Last Saturday I debated “rural affairs” with North Swindon MP, Michael Wills, and Tory candidate Justin Tomlinson. This all came about because during the last general election some fox hunting supporters campaigned for Justin, as Wills is a firm supporter of the ban on hunting with dogs. Justin apparently insisted that if he was going to debate then I should be included – I don’t think this is entirely due to his admiration for my political debating skill, but because I usually give Wills a hard time. Wills then insisted that if I was going to be there, then the loony toons candidates for UKIP and a pensioner who campaigns against money should be on the platform as well. (I know some of you are thinking aren’t I also a loony toon – but you have to hear these guys!).
I had the invite in May, but never received any reminder. There would be two schools of thought about this, either Michael’s secretary remembered to invite the other candidates but forgot about me, or he didn’t want me there. The North Swindon constituency actually has a largish rural component, but in best New Labour form, Michael had organised the meeting in the heart of the town.
Anyway, there we were discussing rural affairs, being chaired by Nick Bent from the National Farmers Union, in front of about 40 people - many of the Labour and Tory activists. Strangely it turned out I was the only panellist from a rural background, and the only panellist to have been hunting. Before you start imagining me dressed in a red (or more technically pink) coat and downing a stirrup cup, I used to keep whippets and hunt rabbits with them.
I really am not very fond of these debates that are dominated by a single issue, because it raises the temperature, and neither side seem particularly interested in listening to the arguments.
Anyway, the discussion on rural housing was quite interesting, I told anecdotes of friends of mine whose families have been 600 years in the same village but now cannot afford to live there as the picturesque houses have been bought up by TV producers and stock brokers as weekend retreats. There was widespread support in the meeting for my view that there should be a change in planning law that meant people should need to apply for a change of use if they want a second home, and that there should be a presumption towards refusal. I also argued against the current ban on councils building council houses. Of course Michael Wills tried to weasel his way round that one by saying there was no ban on building council houses – this is technically true, but they are not allowed to fund building council houses in a cost effective way. And in any event the Registered Social Landlords (Housing Associations) are not being funded to pick up the shortfall.
How the crisis has come about is largely due to the Tory policy (continued by Labour) of discounted right to buy of rural council stock and the Tory policy (continued by Labour) of deregulated public transport, which has meant no effective bus service. There is now noaffordable housing for people who work in the country, and a disruption of family life as young people are forced to move away. Specific policies, such as removing some of the profitable services that kept rural sub-post offices going, or banning smoking in pubs that will no doubt see many rural pubs close, have even further hollowed out rural communities to becoming commuter dormitories.
What is more, in reality rural policy is decided more by the Supermarket chains than government, so we seen a disastrous fall in many farm incomes, particularly fruit and milk producers, as these products are often bought below their cost of production, as their is only a single buyer. While at the same time the centralised distribution networks drive food all over the country before it hits the shelves. Worse still is the incredible levels of wastage – only something like 20% of potatoes grown in the UK ever reach a plate, as most of them are rejected by the Supermarket buyers as being too small, too big, too blemished, too knobbly, etc. Similar levels of waste effect fruit and other products.
Part of the trouble with the debate was that both Wills and Tomlinson agreed with all these specific points, but the solution lies outside that available for market mechanisms. The Supermarket chains are acting rationally in the interests of their shareholders, and - in so far as people keep buying stuff from them – they could argue in the interests of their customers.
The solution lies in strong government intervention, including nationalisation and state control of the supermarkets. You cannot blame a wolf for being a wolf. They have too be given a different goal – not profitability - but healthy food and a sustainable rural economy. To take food distribution out of the market and profit drive requires social ownership.
All our food could be cheaper if we were prepared to buy – for example - carrots that were not all exactly the same length and smooth and straight. That is only achieved by throwing away more than half the crop. This needs people to become educated about food, growing fruit and vegetables at school, rearing and killing animals for food, every child given a free nutritious school meal from local produce, and there needs to be a ban on junk food advertising. Councils should also be given central government funding incentives to provide sufficient support for allotment holders in towns.
The animal rights debate was a bit tedious. I condemned the way the Countryside Alliance has sought to hijack the very real social problems in the country behind their sad and sorry single issue. I know of two tractor drivers personally opposed to hunting who were made by the employers to go on the Countryside Alliance march or lose their jobs. There is also much more invidious social pressure towards conformity in the country, which means that the pro-fox hunting lobby manages to present itself as the voice of the country, despite the fact that most rural people don’t support it. Not least because the hunts are snobby, elitist, and bad neighbours – spooking other peoples’ livestock and leaving gates open.
But equally, some of the anti hunting campaigners (and there are exceptions) don’t give a fig about any of the real issues in the country. I am sure being caught by the hounds is terrible for the fox, but otherwise most of them die a slow horrible death of starvation and disease anyway. And the ban also extends to coursing, which involves a quick clean death for the rabbit or hare, and they can be eaten afterwards. In fact the strongest argument against the ban is what will be next? If hounds are banned then is it ferrets next, and then shooting, and then falconry, and then fishing? Hunting is the largest participatory sport in the country, with something between 4 and 5 million regularly involved.
I have a great deal of respect for animal welfare campaigners, and for political vegetarianism. But at the same time the ban on hunting has not been won on the basis of an informed and consistent policy towards animal welfare. Battery chicken and factory pig production are by far the biggest animal welfare scandals. The aversion to hunting is at least partly due to a townie alienation of the actual reality of living and working with animals.