ROBIN CARMODY on the roots of a cultural myth.
Occasionally, when I'm explaining the Common Ground ethos of "'local distinctiveness" and related concepts (http://www.commonground.org.uk/Local_Distinctiveness.html) to friends, especially those living in cities, who are unaware of the movement, there is an assumption - sometimes unspoken, sometimes expressed in no uncertain terms - that the concepts of "authenticity", "enchantment", "identity" and "people's attachment to places" are inherently, by their very definition, crypto-Tory, despite the eloquent attacks on xenophobia and the fossilisation of places, assertions that history is a continuing process and not just the past, and the celebration of the cultural diversity of Brick Lane in East London also contained within that essay. I would never hold such a view now, but I came close to holding it in my mid-teens, and I wonder how and why it has become so common and so widespread.
After all, ideologies often shift from one side to the other. In 1962 it was the Tories who were keen to take Britain into the European Community (10 years later, they succeeded) while Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell associated Europe with Hitler and Mussolini and claimed that forming a greater alliance with mainland Europe would end "a thousand years of British history", the exact inverse of present-day party political positions on Europe. Similarly, in the 1950s, revered left-wingers like Richard Hoggart had an attitude to the cultural impact of American pop culture on the working classes which was at least as protectionist as any Tory's view of hip-hop today (for his comments on the 50s youth culture of the coffee bars, and much else relevant to the never-come site this piece was intended for, see http://web.ukonline.co.uk/mustrad/articles/brocken4.htm), while it was a Tory government which essentially brought that culture out of the cinemas and into the home when they legalised commercial television. The Labour Party, which was still heavily influenced by the old Northern "puritan socialist" idea of what the working classes should be allowed access to, initially pledged to ban all commercial TV, even though it would have left their core voters with no choice apart from the essentially Home Counties middle-class establishment culture of the 1950s BBC, and it would have prevented the development of the uniquely Northern voice of Granada Television, which ultimately had a massive and positive influence on the BBC's reinvention of itself from the early 60s onwards.
Why haven't associations with ruralism, Britain's industrial base, progressivism and nostalgia alternated between the two main parties in quite that way?
Having thought about it at length, and analysed the writings of many fine political journalists on these subjects, I've concluded that the roots of this cultural stereotype are arguably in a political act of 1900 which, in itself, took the various Northern statements of independence of the previous few years (for example, the foundation of the Rugby League as a breakaway from the Rugby Union in 1895) an important step further. It was the foundation - mostly in the North, and centred in the areas which would later be nationally identified as its strongholds - of the socialist Labour Party, initially as a splinter-group from the Liberal Party.
In the 19th Century the two main parties in Britain were the party of the rural poor, most of whom gradually moved into the urban areas during and after the Industrial Revolution (the Whigs, later the Liberals) and the party of the ruling classes and rural landed gentry (the Tories, later officially named the Conservatives). When the workers' movements in the industrial areas, aware that the tide was turning their way and away from the old rural working people, broke away and formed their own party, social and cultural shifts in the UK went with them, to the effect that within 25 years they had overtaken the Liberals and became the workers' party everywhere except the West Country and certain other rural areas. The result was that, for the last three quarters of the 20th Century, until a partial revival at the century's close, ruralist progressivism was marginalised into the third party, rather than being a serious threat to the Tories.
Britain had no equivalent of the considerable political power held by rural peasants in France, where industrialisation had come much later and much more piecemeal (admittedly, such movements were viewed as intensely intolerant and backward by practically all those in urban areas, and indeed Jean-Marie Le Pen, the future leader of the far-right Front Nationale, was a key figure in the Poujadistes, a 1950s French peasants' movement whose populist "voice of the countryside" rabble-rousing tactics pre-empted the contemptible behaviour of the likes of David Handley and Brynie Williams during the UK fuel crisis in September 2000). But there was another crucial cultural difference between Britain and mainland Europe; in 1963, when it was first proposed that the UK would join the European Community, W. H. Auden wrote that, in stark contrast to Britain, in mainland Europe "the village schoolmaster and the village doctor are usually on the political left."
This is the root of the whole unspoken cultural assumption, still common today both in the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph (and surely one of the very few such assumptions that links both papers) that all ruralism is inherently and explicitly or, at best, implicitly and subconsciously Tory. By the 1920s and 1930s, we had reached a situation where the two main parties were those of the landed gentry and the urban proletariat, and rural liberalism / socialism had been marginalised. And this is the key to why people forget that the progressive ruralist movement ever even existed in British politics; so minor and blunted a force were the Liberals in the post-war consensual years when there seemed to be, literally, no need for them, because the two main parties were close enough to each other as to render the Liberals meaningless in the national debate. Had it not been for their continued support in their West Country strongholds, the Liberals might well have crumbled during this period. After their nadir in the 50s, they made a considerable comeback in the elections of 1964 and 1966, but even this was reversed in the mid-late 70s after party leader Jeremy Thorpe was accused of conspiracy to murder (he was eventually acquitted, but stupidly stood to retain his North Devon seat while on trial in 1979, and the seat was lost to the Tories until 1992). Around this time they lost disastrously in the 1977 county council elections, gaining only 90 seats in the whole country, and performed very badly in a series of by-elections around 1976-78, and in the 1979 general election.
But the early 1980s, as Thatcher's Tory government abandoned the centre-right consensual politics of the post-war era in favour of a hardline, aggressive right-wing approach, while Michael Foot's Labour Party headed further and further to the far-left, was obviously the right time for a strong third party to develop. And, of course, it did; in 1981 the centrists within the Labour Party - Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley Williams - broke away to form the Social Democratic Party, which formed an alliance for electoral purposes with the resuscitant Liberals, and ultimately merged to form the Liberal Democrats in 1988. In recent years, as the Tories have, like Labour in the early 80s, retreated to the extreme of their wing of politics, the LibDems have proved a haven for the more progressive-thinking Tories - in March 2001, former West Devon & Torridge Tory MP Emma Nicholson wrote in the Guardian that Nick Brown had handled the foot and mouth crisis well and that future livestock sales should be conducted entirely over the internet. These two statements, and the paper in which she expressed them, would be blasphemous to the current Tory idea of ruralism, so it should be no surprise that she left the party while still an MP, and now sits as a LibDem peer and MEP for the south-east of England, and the seat went to the LibDems in the 1997 election after she had left the Commons. And thankfully, as the Tories have got more and more extreme and alienated themselves from the moderate, one-nation Tory tradition which dominates large parts of the West of England, the LibDems have reclaimed the non-metropolitan liberal traditions they came from; the Romsey by-election in May 2000 was merely the most high-profile example of this, but certainly not the only one. While the many West Country seats - the likes of Yeovil in 1983, Somerton & Frome in 1997 and Teignbridge in 2001 - which the LibDems have claimed in recent years were solid Tory in the consensual years after the war, for Tories to claim, as they often do, that they were the only party with "the tradition" there is an insult; the Liberals had all the tradition in those places until their initial decline.
And I think that Tony Blair, for all his faults, understands the damage that the simplistic "urban progressives vs. rural backwardness" equation did, not least the divisive impact on the electoral chances of any progressive party brought about by the Labour / SDP split of 1981, which is I think partially why he regrets the Labour / Liberal split of 1900 (and see also his admiration for William Morris, though this hardly excuses Blair's obsession with homogeneity, suburbanisation and ecomonic globalisation). It seems more and more obvious that, if the left had stuck together 100 years ago and not split into rural and urban wings (with the urban wing naturally becoming the most prominent as the effects of the Industrial Revolution became stronger and stronger with time), the ruralist progressive movement would have been represented in the main opposition party to the Tories for most of the last century, rather than marginalised and ignored as a spent force, so the cultural tendency which misunderstands the Common Ground ethos would have had much less opportunity to take root.
In the past, though, I think I've gone too far, in that I've taken people's attacks on the hunt lobby to be attacks on everyone in the countryside. The nature of journalism and of language itself is that you can't always know what people mean, because the phrase "country people" has become so ambivalent. A lot of people, and not just right-wing journalists (though it seems to have been the Telegraph et al who started this redefinition), now use it to mean a particular type of country person. "Country people" is in many ways the new "Englishman", a word which has for many years generally implied a certain type of man who is English, not its literal meaning of "any man who is English". By the literal definition of the word "Englishman", Tim Westwood is as English as Winston Churchill, but nobody would consider the two men to fit equally into what the word "Englishman" has culturally come to mean. By these criteria, the UK hip-hop artist Skitz is playing a bold and admirable game with the language naming his 2001 album Countryman and calling a track on the album "Inner City Folk"; these are symbiotics inherently far more subversive to the readership of the Daily Telegraph than hip-hop's accepted litany of "urban" phraseology could ever be.
The phrase "Country people", when used to indicate the hunt lobby, is going the same way as the word "Englishman"; it means a certain cultural stereotype rather than what it means at face value. Literally speaking, the Guardian's diarist during the 2001 foot and mouth crisis, Sarah Walton, is as much a "country person" as Robin Page, but by the increasingly accepted Telegraph-defined meaning of the phrase, she quite obviously is not. And it becomes all the more obvious that when Guardian writers express their disdain for "country people", they mean it in the same way; they're not trying to attack those in the countryside who lean towards the liberal-left. Having always been very interested in words, I view that phenomenon with interest; words which gradually change their meaning, as far as most people understand them, from their literal meaning to a subjective cultural stereotype which describes only a minority of those who fit within the literal meaning. Even 10 years ago, I can remember using the phrase "country people" and being fully aware that it meant simply "people who live in rural areas", and nothing else; the only contentuous issue back then was how "rural areas" and "the countryside" were to be defined, and specifically whether the largely suburbanised countryside in the south-east of England could truly be said to be "rural" anymore. It's only really the post-Blair politicisation of these things by the political right that has changed the meaning of phrases like "country people"; phraseology which I used in the early 1990s, without thinking that it meant anything political, is now irredeemably associated with right-wing exploitation.
I think I can understand why the far-right have attempted to exploit the Green / environmentalist movement (see http://www.redpepper.org.uk/cularch/xdkgreen.html); to them, it must seem like a weird hybrid, in that its politics are so clearly (and offensively to them) of the left, but its emphasis on rurality, nature and "the land" seems to them tantalisingly right-wing in its connotations, and they can see it as something they can very easily twist round to their worldview; in many ways, the ethos of the Green Party was denied its voice in mainstream British politics forever by that fatal split of 1900 (significantly, the Greens have become a major force in several mainland European countries where there was no such split). I think I can also see why Andrew Marr, a writer I admire immensely, writes superbly about William Morris in his book The Day Britain Died and comments regretfully that the axis represented by the National Trust, the Conservative Party, and magazines like The Field and Country Life "smooths out to nothing that complexity and rebelliousness ... replaces the real history with immemorial title-deeds, quiet acres and rural hierarchies ... uproots the folk and substitutes property ... the fact that those acres have been the scenes of violent peasant protest, clearances of villages and the seizing of common land, unceasing rural guerilla war between haves and have-nots, under the anodyne-sounding names of poaching and gamekeeping, matters not a whit ... this is the nation engaged in an act of collective amnesia, ethnic forgetting ... there is no national trust for the vanished people in all their turbulence and complexity, the people with strong ideas and few posessions."
It would be hard to imagine a better piece of writing on the subject. The only problem is that, a mere eight pages later, Marr takes seriously the marginal anti-technology fanaticism of Robin Page, claiming that Page's views "deserve to be quoted at length because they stand for the boiling anger of so many others." Even as a former editor of The Independent - the most highly-regarded newspaper among liberal thinkers in rural Britain, and the paper with the highest percentage of LibDem-voting readers, especially in the West Country - Marr still feels the need to take Page seriously and, worse, claim a consensus on his side. Marr acknowledges later in his book The Day Britain Died that the concept of "Cool Britannia" - a fatuous media construction, but one which briefly had some resonance in the mid-1990s - was "excessively metropolitan; too much of Manchester and London and insulting to some of the rest of the country." Almost without trying, he hits here on another great problem of contemporary Britain; whenever national identity is portrayed as something more liberal and progressive than it is often assumed to be, it is usually, whether explicitly or implicitly, made out to be entirely metropolitan and meaningless outside the major urban centres. Thus, the implied cultural link between ruralism and conservatism remains utterly unchallenged.
Especially since Thatcherism and punk - which, in their totally different ways, did so much to make the ruralist and the conservative seem inseparable from the late 70s onwards - we have simply allowed the right-wingers to take over the territory in the public mind. We have to regain it. Despite the revival of the last 20 years or so, and the thankful marginalisation of the extremist hardline Scargillite wing (which had ultimately been reduced to a dangerous idea of Northern ethnic authenticity) within the Labour Party during the Blair era, and to a lesser extent previously under Neil Kinnock and John Smith, there is still a massive cultural job to be done.
Who are we trying to kid? We have no time to waste with the work that lies ahead. I hope this piece has contributed something to the general urge and motivation.
Robin Carmody, 4th April 2001