COUNTRY  MATTERS ¹

Susan  Dowell

 

CAN the ‘crisis in the countryside’ we have been hearing so much about these last few years really be so described? If so is there anything we, the Jubilee Group 2 for example, as a predominately urban-based movement, can contribute to a fuller understanding of it? Even perhaps to its resolution? The answer to both questions is, I believe and will argue here, ‘yes’.

Whole sections of British agriculture, particularly livestock husbandry, have been hit by recession comparable to that experienced nation-wide in the 1930s, bringing it its wake the kind of hardship and despair we associate with those times. The extent, cause and effects of this collapse – to say nothing of possible solutions – are hard to pin down with any exactness but ‘If we are not part of the solution we are part of the problem’ as the slogan goes and what is clear is that this is an issue crying out for serious theological/political attention.

A neglected issue?

    Rural deprivation today is frequently described as ‘a neglected issue’. Insofar (not very far as I will come to later) as that is true we might do well to own up to a degree of complicity therein. This has not traditionally been ‘our’ issue for a number of reasons good and bad. From the middle of the 19th Century the Left – Christian and otherwise – has been mainly preoccupied with urban life. The inner-city is where we see human dignity most deeply debased and so has, quite correctly in my view, become the place to which our best energies and personnel have been directed. Less nobly, the country is where many of us go for replenishment and rest from ‘the struggle’ and may well be disinclined to look at, or for, tensions. Surely a life lived amidst such beauty cannot really be that bad (besides why worry too much about communities who vote Tory anyway!)

Though I do not believe such disengagement automatically makes us ‘part of the problem’, it does leave serious gaps in our thinking, leading in some cases to the neglect of crucial elements of Christian socialist thought (to which I will return in due course). The absence of the kind of day-to-day hands on experience we bring to our analysis of urban deprivation can also lead us to take what we are told on trust. We need then to ask who is doing the telling? And should we trust their account?

Neglected by whom? The politics of the Countryside Alliance

    In the case of this group the answer has to be no and it is gratifying to see that the Alliance’s claims to represent the ‘unheard’ woes of rural Britain have now been significantly undermined by a number of experts in the field. Georges Monbiot for example has consistently exposed the Alliance’s conflation of the interests of rural people generally with those of large landowners and (urban based) property speculators. This, he argues 3 has seriously masked a major cause or rural decline: a lower (proportional to acreage involved) level of rural employment in Britain than in any other agricultural nation in the world. But this exposure did not bite before the claims 4 themselves along with the divisive anti-urban rhetoric employed to promote them gained considerable currency. So who, what is this Alliance? And for whom does it really speak? Formed in the dying months of the last Conservative government, the Countryside Alliance is a merger of several interest groups who together make up a large section of what we call the hunting fraternity: the British Field Sports Society (founded in 1930) and two newer, more widely focussed but by and large less cohesive and effective Groups, 5 the Countryside Movement and the countryside Business Group. Sensing the Labour government’s hostility to their sport, the new Countryside Alliance determined to present hunting in a kindly, more moderate light; as a pastime enjoyed by the many not the few and an essential part of the rural infrastructure. The Foster Bill, proposed in the early months of the Labour government, galvanised them into action and they mounted two large public demonstrations in London, in July 97 and March 98.

Here we were told was a ‘resistance movement’, a hitherto silent rural majority come to town to teach ‘ignorant townies’ a thing or two. It made for colourful copy and much of the widespread media coverage the marches attracted was highly sympathetic. The new rural lobby has succeeded in becoming a force to be reckoned with and the respect in which it is held in some quarters comes uncomfortably close to conceding to urbanites’ ignorance and hence to the idea that they were indeed ‘part of the problem’.

So was it just a monumental con as many of the Left perceive it? We can perhaps say that the marchers did the nation a service by drawing attention to a whole swathe of threats to country life; cuts in farm jobs and incomes, lack of affordable housing, disappearing services – shops, schools, transport. These are real concerns and, as the Alliance itself is well aware, it would not have been able to mount such large demonstrations in a time of rural prosperity. In other words their (now largely abandoned) policy of wrapping hunting up in ‘the wider fabric of rural life’ 6 would have been impossible if no other threats to rural life existed.

But before looking in more detail at what these threats are and how they might properly be addressed we should, given that the Alliance seems to have retained its credibility among some sections of the community and that there still seems to be some mileage in the idea of mounting demonstrations in cities, ask how truly they were represented in 97 and 98.

Doubtful when we consider the MORI poll findings of an 81% support for the Tory party among the marchers and that when Countryside voices had been solicited nation-wide just a few months before they spoke rather differently. The general election of May 1997 had seen a dramatic swing of 10.2% in rural constituencies which suggests a substantial number of voters thought the concerns outlined above might be better addressed by a change of government. The fact that only 7% of the 97 marchers were Labour voters would suggest that a truly new 7 rural voice was notably unrepresented on this occasion.

The scepticism of some outside observers who saw the occasion as nothing more than a covert attempt to reclaim the shires for the Tories, carefully disguised as concern for the rural poor, seems well justified. And when we look at some of the voices that were represented serious doubts remain. It was, to put it mildly, a fragile and contradictory ‘alliance’ of interests being represented: anti right-to-roam (a central provision of the government’s Countryside Bill and one which most country people support), pro big business. (Two of the march’s main funders were major greenfield developers which, far from protesting against the ‘townie gentrification’ of the countryside suggests a heavy interest in promoting it.)

But scorn alone is not enough. As Christians, ourselves called to give voice to the voiceless, we should at least listen when they speak – however contradictorily. The Alliance did rather more than highjack the real issues: they also successfully highjacked some rural pople’s uncertainties about whether a predominately urban Britain knew or cared about their plight. Just as they would have been unable to twice muster such numbers (around 300,000) to march against threats to country life if no threats existed so too would it have been hard to speak of urban jackboots and ignorant townies if there were not already some pre-existing suspicions among country dwellers. I do not, given that it is largely peripheral to the real issues 8, propose to re-run the pros and cons of the hunting debate but realism demands we recognise the iconic status it has assumed. Whether we see it as an intrinsic part of the country life or not it is undeniably a long established activity and one that can only take place in rural areas. Anti-hunting legislation, moreover proposes to criminalise the activity of a group of people who have long enjoyed respectability if not approval. Rightly or wrongly then hunting has served as a flashpoint for the emergence of some deep-seated feelings of resentment; resentment at being patronised and dismissed, whether as yokels, or tally-ho Tory toffs. However ill-founded, manipulated (and to be honest manipulable!) these feelings might be they are owed some response. Are town and country folk really so different? If so, how might we best explore and express this difference?

Difference: Alienation or Diversity?

    The idea that city-dwellers know little of country life and vice-versa is not new: the difference has been explored, poeticised and celebrated throughout history. It seems to be a difference both sides devoutly wish to preserve. This interest operates on the purely practical level of tourism, now a vital part of the rural economy. Visitors, along with their hosts, want and need the countryside to be different or there would be no point in taking holidays there. Nor is there anything pernicious per se in the proclamation of distinctly ‘rural values’ – the problem is how and by whom they are defined! Nor, moreover, can we deny that urban and rural perspectives will sometimes come into conflict. As a country dweller myself I too have been exasperated by instances of urban ‘ignorance’ I have witnessed over the years: I’ve heard horror stories from my farmer friends about the wasteful follies committed by desk bound Ministry of Agriculture officials who do not seem to know one end of a cow – or the country – from another and along with my neighbours have grown more than a little weary of the ways country life and country people have been portrayed in the media and in much modern fiction.

All this seems to have rumbled on in a low-key fairly good-natured manner, at least in my lifetime and has by no means been seen as the whole story. Though I’m not old enough to have been evacuated myself World War Two seems to have been a defining time in city/country relations. The mass invasion of inner-city evacuees certainly sharpened an awareness of different worlds. But, despite the individual horror stories, country people’s dismay at their guests’ otherness was tempered by compassion for the dangers and deprivations they had endured.

Town and Country or Town v. Country?

    Can such ‘all in this togetherness’, along with a good dose of class solidarity, be creatively recovered in the present situation? Or must a sense that town and country folk have different ways of looking at things now be doomed to spill over into accusations of ignorance and uncaringness?

By no means for when we look more closely at the real threats to country life as outlined above we find that these ‘different ways’ bear little relevance. 9

A growing realisation that present rural hardships are not, after all, very different from those experienced by city dwellers can and has led to a more thoughtful consideration of difference. Much of what hurts country people, disappearing services – transport, hospitals and in some areas schools – have a common source in the baleful policy of cutting public expenditure throughout the 1980s and much of the 90s. From this we can go on to pinpoint significant differences in terms of the effects of this trend.

Hospitals for example: we had to fight hard against the closure of both our local cottage hospital and our main county one which would have meant all the sick of my community being treated 40+ (as opposed to 30) miles away. Ill people – and their relatives – tend to be older than well ones and the burden of distance weighs particularly heavily in more sparsely populated rural areas especially so in light of inadequate public transport. (Rural people, being more car dependant really have been harder hit by higher fuel prices). So yes a case really can be made for different needs and interests in a number of areas.

Those which stand out most distinctly and starkly as special needs are a) housing and, most serious of all the b) collapse of farm jobs and incomes in a time of greater economic prosperity generally:
a.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
b.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

In many country areas there is a serious shortage of available/affordable housing, especially for young people. Yes, of course city dwellers suffer from this too. But there are palpable differences as well, notably the acquisition of existing properties by 2nd home owners and incomers who benefit from differentials in urban and rural incomes and their impact on house prices and so are able to buy the more desirable properties over the heads of locals. The whole – highly emotive – question of ‘incomers’ (termed ‘them from off’ where I live!) and their role in country life is one I will come to later but their part in the rural housing shortage is indisputable and stands as a clear difference between town and country. However we might choose to think of them and their role in the present situation, significant numbers of well-to-do country folk are not buying up houses in town and aggravating the housing shortage there.

Farming. The BSE crisis in 1996 was just the first of a series of bitter blows to UK agriculture and the collapse of livestock prices over the following years has, as already noted, brought about real hardship. The costs, both economic and in terms of cattle – farmers’ pride – of BSE have been severe. Likewise, the plight of hill farmers with the collapse of sheep prices and, as has emerged more recently, that of pig farmers. One in three of the country’s 4000 pig farms have gone out of business since 1994 and there were 18,000 job losses in this area in one year (1999) alone. As noted at the beginning the extent and significance of this collapse are hard to map with any precision and the situation is constantly shifting: signs of recovery are discernible in some areas alongside those of a worsening situation in others. But there is a further difficulty to which attention should be drawn here, namely that born of language. The word ‘farmer’ is commonly applied both to the boss, the person who owns (or rents) the farm and those who work on it as skilled or unskilled labourers. Farm jobs have been in deep decline for many years.                    

What is new in the present situation is that farms (the unit of production) themselves have collapsed which has brought about an even deeper level of uncertainty and anxiety across the board and has indeed led to ‘farmers’ committing suicide at an alarming rate. This last fact alone would seem to set this apart as an area demanding the deepest concern.

But, again can we really say, as many in the countryside lobby do, that town dwellers cannot begin to comprehend the suffering? As some critics of the 97 and 98 marches and more recent agitation have correctly pointed out, the loss of entire industries is an all too common story and compared farmers’ pleas with unheard pleas at the collapse of the mining industry – overseen by that devoted ruralist Michael Heseltine.

It was from a sense that this comparison demands deeper consideration than is usually offered by either ‘side’ (the ‘sod off rustics’ or the ‘townie softies’ lobby) that I proposed the course of study (see acknowledgements) which form this pamphlet’s starting point and continuing compass. When asked for a required reading list my suggestion, of which I remain unashamed, was a video-viewing of the film Brassed Off !

What emerged was a strong sense that the overwhelming difference between the two cases is one of need. I hope I’m not coming too close to the kind of rural self-aggrandisement I am concerned to criticise by saying that we need farmers in ways that stand over and above the role of the economy.

Imagine someone inventing a magic pill that could feed us and the world safely. Wonderful of course but we would be impoverished emotionally and aesthetically in ways we wouldn’t if that same boffin solved the world’s energy problems at a stroke. This is not to diminish the grief of mining communities who have had their identity ripped away. But it is hard for outsiders – and many insiders – to mourn the work itself. I would not want to go down a pit myself nor my menfolk. I would – were I to inherit land, or were there a distinct labour shortage – be happy to acquire farming skills and have been both required and able to ‘help out’ from time to time. The work, though tough, is varied, challenging and can be beautifying in a quite unique way. Hence its loss cannot be assuaged by alternative local employment as mining’s can, has, and of course should be. Above all – it is older – been there forever and so has shaped the landscape and the human spirit in ways the come-lately industrial processes have not. Time was moreover – and not so long ago – when it was what most people in Britain did. To get a proper grip on this present crisis and the crucial, universal questions it raises we should look more closely at why and how husbandry in some form stopped being what people did.
 

Land and People: a Brief History

1. Background

    If Marx is right in saying that it is out of our old history that our new history must be made we need to take seriously that most of the old revolved around humanity’s engagement with and dependence on the land. People herded animals and grew food before they made anything approximating to a town, city or even village and the land has been the stage on which most of the dramas of human history, most struggles for justice, for self-understanding and godliness have been played out. It was to a ‘countryside in crisis’, to a wrong relationship between city-based rulers and rural peasantry, that the great prophets, from biblical times on, have spoken. Of course this is ‘our’ issue! So how and when did the country stop being ‘where it’s at’?

2. Foreground

    The shift from a predominately agrarian economy to an urban-based one, arguably the most momentous shift humanity has undergone can be roughly dated, in the case of Britain and western Europe, to the latter half of the 18th Century. It was, at first a slow process of change but one which accelerated sharply in the early years of the next century. A few facts and figures might help to contextualise what was clearly a traumatic event for those involved.

In 1800 agriculture was still the single largest source of employment for men and women and agricultural labourers remained the largest group pf workers in any industry until well into the 1830s. A generation on most Englishmen become townsmen engaged in industry. Sixteen years after the Battle of Waterloo around half the population lived under what we would term ‘urban’ conditions. During the first 30 years of the 1800s Birmingham and Sheffield doubled in size, Leeds, Manchester and Glasgow more than doubled. As these figures make clear these new urban populations were, for a large part of the 1800s country-bred folk who are generally agreed (by those who have studied the period in detail) to have held the traditional outlook and character of country folk. (Since pictures speak louder, more briefly and effectively than words I would direct the reader to the (paperback edition) cover illustration of E P Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class – an invaluable text for understanding this whole question: a man dressed in rough farm worker’s clothes gazes perplexedly at his new urban environment.

This does not of course mean they all thought, lived, talked or dressed alike since the places and communities they come from were totally unalike. It simply will not do either in 1809 – or 2009 – to present ‘the Countryside’ or ‘the farming community’ as homogeneous entities and the tendency among many in the present day countryside lobby to do just that puts a serious question mark against any real grasp of either past or present. The history and geography of rural communities are as diverse as urban ones and their present difficulties – and hence solutions in terms of how and where help should be given – must be seen in that light. Space forbids a proper account of this diversity – suffice it to say here that an upland border shepherd who came to town in 1820 brought – and still brings – a totally different view of the world from that of an East Anglian grain-grower.

What they did have in common then as now was that the choice – or otherwise – of seeking work in the new industrial centres was dictated by class and wealth. It should be stressed however that town and country did not immediately – if ever – become clearly distinguishable entities.

Industrialisation – i.e. a dramatic change – of scale and process – in the goods are made possible and did not automatically or immediately lead to mass urbanisation. In some cases it never did; tin, lead and coal mining for example became the main source of employment in a number of rural areas. The new technologies engendered by the rise of science (in the 17th Century) led, at first and overall to more efficient production. Although towns were commercial centres for marketing them, many of the goods themselves could and indeed continued to be produced in rural communities. Just as we cannot equate industrialisation with urbanisation nor can we simply equate ‘countryside’ and ‘farming’ in the ways people even more commonly do.

Lots of people lived in deeply rural areas who were not farmers themselves but workers fashioning raw materials which were – though not always – grown locally. (The lay-out of any English village shows how mixed the economy was). Cloth merchants, for example, collected the finished products of the cottage loom and wherever and so long as this pattern persisted the rural population outnumbered the urban. Country craftsmen were never totally detached from husbandry though since each family grew a lot of their food: as well as the pig and the cottage garden, to which the weaver would repair in the evening there was the common land – that which was lost under Enclosure.

Who stole the common from the goose?
      Enclosure is a cause celebre for the left and rightly so. It was indeed a pivotal event, a defining moment in land use and labour relations. As Monbiot suggests its ‘turbulent and dreadful history of dispossession, vagrancy, desperate riots and rebellions and the brutal suppression of peasant economies and vernacular culture’ needs to be better known.10

So also does the whole history of land possession and its dispossession. Though impossible to summarise in the scope of a short booklet one important point should be drawn out; land ownership was not always seen in the terms we see it today. A mediaeval peasant asked whose land it was he lived on and worked would probably have answered The Lord’s. We might like to think his labours brought him closer to his Lord in heaven as it did for Piers Plowman but we have no means of knowing he saw them in terms any higher than a brutal struggle to exist.

We do know however that his lord on earth was a figure he was unlikely to have encountered at all. Titles and lands were acquired – and lost – in a number of arbitrary ways: ancient royal or quasi-royal lineage, pleasing the monarch militarily – being on the right side at the Conquest and subsequent wars – or in less arduous ways. Stories of great beauties acquiring large tracts of Surrey in return for sexual favours to her monarch may be apocryphal but could well have occurred in feudal times and even later.

By the time we are speaking of, the late 18th Century, an altogether less remote figure had long been on the scene: the yeoman farmer. Unlike the older Lords and squires (who were frequently absent at court and/or abroad) he took direct control of his land so defining it in terms more closely approximating to how we understand ‘property’ and ‘ownership’ today. Likewise himself as ‘employer’. The yeoman would, according to his means and substance employ the local peasantry – sometimes casually, sometimes with secure work and accommodation.11 Like the lord before him he was good bad or simply indifferent . By this time, though, his benevolence or otherwise was dictated by and within a totally new set of circumstances.

Increased mechanisation and improved farming techniques generally, both products of the appliance of science, meant that fewer workers were needed and job security declined dramatically among those at the bottom end of the workforce. This came about largely as a consequence of the deep economic depression brought about by the long and costly Napoleonic War. A further and perhaps the most decisive factor in accelerating enclosure was a serious food shortage, returning soldiers further swelling a by now fast-growing population. The smaller yeomen, already in gentle decline, were squeezed by all these changes: unable to keep up technologically many were glad to sell land (back) to the squires at this time: thus accelerating the shift from small independent farms which, as Trevelyan writes became ‘in the course of 60 years . . .  replaced by the large farmer and the landless pauperized peasant he employed’.12 It was of course this same large scale farmer who pushed through further and more widespread enclosure of the common land thus cutting the slender thread that made it possible for a peasant family to stay where they were.

Out of the Old

    Having said this history needs to be more widely rehearsed, what can we draw from it? First and foremost of course that is dreadful and that the burden of sorrow it carries fell most harshly upon the poor: the landless pauperized peasant 13 who stayed put and the country bred worker reduced to wage slavery in the fetid mills of the new industrial towns. There is neither cause nor need to romanticise what the latter left behind to acknowledge that it was far more than a gentler physical environment. Established kinship patterns, a world in which ‘work’ and ‘home life’ (though undoubtedly lived under the most straitened conditions) were not rigidly separated was exchanged for one in which there was no home life to speak of at all.

Nowhere have I heard this history rehearsed let alone regretted by today’s Countrysiders. It is at most seven generations that separate many ‘townies’ from their rural ancestry and the ‘ignorant’ Londoners to whom the marchers brought their message must have included the grandchildren and sometimes the children of men and women driven from the countryside by the agricultural depression of the 30s. So it is frankly inane, if not obscene, for the triumphalist faction of this lobby to speak of town dwelling as somehow opting for a soft life-style option against the gritty close-to-the-land toughness of country folk.

To be sure as time went on and with greater prosperity and improved working conditions some country folk prospered in their new world and made it their own. Many today would not exchange the ‘bright lights’ (another favourite put down) of the city for muddy lanes and long dark nights but dispossession is by no means a distant or unlamented memory.

Knowing the seismic shift from a predominantly rural to an urban economy to have been more of a sorry tale than many chose to acknowledge should inspire us to combat the repetition many are now arguing as inevitable. That further dispossession and job losses are happening here and now is clear. The farms that are going under are small and middle sized family farms. In many cases the larger farms that might have incorporated these smaller farms are going under too which means vast tracts of rural Britain passing into single or conglomerate ownership. But inevitable?

Who says so?

To answer that I should add a word or two about the conditions under which it happened first time round. The accelerating process of enclosure which drove the peasantry off the land two hundred years ago can credibly be seen to be inevitable. This was no new thing – failed harvests and widespread famine occurred throughout the Middle Ages and beyond. But by the end of the 18th Century hunger was no longer seen as an unavoidable fact of life. Improved farming techniques meant that large tracts of unproductive or inefficiently worked land could be put under the plough. In other words it was not just (I am awesomely aware of the oceans of ink that have been spilled over this question!) about greedy landowners grabbing the common land off the peasant and making greater profits by cutting labour costs but a combination of economic necessity and, for the first time the technological means to meet it.

Not so today. Indeed looking at the present situation is rather like looking in a mirror – what you see is real but in reverse. Then there were food shortages which were met by manpower reducing efficiency and greater cultivation of wild tracts. Now for a combination of reasons – the strong pound, loss of overseas markets (Spain no longer buying British lamb, the economic crisis in the East European ex-communist countries as well as the collapse of confidence in British beef following BSE) – farmers find themselves over-producing unsellable products.

But the same ‘solutions’ seem to be being implemented: the phasing out of smaller less efficient farms (encouraged, some argue, by present government policy – another ocean of ink and hours of parliamentary debate is expended on this one). As one commentator puts it 14 ‘the countryside of the new millennium will be managed by big business and inhabited by the rich urban middle class’.

Are we to see a return of the ‘land hunger among the upper classes eager to mass large consolidated estates, alike for reasons of profit, social prestige and game preserving’ to which Trevelyan refers in his account of the late 1700s.15 Will future generations visit and admire new or refurbished 21st Century stately homes as we do the Palladian manors and their Capability Brown landscaped gardens, forgetting the people who were moved to make way for them? Will those who do not be regarded as dour philistines? The whole relationship between political and aesthetic sensibilites, though beyond the scope of this paper, is or should be, an issue for us and one supremely relevant in this particular context.

A New History in the Making

    This dystopia need not however prevail. There are alternatives and a host of people anxious to promote and implement them. It is now impossible for any sane person to regard the means of heightened agricultural productivity with the same equanimity as two hundred years ago and this unease is bound to be intensified by present circumstances i.e now that over-production, not shortage is the problem. And when new, eco-friendly markets are opening up. For example demand for organic food – once the almost exclusive preserve of ‘alternative’ persons (‘knit-your-own-lentils ! ’) – has risen dramatically among town and country people alike, outstripping supply by 200%. According to Pat Knowles of the West Midlands Green Party 16 many smaller farmers would like to meet this need but need far more financial support than is presently being offered to convert to the methods and standards required. This alone demands an ever more vigorous re-examination of present day policies, particularly the vexed question of subsidies.17

Having suggested that a Christian socialist tradition can offer much of importance to the debate I should at this point say something more specific about the resources we might offer those working to bring new hope to the countryside.

1. When Adam delved and Eve span who was then . . . ?    –    Scripture

Firstly and obviously a few millennia of reflection upon a text in which, according to Walter Brueggemann ‘Land is a central if not the central theme’.18 As Jeni Parsons said in her recent assessment of Brueggemann’s work 19 the author sets out a concept of ‘the land as a gift demanding faith and as an arena for the practise of neighbourghly covenanting’.

And what a troubled arena it turned out to be! A further lesson to be drawn from history is that dreams of rural tranquility have everywhere and always been just that! Those marching in 97 and 98 to ‘keep the countryside as it always was’ seem to have forgotten the turbulence of previous times: the Diggers of the 17th Century and machine breakers and rioters of the next, and then the widespread rick burning ... (Not, one imagines the kind of ‘revolt’ promised by the same Countrysiders today).

The fact that these visionaries failed to halt the march of ‘progress’ does not detract from the passion and persuasiveness of their argument and the fact that their arguments were often biblically derived should encourage and inspire us today. It would, of course, be absurd to look to these ancient texts for exact parallels to the situation of a 20th Century North-European, post-industrial country but old echoes of rural dispossession ring loud and clear across time and space. ‘Behold we are slaves this day; in the land that thou gavest to our fathers to enjoy its fruit and its good gift, behold we are slaves. And it rich yield goes to (those) whom thou has set over us because of our sins; they have power also over our bodies, and over our cattle at their pleasure, and we are in great distress’ wrote Nehemiah of the restrictions endured after the return from captivity in the 4th Century BC.

Even more absurd to seek a biblical endorsement for particular strategies like those suggested above. At the same time as Brueggemann, along with other scholars, points out, scripture does draw distinctions between a covenant relationship with the land and overseeing managerial one which chimes with past and present unease at large scale agribusiness.20

It is just such a covenant relationship that pre-occupied Henry George in the 19th Century whose ideas are making something of a comeback today.21 George was at once a biblical visionary in the old 17th Century mode and a widely travelled social analyst whose study Progress and Poverty (published in 1879) quickly became a widely respected classic in the field of economic theory and policy. In essence George proposed a system of taxation based on Land Value, under which rates would be set on the same lines as local i.e. council taxes but would be levied and deployed as a national tax, funding the bulk of public expenditure across the nation. His proposals were based on the sound principle that wealth, rural or urban derived not from money (the means of exchanging wealth, not wealth itself) but the combined power of land, labour and learning and that a truly just society would be one which ensured against any of these resources being monopolised either by minorities or majorities.

George did not claim originality for his ideas: similar arguments had been put forward by Thomas Paine among others. But no one before had refined the principles, their biblical base or their application so fully and cogently. So persuasive have George’s arguments proved that his Land Tax proposal was adopted as party policy in the 1920s by Liberal and Labour parties and came close to being implemented in the early 1930s.22

The revival of interest in George’s work is to be welcomed in a world dominated by land crises of one kind another for it offers a.) an eminent practicability: his proposals do not require extensive expropriation of land – anyway impossible in a country with such a long and tangled history of land titles and in George’s view unnecessary under liberal democracy which is (in theory at least) capable of ensuring that all benefitted from its value; b.) an in-built flexibility: land made unprofitable, either because its products have dropped in value, as has happened in the present crisis, or because it is being conserved in the public interest or for public benefit, would, under his system, be valued as such. Likewise, if I have understood the system correctly, in the opposite case i.e. if the land concerned was made subject to speculative purchase.

There seems to be a growing realisation, (biblically derived or otherwise) that the kind of land hunger Trevelyan and de Lisle describe is not conducive to human progress and this has become joined to another, a strong sense that certain scales of farming are provenly consonant with human well-being.

None of this, however, means that things can just be put back as they were in some imagined heyday. Some things will not, cannot and should not change: advances in nutritional theory means we are unlikely to see a return to the full English breakfast with loads of cream and butter to give a not entirely trivial example. Which suggests an urgent need for Christians, as a people called to deal in the everyday reality of the material world, to combat the backward looking elements of rural revivalism, into which, as I see it, some worryingly fascistic elements have crept in; a phenomenon we see expressed in the often cited claim that rural Britain is safe in the hands of its ‘true sons’, those who own and work it. Such a claim is simply unsustainable. There is no need to ennumerate the environmental destruction wrought by many modern farming methods to see that while farming can be beautifying it is not always so. This is not to denigrate farmers but rather to acknowledge sin and the need for repentance and part of our common humanity.

2. ‘Because of our sins’   –   Realism and Repentance

In the absence of any willingness on the part of farmers’ more aggressive champions to do this we must hold onto a property/class awareness in this matter. Ecological damage and social inequality go hand in hand. The smaller farmers Pat Knowles refers to are, as she and others have pointed out, far more local-employment friendly than their conglomerate counterparts: far more likely, too, to educate their children locally and to use local services. As for the unlanded, sad as anyone about the loss of songbirds and the uglification of their landscape caused by agro-chemicals and some modern farming methods, they are neither makers nor beneficiaries of present trends – just the opposite. But country people are no more ‘stuffed full of natural goodness’ by virtue of residence there than are other hardpressed, marginalised groups. The idea that they are derives in large part from the view that the ‘nature’ they are ‘closer to’ is morally superior to the ‘artificial’ world of the city. As a community with the deepest interest in creation and sin Christians know that to be a lie and should say so more often than we do. Country people themselves are intensely aware of the cruel arbitrariness of nature for they have fought the battles against it which have brought damage as well as benefit.

An acknowledgement that our wounds are to some degree self-inflicted can be liberating in practical ways for among them are those for which amends and restitution can be made. Loss of local services, buses and village shops, frequently cited – and indeed experienced – as sad evidence of rural decline are examples of this. ‘Use it or lose it’ signs, pinned up at the sub-post office and bus shelters of my home village are frequenty disregarded by car owners (a majority of most rural communities) which is of no small matter to those without, a considerable number in my village (an aspect of rural poverty that should be kept in mind with the present debate about fuel costs and one to be set alongside what I wrote earlier about ‘special needs’).

If, as seems increasingly clear, the supermarkets that we (i.e. those who can) opt for over the village shop are growing fat at the expense of both hard-pressed farmers and consumers then countryfolk are feeding the hand that bites them.

The present crisis has arisen in large part because farmers are being forced to compete against cheaper 3rd World imports. For Christians, as part of a worldwide community charged with seeking global justice, the notion of ‘competition’ with our 3rd World neighbours should be unthinkable. Why, we must rather then ask, should they be in hock to our Western demand for cheap food?

Households in Britain now spend around 20% less per capita on food than they did 30 years ago which suggests we need to go further than campaigning for higher food quality. We need to question the entire pattern of Western consumerism.

We are, moreover, a community specifically charged to think globally and act locally. So what forms of resistance can be and are being put in place in the countryside itself? And what part can Christians take in their formation? These questions can only be properly addressed in the context of further change in the make-up of rural communities to which I will now turn.

3. Changing places, changing people, changing churches  –  Rural Britain today

The present agricultural crisis has not, as happened in the early 1800s, led to a widespread depopulation of the countryside. Indeed people keen to live and work there are doing so in significant numbers which has brought about far reaching changes in the make up of many rural communities. The impact incomers make upon the communities they enter, and vice versa, has provided further food for the ‘different worlds’ discourse with some pundits seeing incomers as a threat to traditional ways of doing things, others bemoaning rural backwardnes.

Little serious attention appears to have been paid to the question of newcomers economic relationship to their adopted communities which seems to me the most decisive factor in defining what role they play. We need, always, to keep in mind that it is impossible to speak of ‘the countryside’ as a single homogenous entity and divergences between rural communities are growing ever wider.

Some British villages, particularly those near large urban centres, have become virtual dormitories where the more affluent town working residents really have taken over (one of our study group described attending a local arts event in the South where nobody spoke with a local accent).

Even in places where this has not happened, like rural Shropshire where I live, there are inevitable tensions, particularly, as we have seen, around housing.

To bring the question of class relations more fully into focus we should expand our definition of ‘incomer’ to include short stay residents – holiday makers, tourists and day trippers. They far outnumber those actually moving into rural areas and they are presently occupying the front-line in the ‘phony war’ between town and country in one of its fiercest stages – the battle over Right to Roam.

It is important to remember that the whole question of access to the countryside did not arise until this century. It has always, of course, been available to the well-to-do from the time when they rode around the country visiting each others’ country seats (as in Jane Austen’s novels) to the second home cottage-in-the-country owners of more recent times. But, for ordinary working-class urbanites, holidays and week-ends in the country are a product of improved pay and conditions in the 20th Century. The Ramblers Association, for example, was set up in the 1920s and retains strong working class roots.

As noted earlier most ordinary country folk support protected and/or extended access to areas of open country and opposition comes largely from landowners. I am highly sceptical about claims of the damage and disruption this measure will cause. In my (considerable) experience, visitors, especially ramblers, are highly country-code aware and do not go around leaving farm gates open and endangering livestock. The antis’ arguments sounds like a re-run of ‘coals in the bath’ (21) – somewhat upgraded to suggestions that they’d do better in Ibiza with their own kind and nothing more than a distraction from the real questions this measure raises. Whose land is it and on what terms is it ‘owned’?

The Return of the Native

    Along with ramblers and holiday-makers many incomers see their residence in the country in terms of returning to their roots (my own family certainly does; my father was prevented from following in his father’s farm-workers’ footsteps by the depression of the 1930s and could not wait to get back). History would suggest this claim cannot be dismissed as nostalgia. And though it does not absolve the incomer from an obligation to fit in, to be sensitive to the fears and concerns of the life-long residents, it can absolve them of the inappropriate guilt laid upon them by some sections of the rural community. It ill behoves the landowner who takes the tied cottage off the farm worker to inveigh against the townie who buys it from him, for example!

Economic distinctions are profoundly important when considering the fraught question of incomers’ part in the rural housing shortage. Yes, incomers do benefit from the differentials referred to earlier but taking up permanent residence cannot be simple equated with second home owning (upon which homes heavier taxation seems a necessary and appropriate measure) in either economic or social terms.

Leavers and returners

    Which leads us to ask whether a changing population is automatically a bad thing. While we should bemoan the lack of jobs and opportunities that drive some young people to seek them elsewhere, it is also the case that many choose to go and always have. Vanishing youth is not always a tragedy, certainly not for young people themselves, those whose flight is often prompted by temperament and the discovery of talents and interests which cannot be pursued by staying close to home.

Biblical faith would seem to endorse this prompting. Scripture speaks powerfully of being called out of the land of one’s fathers to seek a new destiny: the need to uproot – to everything there is a season.

As previously proposed scripture and human wisdom alike would seem to favour certain scales of farming smaller and medium scale over agribusiness conglomerates. But does the smaller farm we might wish to promote have to mean the smaller family farm? Faith offers an altogether broader concept of ‘family’ – and ‘true sonship’ (let us forget for the moment the Church’s present promotion of marriage and the nuclear family as society’s main building block or rather let us keep in mind that this is not a scriptural model ! ) Which should lead us to draw some vital distinctions. We can, as Christians both commit to scale and sit lightly to blood-kinship, indeed we would seem mandated to, just as we are mandated to stress stewardship over ownership. A Biblical understanding of community can be creatively linked to the realisation that despite the best efforts of some countryside voices to promote it, there us no real conflict of interest between town and country values.

What is clearly needed, then, is up to build up a real alliance of interests, based in local communities themselves, in which the land truly becomes ‘an arena for the practise of neighbourly covenanting’. This, it seems to me, is a task to which incomers can contribute something of importance. A solid ground for this hope might lie in the emergence of a totally new category of incomer. The last few years have seen the arrival of a group of people who are not notably well-heeled, usually young, often with young children; an arrival frequently made possible by new technologies – computer, internet, e-mail – which means they can continue their working lives from their adopted home. Unlike previous categories of incomer – second-homers, the new aristocracy, the get-away-from-it-all hippie communards of the 70s and the 80s, or the retired 24 they can as their name – tele-cottagers – implies be said to be filling a ‘traditional’ role.

We begin to see how by reference to the historical picture outlined earlier the English village and environs of yore was sustained by a much more mixed economy than is often supposed; lots of self-employed small business-men and women whose living does not come directly from the land so in a sense the telecottagers are restoring part of an old picture.

This is not to say they should be welcomed back as saviours. There are obvious marked differences between them and their forebears, most notably a lack of connection with and dependence on the farming community. Many, moreover seem solely concerned to lead ‘simple’ quietly prosperous lives (Sunday supplement style) and declare themselves not political at all. But those who are political bring with them traditions and practises which the countryside sorely needs at this time.

City life experience nurtures useful forms of dissidence. Political engagement comes more naturally to the urbanite not because (s)he is naturally more aware and or enlightened but because (s)he has lived in groups sufficiently large to mount protest and for that protest to be effective. Consumer pressure is one such form and can be, is being, brought to bear against the market forces responsible for much present hardship. ‘Buying British’ is no longer the provenance of the little Englander. It offers a means of survival for the hard-pressed farmers and strikes a blow against those presently profiting from their woes like supermarkets whose present practise of importing (and re-labelling) Danish bacon, for example, does not just hurt pig farmers it damages the environment by loading the roads with unnecessary heavy transport and destructive levels of fuel emissions.

In the setting up and/or support of ‘buying local’ initiatives we can see some of the old links with the farming community being restored. But new and old traditions do not always neatly co-here. Among the country ways which cannot command respect is the scandalously low wage levels of many rural workers.

It is not hard to trace the cause of this. A continuing history of job insecurity and living in tied property has rendered the farm-worker dependent upon his boss in a way few other workers are which has in turn created the attitudes of ‘forelock tugging’ deference that some townies love to mock (and the bosses call the traditional courtesy that townies so conspicuously lack). Geography too plays a part for physical and social isolation has prevented the build up of sufficient collective muscle to demand improvements in pay and conditions. As of course does propinquity: the close, often truly intimate terms in which which boss and workers labour together, eat together (in the farmhouse kitchen, a practise still maintained on some farms in the area I live), and drink together in the same pub.

Nostalgia for the passing of these old ways and real grief for farm job losses should not blind us to the economic inequity for it applies both to those farm jobs which remain and to countless other unskilled or semi-skilled workers in rural areas, as emerged, to considerable embarrassment all round, in the study group I led.

We were discussing the demand for organic food generally agreeing it to be a good thing and in need of support along the lines set out above. It offered, we all more or less agreed, more than healthy eating for the aware – and/or the well heeled. Its production was labour intensive at a time when farm jobs are disappearing and when it is clear that many people – both returners and remainers – wish to live and work in the country. But, it was objected by one farmer, you’d never get people to work outdoors in winter when they could get better money indoors. ‘We would if we were paid properly’, came the reply. Silence in heaven.

The issue of low pay affects and underpins all the difficulties I have outlined. Take the fraught question of fuel costs. Country people are no more hostile to the environmental arguments for higher taxes than urbanites, though they do feel unfairly squeezed by them for reasons noted earlier. The carless pay the higher costs on such public transport as remains and like the car-owning have to travel longer distances to get to work – a hardship which may well have arisen because the worker has been forced to move away from his or her own preferred locale by the unavailability of affordable housing there. These cicumstances may well constitute an argument for government to extending fuel concessions beyond their present limits (cheap diesel being strictly reserved for agricultural use) but this needs to be accompanied by more strenuous efforts to combat the low pay which makes transport costs hard for the poor but which hardly worry the gas-guzzling Range Rover rich. It makes no sense at all to meet the across the board reductions presently demanded by the motoring lobby for that would help the road, environment and farmer damaging Supermarket lorry and the struggling local farm supplier equally.

Above all, as Andelson and Dawsey among others have demonstrated, the low pay question is inextricably linked to that of fair access to land, which, they argue 25 ‘gives labour strong bargaining power’. Under George’s Land Tax proposals employers would have to offer as much in wages as a self-employed worker could earn as owner of the site of his/her labour.

The requirements of justice, if more comprehensively understood and applied on George’s and other radical’s line are clearly such that ‘support for farmers’ cannot be given unconditionally. What worries me is that in the present situation this seems just what society and more specifically the church are being required to do.

Church and Faith in the Countryside

    I have deliberately said little about ‘the Church’ in institutional /leadership terms. An overview of its role in the countryside today is beyond the scope of this pamphlet and would not reflect the huge regional variations which apply as much in rural church life as to rural life in general. Nor is it necessary: there have been a number of responses and initiatives undertaken by church leaders in response to present difficulties which are being reported and thoughtfully debated in both the national and religious media. My own feeling is that though undoubtedly important and useful in terms of justice for the countryside 26 much of this discussion skirts the issue of justice in the countryside.

Which leads me to share, in conclusion, a strong sense, built up by living here on the ground, that the success or otherwise of the church’s present efforts to combat rural decline will depend upon its ability to acknowledge and come to terms with the intractable particularities of its own situation.

My own tradition – ‘high church’ Anglican – carries a heavy weight of historical collusion with the rural powers that be: a collusion well attested to in history 27 and in contemporary literature from Jane Austen to George Eliot’s Adam Bede.

What are we to do with this legacy? It must not, does not bind us to the past. After all the established church has long stopped praying to ‘bless the squire and his relations and keep us in our proper stations’ and the grand ivy-clad rectories inhabited by the rural parson have long been occupied by the new class of rural gentry.

We might well ask though whether a tradition which so consciously failed first time round to be biased in their favour can be believed able to stand alongside the rural poor today? Such doubts can only be fuelled by a continuing failure to grasp the nettle of class.

We might, to strike a more positive note, be moved to thank God for the saints and prophets for whom the countryside has been historically their issue; for Wesley and the hedge preachers of early Methodism who ministered to a countryside in crisis by standing alongside and sharing in its poverty and despair and bring this thankfulness to bear more fully upon the practice and discipline of ecumenism.

But ‘the Church’, any church, is more than its leaders and country people as a whole have to bear responsibility for losses in this area, like the closure of smaller churches. Churches close not because its customers have gone shopping elsewhere but because goods themselves have been judged surplus to requirements. This uncomfortable knowledge, however, is often resisted by people who do not want the churches goods (except perhaps on special occasions) but do want it to ‘be there’ as a focus of community life. Such a requirement should be strenuously resisted by local Christians and leaders alike for it would be a betrayal of our true identity as resident aliens, a pilgrim people called to travel on.

There looks to be no return to the good days for church or the countryside. This should not discourage us for the old days were by no means good, simple or wholesome ones. It might even lead us to a deeper realisation that hope for our own and the countryside’s future rests where it always and everywhere has, not in numbers influence or prosperity, but in the devine promise that if we seek first the kingdom of God sufficient will be added unto us.


Susan Dowells email address is: sdowellclun@themail.co.uk


Acknowledgements

Thanks are due to the people with whom I first explored these issues, and particularly to the staff of Bishops Castle Community College, Shropshire, who gave us space and support in 1999.


Notes

1. The title: not, I think, to be confused with what Shakespeare meant by this phrase (!) Cf. Hamlet, Act III, scene II, l. 124.

2. The Jubilee Group is a loose network of socialist Christians, mainly within the Anglican Catholic Tradition. It began in the east end of London in 1974, and is concerned to join hands with all other Christians who are committed to the renewal of social thinking within the churches. Address: 48 Northampton Road, Croydon CR0 7HT.

3. See Guardian passim. Anxious not to betray their ignorance deferential townies fail to ask who has most consistently sacked farm labourers or sold land for development. (Guardian 16.7.97).

4. The Alliances abandonment of its claim to represent rural life in toto and to operate as a single issue (pro-hunting) campaign was made clear at the Labour Party Conference in October 99. They sent a delegation but farming interests were represented by the National Farmers Union. This separation, which has undoubtedly helped broaden and clarify the debate is however frequently challenged. John Mortimer, for example a high profile Alliance supporter, objected to the Alliances exclusion from a Downing Street consultation on the farming crisis. (Observer 6.2.00)

5. The Countryside Movement, founded in 1995 for protection of traditional rural ways against interference from untutored townspeople collapsed, according to Paul Evans, chairman of the British Association of Nature Conservationists, because it could not represent the diversity of values in the countryside. (Guardian 9.7.97) It remains to be seen whether this will be the fate of a recent newcomer to the countryside lobby – the Farmers and Hauliers Alliance, formed in April 2000 to combat The apparent aim of the UK government to destroy our industries. Though this group’s sole declared interest is to oppose high fuel taxes, some Countryside Alliance members have been quick to link the two causes (see Leanda de Lisle, another high-profile spokesperson for the Alliance – My Friends on the Barricades Guardian 13.9.00.)

6. Janet George, one time Alliance publicity director interviewed in august 1998, reported in New  Statesman 13.9.99.

7. More recent polls (e.g. MORI April-June 1999) confirm this – see also note 9.

8. According to the Burns Report (on hunting) in June 2000 the number of ordinary rural workers involved in hunting appears to have been over-estimated by the hunting lobby. But the rural jobs argument cannot be ignored and indeed continues to be the most persuasive one for wavering townies.

9. The MORI poll referred to (in note 5) finds the issues which most worry people living in the countryside to be largely the same as those expressed by their urban-dwelling counterparts: health, defence and education coming at the top of the list.

10. Guardian op cit.

11. For an account of the complex and varied patterns of rural employment and the consequent differential in terms of pay and job security at this time see EP Thompson op. cit. esp the field labourers pp. 232-258.

12. G.M.Trevelyan British History in the 19th Century and After: 1782-1919, (Pelican 65, p. 25)

13. Many of whom lived in conditions amounting to sub-human squalor. So severe were those in, for example, the Scottish Highlands that the Clearances were sometimes defended as acts of ‘holy charity’.

14. Leanda de Lisle, New Statesman 6.9.99. This is an extension of a familiar pattern. Owning a picturesque farm house has been an often realised dream among this class. Many farmers under economic pressure have sold the old house and built or bought themselves smaller modern dwellings, thus increasing pressure on housing shortage and anxiety about over-development.

15. Trevelyan op. cit. p. 24

16. Guardian 1.9.99

17. The substantial subsidies farmers receive has inevitably provided ammunition for critics of the rural lobby. Why they ask when agriculture only counts for 3% of the economy should farmers take £34 per week, £2000 per annum from every taxpayer? This question overrides the inequitable distribution of farm subsidies. These are (or were til recently – it is hard at this time of intensive government negotiations with the NFU) paid by the acre (and /or by head of stock) which meant that 80% of the £3billion CAP subsidy going to 20% of farmers. It should also be noted that protests against the present systems have been lodged by far-sighted farmers themselves, Oliver Watson, a grain-baron farming 2000 acres of high quality land in East Anglia (and hence in receipt of heavy subsidy payments) has consistently asked for the money to be used for the preserevstion of the local landscape and public access thereto.

18. Brueggemann The Land, (Fortress Press Philadelphia. 1977 p.

19. Jubilee Group discussion paper no 126 p. 9.

20. Brueggemann op. cit. Esp pp. 71-89.

21. For an excellent exposition of George’s thought and how it might be brought to bear upon present day crises across the world see From Wasteland to Promised Land: Liberation Theology for a Post-Marxist World, Robert V.Andelson and James M.Dawsey, (Orbis 1992.)

22. Deepest thanks to my neighbour Alan Laurie, long time champion of Georges proposals for drawing my attention to his work and its ongoing history. Further information available from "mailto:laurie2502@lineone.net".

23. For those too young to remember the 1950s this phrase was commonly employed as an argument against providing and/or upgrading council houses since mod con amenities would be wasted on the working classes!

24. I do not mean to write off those who retire to the countryside as an anachronistic irrelevance. This category includes many progressive voices who have made a considerable contribution to their communities. But, neither needing nor wanting to make a living in the area, having chosen it for its peace and beauty can make some less than enthusiastic about any development and hence upholders of the chocolate box village ideal.

25. op. cit. p. 7

26. A board of mission report (1.3.00) to be debated by General Synod this year urges Christians to :  1. Back farmers,  2. Advertise and support local products and farmers markets,  3. Use British products,  4. Build up Rogation Sunday as a special day of prayer,  5. Talk to supermarkets about buying local products.

27. See E.P.Thompson (op. cit.) pp. 257-258

 



Thanks to Giles Hibbert, O.P. and Blackfriars Publications for the html file and permission to reproduce it here. Blackfriars now have an electronic library on their site which includes several other items of interest,.

Publications