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The Prince speaks out ... but is anyone listening?

Friday 02 October 2009

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, who has done his best to ignore the political conference season, wonders why it is so often left to the Royal family to speak up in the interests of country folk

THIS may be difficult to believe, dear reader, but I have spent the past two weeks with my eyes bandaged and my ears plugged to escape the cascade of absolute tripe that has been exploding from the LibDem and Labour party conferences – and will remain so when the Tories take their turn in the in the ring of the great spin circus of the (pie) in the sky.

I normally spend more hours a week than I care to count scanning the newspapers, both national and local, watching TV news and listening to Radio Four in the hope of picking up the odd morsel of news that might be of interest to the 22% of the British people who live in rural or semi-rural constituencies.

Dales village

That’s some 12 million people – people with votes who actually tend to cast them, unlike a rough 40% of city folk – so you would think that the politicos hoping to garner those votes might have something to say which might be of interest or even future benefit to them. But so far on this front, I have learned precisely zilch.

Now I admit that this week I have not trawled too deep in the sea of nonsense emitting from the Labour party conference in Brighton for the simple reason I do not believe a single word that any of them have said. Remember those phrases issued by the young Tony Blair at such gatherings: “Education, education, education” and “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime.”

Twelve years later, we have nigh on a million semi-literate ‘teenagers on the dole and a young mother is driven to burning herself and her mentally disabled child alive because of the constant harassment by yobs who the police declined to tackle – but whom they are now protecting from death threats. All that has happened since New Labour came to power.

But I worry, too, about what the Tories will bring if elected as expected next May. For although David Cameron may be the nearest clone to Tony Blair we have, his only “proper” job in life has been as a public relations consultant. He lives in the heart of posh London surrounded by the cream of the chattering classes and, as far as I can tell, he has virtually no rural connections whatsoever.

Now I have been covering general elections for half a century – my first was Harold Macmillan’s 1959 landslide – and my local Conservative candidate in a rural seat then was a farmer and market gardener. In neighbouring constituencies, most of the elected Tories were on much the same stock, farmers or landowners who, today, would be looked upon as ancient fuddy-duddies unfit for the green benches of Westminster.

But they knew about the countryside. They knew how it worked, how country folk made a living, how they played, how they thought. Farming and all the ancillary trades and professions that went with it – the land agents, the feed merchants, the tractor salesmen – were valued because together they produced something over 70% of the nation’s food.

Who speaks up for them today? This week, the rather undemocratic answer is that the countryside’s most vociferous supporters occupy not the Palace of Westminster but those other two rather splendid piles just down the road, Buckingham Palace and Clarence House.

long known for upsetting the politicians for the venal sin of telling the truth as he sees it...

With an almost total absence of rural discussions on the political stage, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, jumped into the arena with a characteristic onslaught on the businesses and the people who, he says, are destroying the English village: the supermarkets, holiday cottage owners, and long distance commuters.

In a rare interview with Shooting Times magazine, the Duke, long known for upsetting the politicians for the venal sin of telling the truth as he sees it, says that villages were no longer self-sufficient with their own shops because the out-of-town supermarkets had destroyed them.

And the country folk who once lived in those villages and worked in the surrounding countryside were being replaced by second home owners, long distance commuters, or holiday home owners. Both these problems and many similar themes have been the subject of Daelnet features for almost 20 years now.

Another great supporter of country life has been the Duke’s son, Prince Charles, who is rumoured not to get on so well with his dad. That is probably tabloid gossip but, whatever the truth, they both agree – publicly and in very loud voices – on the need to protect country life and the countryside that goes with it.

Prince Charles is particular fond of the Yorkshire Dales, and is a regular visitor here, and he is also a hands-on farmer with his organic showpiece at Highgrove and large land holdings in the Duchy of Cornwall.

He knows about the countryside and is willing to risk political disapproval by doing everything he can to defend it. Sadly, the Royals have very little real power to put their rural vision into practice. What a shame then that the politicians, who do have that power, have neither the will nor the understanding to use it.

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