“Liberty and Livelihood”

A March for the English Countryside

In a massive show of defiance, thousands of country folk surged through the streets of London recently for a huge rally in support of fox hunting and their rural way of life. The “Liberty and Livelihood” rally was estimated to have cost over £1 million. Some reports suggested that it was the largest civil protest staged in Britain in the last 150 years. The organizers claimed that it was the largest demonstration in Britain since the 19th century.

It attracted more than 400,000 farmers, gamekeepers, hunting enthusiasts and rural residents. More than 2,500 coaches and 31 specially chartered trains carried protesters to London, and around 1,600 police lined the march route. Protesters from around Britain and as far afield as Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand marched along two separate routes before converging on Whitehall, the government district, for a final defiant march to Parliament buildings.

One of the overseas supporters of the march was New York resident Roger Saunders, 56, who came to London to take part in the rally. “If we don’t stop this nonsense over here it will cross over. If you don’t let people have freedom of choice in their way of life, it is not a democracy,” he claimed, while proudly waving an American flag.

As they marched through the streets of central London, bringing things to a standstill, the protestors had a set of clear-cut messages for Prime Minister Tony Blair: “Blair, ban hunting and we will boot you out,” read one banner. Also: “Well now Blair, you want a war? Then stay at home. You’ve got one,” with reference to the Prime Minister’s backing of Bush’s pro-war stance against Iraq. And: “I love my country, I fear my government.” These were just a few of the many placards and banners being held aloft and waved by some of the largely good-humored demonstrators. Hunting horns were blown as the demonstrators were joined by Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith, the ex-professional footballer and now film actor, Vinnie Jones, and Earl Spencer, brother of the late Princess Diana. Prince Charles openly supports hunting, although neither he nor Camilla Parker Bowles, his companion, were spotted in the crowd.

The marches were organized by the Countryside Alliance, formed originally to oppose a ban on fox hunting and other forms of hunting with dogs. However, the organization says it represents all rural people who feel their way of life is under threat. A representative for the Countryside Alliance, an umbrella body of rural groups, said the march was not just about fox hunting. It was a protest to safeguard rural people from attacks on all field sports, to demand respect for rural values and customs, and to raise issues such as falling farm incomes, the lack of affordable housing, and a disintegrating rural economy.

Fox hunting is an issue that polarizes Britain. Many people, including the royal family, enjoy fox hunting as sport, and welcome the sight of horsemen galloping behind a pack of hunting dogs. Prince Charles and his sons William and Harry are regularly seen enjoying the rituals of fox hunting. But to many others, fox hunting is brutal. Opponents, including members of animal rights groups, are revolted by the idea of foxes being torn apart by dogs. Accordingly, there was counter-protest by a small but vocal group of animal rights activists, but the event remained peaceful.

In 1998, I reviewed for h2so4 the last march and rally for the countryside. The organizers called that march: “The March for the Countryside.” Over 200,000 people demonstrated. Tony Blair reacted to that march by saying, famously: “If you’ve got that number of people willing to come and fight, then there is no point trying to pick and fight with them.”

After this weekend’s march, I have similar feelings to the ones I had after the one in 1998. These protests in support of country life highlight the preferences of the privileged while ignoring issues such as decent housing for the less well off in rural areas, and better wages for farm workers. The preservation of the right to hunt foxes has become a flashpoint for the countryside’s wealthier citizens. It has given them another opportunity to express their discontent with what they see as a detached, urban, metropolitan New Labour government, middle-class and out of touch. Ironically, these people may have something in common with people they try to avoid. Urban inner-city working-class white and black Labour supporters, who feel that their past support for the Labour party has been ignored, agree that New Labour’s middle class has lost touch, listening to the concerns of business leaders and not them.

Farming and the countryside will always occupy a unique position in the British economy, society, and culture. The image of British rolling hills, games of cricket, country pubs, and vicars on bicycles is what tourist authorities and lovers of nostalgia cherish. It’s a powerful image, and one which is often portrayed as the “real England” rather than the multi-cultural urban cities of London, Leeds, and Manchester. And as the march demonstrates, the people who live in the rural areas want to protect their perfect English heritage.

And as Tony Blair said, 400,000 well-organized people marching through London have to be taken seriously. It was an impressive show of strength—regardless of whether for some this was just an excuse to have a fun day out in the capital. As I observed the day’s events, I came across several groups of wandering protestors who promptly became enthusiastic London tourists after the march had ended.

But this is the important point as far as I’m concerned: the rural economy has had a bad time recently. Its two main elements —agriculture and tourism—have both suffered difficult periods. But agriculture makes up only 1.7% of the British economy. Therefore one has to ask: How can so many people get excited enough to fight for the right to hunt foxes? A more important question might be: Why are there no planned protests to highlight British displeasure about our creaking state school system, underfunded public transport systems, and the apparent disarray in the National Health Service? —CB