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The minister of rural misadventure steps out

Friday 17 September 2004

After one of the most surreal weeks in rural history for 200 years, our countryside commentator John Sheard muses on the next step: the introduction of the Right to Roam laws this Sunday

IT IS ALMOST impossible to believe that in the world's oldest democracy, Government could mishandle rural affairs so dictatorially as they have done this week. We are facing one of the biggest crises since the closure of the fields in the 18th century. But there is more to come on Sunday.

After sowing the seeds for what seems likely to verge on all-out civil war on Wednesday, a government minister will join militant ramblers will this Sunday to step out in the Trough of Bowland on the first area of England's green and pleasant land to be thrown open to the general public under the new Right to Roam act.

Misadventure in the countryside: civil war looms

The triumphal march - through land near some of the best grouse moors in the country at the height of the grouse shooting season - will be led by none other than the gallant Alun Michael, the Minister for Rural Affairs, who literally ran away at the Harewood House game fair last year when confronted by a mounted huntsman and a couple of aging hounds.

He was also the man who sat transfixed on the Government front benches on Wednesday when pro-hunt demonstrators broke onto the sacred floor of the House of Commons in the worst intrusion of its kind for 400 years.

From now on in, I shall call him the Minister of Rural Misadventure.

Being a cynic of long-standing on any matter connected to politics or politicians, I can only believe that the decision to introduce two such controversial measures within a matter of five days can only down to either a) cock-up or b) conspiracy.

The former is the easier to believe for you only have to look at the mess they have made of education, bacteria infested hospitals, the transports system et al to know that cock-up has become the normal modus operandi for a Government which set out with so much promise.

Despite that, I lean towards the conspiracy theory: the two actions have been brought together to deliberately rub the noses of country folk in the muck to appease the extremists of Old Labour and the politically correct members of the chattering classes in North London, who are the only people that New Labour ever meet.

During the 1950s, the late Nye Bevan, the Welsh Labour firebrand, dubbed Conservatives, which at the time meant most country folk, as "vermin" and boasted: "We are the masters now."

No politician would be so stupid to say such a thing today because that would be an act of honesty and, as we all know, honesty is a political no-no. Before the anti-hunting vote and the invasion of the Commons on Wednesday, Labour members were saying that hunting was to be banned as an act of revenge for the fate of the miners under Maggie Thatcher.

There is just one key difference here. Nye Bevan was a visionary who created the National Health Service. His colourless, policy-less successors can think of nothing better to do than give over invaluable parliamentary time to ban hunting and allow people to walk across grouse moors. Nob-bashing is the Labour blood sport.

As usual, there will be many readers who will dismiss this as bile from an old country fascist. The fact is that I have only voted Conservative once in my life and that was a long time ago. I actually think that Tony Blair is, or could be, a very fine Prime Minister - if his party would let him.

But unlike our Minister of Rural Misadventure, I know something about the countryside. I know that, with hunting banned, the fox will be shot, poisoned or snared out of existence. I know that many rare ground-nesting birds other than grouse will suffer by intrusion from walkers.

I also know that there is a dangerous groundswell of passion verging on hatred building up amongst country folk as we are kicked in the teeth once again after the debacles of BSE and foot and mouth. This country has made a habit of fighting dictators over the centuries. Peace-loving, law-abiding country people have such a fight on their hands once more.

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