were heartened by the announcement that the Savoy Hotel would be serving free breakfasts for marchers. Unfortunately for them however, the invitation proved exclusive to those of social standing. And whilst several members of the Tory shadow cabinet ate toasted triangles with the dukes and lords assembled in the Savoy, the wined and dined occupants of two exclusive clubs on Piccadilly cheered the marchers from their balconies, though their gates remained closed to the general public. Undaunted by the lack of dining opportunities, the crowd warmed themselves with several rounds of William Blake's 'Jerusalem' before cheering heartily as the English national anthem bellowed out repetitively from a top-floor penthouse adjoining Hyde Park.
Yet as The Daily Telegraph repeated ad nauseam: "Today's Countryside March brings to London not the massed forces of an aggrieved vested interest but a richly diverse range of Britons united in their desire to preserve the rural way of life."
The Countryside Alliance themselves suggest otherwise. Until a public relations reshuffle a month after the Countryside March, the Alliance's board included Earl Stockton, Lord Peel, Lord Mancroft, Lord Steel and of course the Duke of Westminster. Despite the urban fascists gnawing at the latter lord's country ways, the Duke of Westminster still eeks a living from his 300 acres of prime London property in Mayfair and Belgravia, as well as from a number of high-rise tower blocks he owns in a string of North American cities. The Duke helped the Countryside Alliance out with an interest free, unsecured loan of £1.3million. His staff say he does not expect the 'loan' to be repaid.
His fellow board member, Lord Steel (David to his friends in high places), has explored different ways of scratching a living. He got into trouble with the Parliamentary Standards committee last year when it was discovered he had failed to register his pro-hunting interests when tabling motions on the subject as an MP. When the rules governing members interests were revised by Lord Nolan, even his fellow Lib-Dems were aghast to find that Steel was being paid over £90,000 a year for a two day week as head of the pro-hunting Countryside Movement. This was on top of his £43,000 wage as an MP.
Set up in 1995, the Countryside Movement spent over £2million in its first year of operation before amalgamating with the British Field Sports Society and the Countryside Business Group to form the Countryside Alliance.
Despite these rather large sums of cash, Lord Steel and his Alliance colleagues reject the suggestion that the Countryside March was bankrolled by friends in high places. They say that only £400,000 was spent on organising the March and that this money was raised through small donations. With their accounts not open for public scrutiny, the Alliance's assertions cannot be verified. What is known, however, is that their headquarters in Kennington were bought for £650,000 by an anonymous benefactor and rented to the organisation at a peppercorn rent. The £120,000 spent on refurbishing the premises came from property development and road building companies. These companies include McAlpine, the construction and road building company owned by the ex-Conservative Party fund-raiser Lord McAlpine; John Swire, a construction and shipping magnate and one of Britain's richest men and Sunley Holdings, a house building firm. Richard Tice, joint Chief Executive of Sunley Holdings was quoted in The Times: "There is a property chapter within the fund-raising section of the Alliance. I love the countryside and I am involved in field sports. The Countryside Alliance is for the defence of field sports, not fields."
These financial liaisons were largely facilitated by the Countryside Business Group (CBG). Now a part of the Alliance, the CBG was originally set up by Eric Bettleheim, an American corporate lawyer working in London. Bettleheim's commitment to the British Countryside was perhaps best summed up by himself: "If you can sell death in packages called cigarettes, you can sell blood sports."
As well as the consistent attempts to portray the occasion as a popular uprising, there is evidence a plenty that the Conservative Party's spin doctors were also working at full tilt. Much to the chagrin of the march organisers, the well regarded National Trust refused to support their march, saying "we regard it as politically motivated". The Telegraph on the other hand helped out wherever possible: "Labour dislikes private property, particularly private land. It hates anyone who it thinks is a 'toff'. It also has almost no instinctive affection for freedom," asserted the editor, happy to report that his seven year old son had carried an "Up foxes, down with townie Blair" placard on the day. The Countryside Alliance even announced its intention to field candidates in future marginal by-elections to win the seats from Labour.
However, a gaping hole appeared in this party political posturing. After roping in issues like greenfield development, poor rural bus services and BSE to boost the appeal of a quintessentially pro-hunting march, it was realised that these problems all derived from a period of Conservative government. Keen not to fall into this hole, the Countryside Alliance gave specific instructions to its press core to desist from direct attacks on the Labour Party or its ministers. All pretence was thwarted, however, when it was revealed by BBC News this April that the Countryside Alliance had sold its membership database the Conservative Party for £2,000. Their careful attempt to portray the March as representative of the entire population of the British countryside had already been scuppered by a MORI poll commissioned by the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Interviewing 1,128 marchers MORI found that 79 per cent were Tory voters, 63 per cent lived in the south and that 15 per cent were in fact the dreaded townies themselves.
Indeed, opinion polls were the bane of the Countryside Alliance's frantic attempts to magnify the democratic significance of the March. When MORI were commissioned to determine rural public opinion on fox-hunting, they found 63 per cent of the British population living in or near the countryside were in support of Michael Fosters anti-hunting bill.
Two other prominent pro-countryside groups refusing to attend the March were the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) and Friends of the Earth. They pointed out the hypocrisy inherent in the Countryside Alliance's veneer of environmental concern. "Many of the worst threats to our countryside come from rich and powerful landowners," said FoE's Charles Secrett.
Friends of the Earth, along with English Nature, No Opencast and local CPRE groups, are currently engaged in trying to stop the Duke of Devonshire - a public supporter of the Countryside March - from turning an 83 hectare piece of Derbyshire into an open cast mine. According to the Derbyshire Times, the Duke of Devonshire's wife was one of hundreds of British Field Sports Society members who joined the RSPCA in 1996 in a co-ordinated attempt to alter the RSPCA's stance against hunting [see 'Animal Warfare' SQUALL 13]. This strategic infiltration failed to prevent the animal welfare charity from presenting a one million name petition against fox hunting to Downing Street just after the Countryside March.
According to The Daily Telegraph: "It is worth asking why country life in Britain, especially in England, thrived. One important factor was a respect for private property. The countryside was in good shape because it was in the interests of its owners to keep it so." Exactly what these 'interests' are is amply illustrated by the extraordinary 'profit bygone' system of land compensation. Under this scheme, landowners are actually given money in compensation for not developing their land. Only by this financial inducement is the countryside saved from the very people who own it.
Viscount Cranborne, another vocal supporter of the Countryside March, receives £41,000 a year for not cutting down trees on his estate in Dorset, whilst Lord Kimball, president of the British Field Sports Society, has asked for similar compensation for protecting peatland in Scotland.
In March, English Nature spent £200,000 fighting to reduce one Essex landowner's compensation for not harming his land, from £24,000 a year to £16,000. The money was worth it they say, to achieve a precedent which might check the amount of public money (£4.6million a year) given to large landowners in so called compensation.
The Countryside March was an extraordinary event born from deep set landed interests and engineered with modern-day PR strategies. With the enthusiastic complicity of The Daily Telegraph and The Daily Mail, the Countryside Alliance managed to achieve a high degree of political success despite the obvious paradoxes inherent in their rhetoric. For this barbaric minority sport would have disappeared long ago, as more working-class barbarisms like dog and cock fighting did, were it not for the well resourced tenacity of friends in high places. These 'friends' it seems are still in position.
And yet the problems besetting rural areas are real. Farm incomes dropped by 35 per cent last year with some farmers genuinely destitute. The fact that we're all talking about fox hunting is a testament to whose calling the shots and what their real interests are. As far as the Countryside Alliance, The Daily Telegraph and the British squirerarchy are concerned, the only thing really troubling their lives is ramblers walking on their land and the possibility of them not being allowed to chase foxes. Luxury indeed.
In the month after their March, The Countryside Alliance made an attempt to rehabilitate the public's jading view of their intentions by reshuffling their board. Out went the sources of too much embarrassment, the Duke of Westminster, Earl Peel and the Earl of Stockton, Lord Steel and Eric Bettleheim, and in came Charles Wilson ex-editor of The Times and The Independent, Lord Nickson, a Tory peer and Caroline Tisdall, a former journalist with The Guardian.
However, the general public are unlikely to be convinced of any renewed commitment to the British countryside. Most of the newcomers including new Chief Executive, Edward Duke and ex-Times editor Charles Wilson are well blooded fox hunters. As Duke told the press upon the assumption of his new position: "We are fighting not just to preserve a way of life, but for the rights of our children to be able to work, play and enjoy the countryside." Yes, but given that the Countryside Alliance stands against the right to roam, whose select children is he referring to?
Although the Labour Government have promised departmental readjustments to cater more for countryside issues, they have also shelved support for a British citizen's right to roam in the countryside and for a ban on fox hunting. Such political reluctance to carry out manifesto commitments and disturb the luxuries of the landed few, suggests Britain's classless society is still a long way away.
Animal Acts - New law bans farming for fur in Britain, with the Countryside Alliance claiming it is an '...assault on civil rights'. 28-Nov-2000