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Country News - 2002

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After the march was over: what now?
Monday 23 September 2002

Our countryside commentator John Sheard celebrates the success of the great London march - but wonders what effect it will have.

THE counter showing the numbers taking part in the biggest demonstration in London since 1834 clocked up 400,000 in late afternoon and a huge cheer went up: the Liberty and Livelihood March by Britain's country folk had succeeded beyond it organisers' wildest expectations.

And indeed some very important people agreed with the notion that country folk had become Britain's biggest oppressed minority.

It was revealed that Prince Charles, a supporter of the march who could not take part for political reasons, had written an angry letter to the Prime Minister saying that country people were being treated much worse than any other minority. On TV, the former Tory leader William Hague, who lives in North Yorkshire, repeated exactly the same point.

Just as satisfying was the way that, during the day, the broadcast media seemed to fall in line with our anger that the Liberty and Livelihood March had been smeared by the anti-hunting lobby as a mere "front" for the fox hunting fraternity.

Unable to attend myself for personal reasons (something I shall now regret for the rest of my life) I listened to the radio and watch every TV news slot from the early hours until the evening bulletins - and was exhilarated to hear even politically correct London-based journalists change their tune.

As one would expect from the BBC, it started its early morning radio reports describing the even as a "pro-fox hunting demonstration." By evening, most commentators were calling a demonstration against the neglect of our countryside by Central Government, with the proposed ban on fox hunting being only a symbol of much wider anger - the word "fury" was used several times.

This is itself was a major PR coup by the Countryside Alliance and perhaps it will sink in amongst city folk that there was much more to this than a few nobs in red coats tearing around the countryside on horseback. In fact, the only person during the whole day who refused to admit this was the man allegedly in charge: Countryside Minister Alun Michael.

I doubt whether the unfortunate Mr Michael wanted to be in London at all: earlier in the week, he had announced he would be going away for the weekend to spend time with his grandchildren. Perhaps his boss gave him orders to stay on the job, for during the day no other minister was available to give radio or TV interviews.

In these, he repeated ad nauseum that the march was simply about fox hunting. The Government was addressing all other rural problems, he insisted, and had formed a national body to do just that. It was a body I have never even heard of - and I make my living writing about the countryside!

By the end of the day, I was almost beginning to feel sorry for Michael, a Welshman who was supposed to be the leader of the new Welsh Assembly but was forced to resign when his own Labour members refused to work with him. Tony Blair is supposed to have made him countryside minister as a consolation prize. Talk about the poisoned chalice!

There is absolutely no doubt that the Liberty and Livelihood March was a triumph for country folk. But, and I apologise for my pessimism and hope I am wrong, I doubt if the taste of victory will remain long on our lips.

This is a particular vindictive government when its control-freakery is thwarted. And this was perhaps its worst ever weekend in power for Alun Michael is not the only minister whose job is on the line: Education Secretary Estelle Morris also seems a candidate for the chop over the great A-level cock-up.

If the Government is forced to make such humiliating changes, there will be a strong lust for revenge amongst hundreds of Labour backbenchers - and fox hunting is still the most likely sacrificial victim.

The fact that there has never been a bigger protest in London since the days of the Tolpuddle Martyrs in 1834 will not sooth their bloodlust. The best quote of the day I heard was from a caller on a TV phone-in who said: "I always thought that is was the job of Parliament to protect the rights of British subjects - not to take them away."

What irony. Even before the Tolpuddle Martyrs - the spiritual begetters of the Labour Party - Parliament fought and won a civil war to take away the rights of the King to force laws on the people they didn't want. Who are the oppressors now?

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