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The game show returns: a triumph for country sports

Friday 11 August 2006

The countryside's doughiest defender marks its centenary next year - and will celebrate here in Yorkshire with the world's biggest fields sports fair, writes our countryside commentator John Sheard

MODESTY is not one of the more famous traits of Yorkshire folk. Hiding bushels is not normal in the county of the broad acres. So it came as a surprise to me to discover that an organisation I have worked with for decades was actually born here 99 years ago in a room I know well.

And that makes its centenary celebrations next year (see news)something to look forward to as a landmark in the struggle by country folk to maintain their independence as urban-based politicians do their best to destroy rural life, one of the few surviving strands of society which still has a connect with this island's marvellous past.

CLA Game Fair comes home to Yorkshire's Harewood House

To the few so-called metropolitans who actually know of its existence, the Country Land and Business Association - of the CLA as its is still known - is probably seen as a bunch of red-faced toffs snorting out orders from the saddles of expensive hunters to bunches of smock-dressed yokels who, unless they tug the proper forelock, will feel the lash of a riding crop across their shoulders.

Nothing, in fact, could be further from the truth. The CLA is in fact a ruthlessly professional body which actually understands how the countryside works and, what's more, has the financial, legal and PR expertise to defend country values against those North London based "intellectuals" who set in motion the drive to get foxhunting banned and are now working behind the scenes to do the same for shooting and fishing.

Make no mistake, these people have influence, in the nasty, back-stabbing ways that are quite familiar to politicians, but the one thing that they don't have is numbers. I would estimate that the so-called "Westminster" village probably numbers no more than two or three thousand "opinion makers" who do their dirty work over dinner party tables in Hamgate or Islington.

And this takes us to the "opposition", the CLA's Game Fair, the biggest celebration of country sports anywhere in the world, which will be held once again at grandiose Harewood House in Wharfedale next year.

This is highly significant because the fair will mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the association, which came into being at a meeting of Yorkshire landowners in the Royal Station Hotel, York, where as a young freelance in the 1960s I sat through many a boring meeting (and met such characters as the late Sir Stanley Mathews and the still extant Sir Jimmy Saville).

There were some curious similarities between 1907 and now and some disparities too. There was what would then be called a Left Wing government in power, the Liberals - Lloyd George was the powerful President of the Board of Trade - and the fight over the Corn Laws, which allowed the import of cheap wheat from abroad, still left bitter memories.

The countryside was also in a state of turmoil but for different reasons than today. Then the problem was the drift of people from the land into the manufacturing towns and cities which, of course, was far greater in industrial north and northern farmers were desperately short of labour. Today, of course, that trend is reversed: the flight is from town to country and the rural problem is a shortage of jobs.

The fact the CLA's inaugural meeting was held in the "capital" of the North no doubt had great significance too, for there was undoubtedly a growing feeling then that the south, and London in particular, was beginning to take over the whole nation. Industry's money was made up here - but it ended up in the pockets of London bankers.

As the French say, "La plus ca change…" And the more things did change in the countryside, the more the CLA helped them to stay the same. For unlike the politicians, CLA leaders always understood that the English people, although most of them live in the cities, hold a deep reverence for their countryside and its ways.

The game fair illustrates that in ways that even the politicos can count: in pure numbers. This years show in deepest Hampshire attracted 138,000 people, more than any football match, beating last year's record (also at Harewood) by 6,000. Next year's centenary is expected exceed 150,000.

Inevitably, many of those will come from the towns and cities. Many of those will be keen followers of country sports like riding, angling or shooting, the pleasures the metros would like to ban. Politicians who ignore support like that do so at their own risk!

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