Patrick Galbraith says the rural vote is up for grabs, if Labour could only see the wood for the trees
This article is taken from the November issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.
As non-stories go, it was a magnificent one. Just before midnight, on Saturday 13 September, a government diktat was published detailing activities that were to be exempt from the much-talked-about rule of six. I’ve always maintained that octopush, that elegant subaquatic reimagining of hockey, is overlooked in this country and I was delighted to see it make the grade. Others, however, were preoccupied with another inclusion. It was the Huffington Post who claimed the exclusive, noting just 15 hours after the list went live, that if anyone wished to, they could continue shooting grouse.
It was as though an old gamekeeper had lit his pipe beneath the cracked petrol tank of a Series II Land Rover. Twitter exploded, with every heavyweight commentator posting a variation on the same joke about planning a mass family gathering in tweed breeks.
The oddest thing about it, to anyone who’s actually seen grouse above the barrels of a gun, was that it had been a very poor breeding season and most moors were finished shooting for the year, but, as ever, the details were beside the point.
My host admitted if there was an election he’d be staying at home with his Labradors
In the midst of the storm, the Labour Party dashed together a video of a young Boris holding a brace of pheasants. The sentiment was similar to the line Angela Rayner gleefully trotted out at PMQs later that week. The cabinet, she reckoned, had busied itself working out how to allow the rural rich to continue indulging their bloodlust while Rome burned.
The following Saturday, I stood outside a Hampshire barn chatting to the owner of an estate surrounding Steventon, where Jane Austen’s father was vicar. Thanks to what many were still calling “the grouse hunting exemption”, we were shooting partridges. “I don’t like Boris,” the old boy told me while we waited for the other guns to arrive, “but what’s the alternative for rural people? Starmer’s all right but vote for him and you get Starmer and the gang and I don’t much like the gang.”
By the time the first drive of the morning had begun and partridges were flicking up into the wind over a tall blackthorn hedge, my host had admitted that if there was an election the following week, he’d be staying at home with his Labradors.
A fortnight later, three days into the pheasant season, I rang Sam Carlisle, a Countryside Alliance staffer and son of Mrs Thatcher’s former Lord Commissioner of the Treasury, Sir Kenneth.
He suggested the disdain for the prime minister I came across in Steventon is part of “a growing dissatisfaction with the Conservatives in rural Britain”, adding that “among the Alliance cohort”, a muddle of parliamentarians sympathetic to the cause, there seems to be feverish unrest about “people like Lord (Zac) Goldsmith, obviously his brother Ben (who sits on the Defra board), and Carrie Symonds”.
The feeling, according to Carlisle Jnr, is that the trio typify a new flavour of Tory teenybopper who surf the bright green wave but care little for the lives and livelihoods of farmers. In a world so focused on confronting division, Carlisle is disappointed that the growing gulf between urban and rural remains unseen. He suggests Boris and his courtiers are deemed to embody that malaise to such an extent that politically, the countryside is up for grabs.
It all sounds like a golden opportunity for Labour. Of a possible 199 rural seats in England and Wales, they hold just 17: that’s 83 fewer than they won in 1997. But there’s no point in opportunities if you aren’t going to take them and it seems that even under new management they still can’t see the wood for the trees.
There are 74,000 jobs in rural Britain created by shooting. Angela Rayner took great delight in thinking she was sticking it to Boris’s pals when in reality she was blindly threatening the livelihoods of the ordinary people they so badly need to reconnect with.
Twenty minutes east of the Carlisle’s Suffolk farm lives Richard Negus, a hedge-layer with whom, some weeks ago, I sat in a ditch at dawn, waiting for geese with our guns. As the sun rose over Aldeburgh, he told me he often marvels at what an utter foreign country rural England is to Labour. “That said,” he continued, “I don’t think we’re wedded to any one party.” Richard’s father, who was active in local politics in the 1950s, maintains that the countryside has been of no concern to the Conservatives since Cameron. Richard also senses a growing rural mistrust of Tory high command and he believes a huge amount rides on the government’s post-Brexit agricultural policy.
“My father reckons nowadays country people hold their noses to vote Tory,” Richard shouted while scrambling around with his spaniel looking for a snipe that had fallen among the samphire. He passed me the bird and sat down to pour some tea. “It’s odd, isn’t it,” I replied, “that even as the Tories appear to go sour in the countryside, Labour do nothing to try and smell any sweeter.”
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