In America, at least as yet, there is nothing to match the bitter controversy that has developed in Britain between town and country. New York or San Francisco are impossibly remote from the vast tracts of Midwestern corn belt or Texan ranch country. The countryside – in so far as one can use the word in an American context – is left to its natural business, the usual round of sex and death. In this overcrowded island, by contrast, town and country live cheek by jowl. The car has destroyed the remoteness even of wildest Britain. Economic, social and political power is shifting decisively from landowners and farmers to the host of ‘incomers’, refugees from urban life who demand to see rural life redefined on their terms: less cruel, less hierarchical.
As the struggle intensifies, the fibs told by both sides grow more outrageous. The incomers’ attempts to impose their sub-Archers value system are lamentable. But few country people have yet confronted the huge hole shot in their argument by agricultural subsidy. Landowners’ claim to the right to do as they want on their own property rings hollow when the public is thoroughly aware that the EU taxpayer is funding their butlers and cartridges. ‘Who’s paying for it all?’ demand Ramblers and New Labour acolytes, and good answer comes there none. Far from being benign philanthropists, most big landowners have sold off land for development whenever occasion has offered, and farmed with a ruthlessness Evelyn Waugh would have appreciated, when he wrote of ‘the sly instinct for self-preservation that passes for wisdom among the rich.’
I love shooting and fishing, but being dropped by Range Rover on a peg to pot scores of driven pheasants never seems a sport remotely as challenging as foxhunting. The arguments for hunting, which involves exertion, risk and chance, are infinitely more potent. Almost everything we do in the countryside today is in some measure artificial; the old wild ways are long gone, and few people who have read a little rural history in Akenfield or Lark Rise could seriously suggest that country people were happier a century ago, living on the edge of poverty with their damp cottages, free milk and night carts. But, admitting all that, much of Britain’s landscape is still well managed and beautiful to the eye, for reasons that have much to do with loving, private ownership and field sports. The countryside will become a poor thing indeed if the mighty suburban army gets its way and the great minority culture of hunting is abolished, the threatened 4.4 million new homes are built in rural areas, and great swathes of Britain become a country park regulated by the likes of Dr Jack ‘Boots’ Cunningham and Mr Elliot Morley.
This collection of essays and speeches has been generated over the past three years by the Town and Country Forum, created by Roger Scruton and Paul Hirst, both professors at Birkbeck College. All the great issues of the day are here: the future of agribusiness, new housing and animal welfare; and there are less familiar themes such as Libby Purves’s excellent essay on light-pollution – the yellowing of the countryside at night by gross over-illumination of towns and villages. David Coffey’s ‘Confessions of an Urban Vet’ muse sardonically on an urban culture which can casually destroy many of its pet dogs’ personalities by castration, while fulminating about the alleged cruelty of animal farming. A good piece by Anthony O’Hear dismisses the arguments of those townies who believe nature can be left in a virgin state, that human ‘interference’ is per se unwelcome.
In reality, the most glorious parts of our countryside are managed, planted, and built upon. The flatlands of East Anglia, for instance, would seem dreary without the temples and castles with which man has adorned them. ‘Nature, the new religion,’ writes O’Hear, ‘encourages irrationalism….To worship an inanimate and mindless object such as the earth is an idolatry as primitive as any that has been practised in the history of the human race.’