June 12, 2011 § 2 Comments
It’s common knowledge that rural England is the Conservatives’. That is not just to say that they currently have seats there, but that it’s practically a fiefdom. Kent, Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, and the shire counties would, the saying goes, elect a cow as long as it wore a blue rosette.
But take a look at the the Conservative front bench… farmers don’t seem to make up much of it. In fact, the big hitters in the coalition – Cameron, Osborne, Hague, and so on – are mostly either from what can reasonably be termed the aristocracy or from a business background. So is the marriage of country and the City under the post-1980 Conservatives a beautiful and simple alliance in the interests of the country?
In short, no. No, it most certainly is not.
It is reasonable that the countryside distrusts Labour – a party that seems in many cases to have simply stopped trying to win in rural areas in favour of the cities, the north, and marginals, and which has gone against the wishes of country people (for better or worse) on a number of critical issues. The Liberals have made more progress, but are still often seen as a wasted vote and have managed to alienate the left of their support with their current Coalition role (this in turn will allow both the Conservatives to outnumber a more split rural left and Labour to pull back city seats such as Norwich South or Cambridge).
But is it reasonable that they trust the “party of business”? Do laissez-faire economics really help rural communities?
Essentially, a free market system has huge advantages in some cases. However, the input factor – there is only one – is cost. The upshot of that is that if there are factors other than cost to be considered, a truly hands-off market will not usually produce the optimal result. This is essentially the problem of food; we import huge amounts of food at ridiculously low prices, throw 5 or 6 million tonnes a year away (61 percent of that food waste is useable at the time of binning), and ignore the provenance of food entirely. The result is that demand is artificially high, so supply follows with imports, and the greater supply leads to a depression in price. In addition, the multinationals who buy the food are able to dictate food sales on their terms and maintain staggering profit margins given how cheap the food they sell is. The share of a finished food item that gets to a farmer was around 50% in the 1950s. That level has collapsed to more like a fifth. The farms of England are propped up by the CAP schemes, essentially taxpayer funded to avoid having to deal with the root cause of the problem.
In other words, what farmers need is not the CAP, it’s the ability to push cereal prices back up to a level that they can live on. That in turn needs the supermarkets to have much greater restrictions on the size of their retail operations, and it requires the courage to insist, as we should be doing, on countries and companies that wish to export food to us treating their workers properly. The starving third-world farmer cutting grain for somebody else to eat is harming not only himself, but contributing to a grossly inhumane world market for food that sees the poor feeding the rich and the rich handing their wallets and their power over to companies larger than countries.
But farmers, of course, are not the only people in rural England. There are the post offices, who are undercut by larger companies. There are small independent petrol stations that can’t hand on any more. There were once rail stations to give affordable transport to all, long since gone. And of course, the great british pub. Closing in droves, the publicans of England are being treated like the chaff in a grain thresher. The solution to the plight of shopkeepers and pubs is not the nonsense of “community pubs”, which are a vehicle mostly for the comfortably retired to feel good about themselves while poorer communities get nothing. The solution is tackling the brewery chains who put rents at simply unaffordable levels, and putting in a real drive to hand pubs back into private ownership.
Rural people don’t need “community initiatives”; they have those already, and the roots and the sense of duty run deep across rural England. The BS (big society, of course) localism agenda is not helping communities, because it is not giving them the fiscal and economic power they need to be able to implement their decisions. It is not a case of “do as you will” so much as “you may now do as we do and nothing else.” It is an agenda that is not just useless, but frankly insulting. The Conservative link lingers out of misplaced affection for the past, with most of the rural Conservatives replaced by parachuting in MPs in exactly the same way Pitt or Walpole would have been familiar with prior to the Great Reform Act. That is not to say that the Conservatives cannot save rural England, but unless they are prepared to take on multinational companies in a way that Brown, Blair, Major and Thatcher were too afraid to do they will continue to betray the hopes of far too many people across the shires.
It’s time for a new look at rural politics; taxes on multiple homes to discourage the absentee rich from hollowing out rural villages are vital. Supermarkets must be kept in check and local businesses encouraged by making it easier to convert premises. Breweries must be forced to put rent down to an acceptable level or hand over the keys of local pubs. Useable and regular bus services, and a rural economy fair to the people who produce the goods we need. If these things do not happen, our English landscape will just become a playground for the city rich. Half the village dead, half the land owned by absentee shooters who keep locals off the land and wouldn’t dream of touching the pub even if it had been open. And how I wish that was just hyperbole.
I don’t know who will deliver this, or if it will be delivered. But it needs to be, a third way in rural politics being the only way that in the long term rural England is sustainable. Just a little bit of country life for you.