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Fox hunters launch the countryside's New Year fight-back

Friday 28 December 2007

Our countryside commentator John Sheard welcomes the demise of the countryside's annus horribilis, 2007, and detects signs that 2008 will be the year of the great rural fight back

IT WAS the phrase the Queen used after a series of royal scandals and a huge fire which half-gutted her beloved Windsor Castle. It had been, she said, her annus horribilis - her year of horror - and as 2007 thankfully withers of the vine, there are thousands of country folk who can shake their heads and mutter: "Know how you feel, Ma'am."

In half a century of writing about the countryside, I cannot remember a worse year than 2007. The only other time that came close was the foot-and-mouth months of 2001-02 - but that was one catastrophic cock-up which, once the Army was called in by hapless civil servants, it was quickly and efficiently put down.

Fox hunters launch the countryside's New Year fight-back
Fox hunters launch the countryside's New Year fight-back

Those were months of sudden death for farmers and their communities. But this year has been a case of death by a thousand cuts, the culmination of a decade of neglect by New Labour politicians and mind-bending incompetence by the ministries they are supposed to "manage" - I put that in quotes because this is word than no-one in Whitehall has been able to grasp.

Now I don't want to groan on because - believe it or not - this is intended as an optimistic, upbeat appraisal of the possibilities afforded by 2008. But we do need a quick reminder of just how bad 2007 has been.

It started with tens of thousands of farmers unpaid because of total chaos at the Rural (none) Payments Agency. It was followed by freakish weather that wiped out thousands of acres of crops before flooding half the nation and putting 55,000 homes under water. Then came the foot-and-mouth in Surrey, the killer version of avian flu in East Anglia and finally deadly blue-tongue disease just over the North Yorkshire border in Middlesbrough.

Surprise, surprise, official incompetence soon raised its head. It was revealed that the Surrey foot and mouth came from leaking pipes at a government science facility whose budgets had been slashed by Gordon Brown as Chancellor who - it also emerged - had also taken millions off the flood control budget.

And on top of all this came swingeing prices rises in council tax, gas, electricity, mortgages, food and - a direct blow to country folk - petrol and diesel. At the same time billions of pounds in taxes paid by people in the countryside and suburbs was being diverted to the inner cities - without any recordable improvements in those dismal places. The biggest increase of all is likely to be in food prices but - odd this - this might be a source for optimism At last, after ignoring the problem for at least five years, the Office of Fair Trading actually proved what we had all along suspected: three of the big supermarket chains had conspired to cheat both its customers and the farmers who provide their milk, cheese and butter.

To me, this was the first glimmer of light at the end of the rural tunnel. For half a decade, the Government had tried to avoid confronting the power of the supermarkets. Now, these will be much more circumspect before they drive their food suppliers into bankruptcy - and that it a crucial breakthrough for rural business.

Food has become a political hot-potato (no pun intended) with more and more socially aware people buying local because a) they like to know where their food comes from and b) they no longer want it flown thousands of miles, this creating enormous carbon emissions, when it can be grown just down the lane. This is a trend being picked up by country restaurants and pubs too, which are vital to local employment.

...the Hunting With Dogs Act has become an exemple of incompetent government driven by townie political correctness...

But best of all, it seems that Government has finally realised that people live in or near the countryside have votes and - unlike many inner-city electors - actually use them. There are at least 60 marginal seats that fit this bill, and possibly twice as many, and on Boxing Day they came out in force to state their case.

Fox hunting may not be an issue vital to the nation's future but it has become a symbol of rural oppression by urban-based Labour MPs who still long to fight the long-dead class war. As we reported yesterday (see News) more than 300,000 riders and perhaps a million spectators turned out to "celebrate" the non-working ban on fox hunting, a law which even the Government knew was unenforceable when they drove it through Parliament.

Because of this, the Hunting With Dogs Act has become an exemple of incompetent government driven by townie political correctness against the expressed interests of a huge number of rural voters. And yesterday, this political symbolism became hard-core political fact when it was revealed that thousands of hunt supporters are to be drafted into 100 key marginal seats to oppose anti-hunting MPs at the next general election.

Although the opinion polls show that many people believe Gordon Brown to be the most incompetent Prime Minister in recent times, there is no doubt he has a shrewd political nose. Hopefully, this might be picking up the stench of rebellion in the countryside. With luck, that could mean an end to tens years of Government neglect. So here's a war cry for next Tuesday: 2008, the year the countryside strikes back!

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