Will anyone listen to the views of farmers?
09 May 2007
The political landscape is changing, with a new Prime Minister, Cabinet reshuffles and shifts of power around the United Kingdom, but, when the music stops, we can be sure that one thing will not have changed. Those in power will, like those who write about public affairs, come from our large cities. The landscape itself will be scantly represented.
One of the most startling aspects of watching Molly Dineen’s brilliant Channel 4 documentary on the crisis in farming, The Lie of the Land, was the way it reminded one that there are voices in this country which are simply not heard in the various national debates.
Those who live on the land, like the people with whom Dineen spent time, have generations of experience of rural life and are often intelligent, but, over the past 30 or 40 years, they have become marginalised. Portrayed in the metropolitan press in simple-minded, cartoon-strip terms – greedy, whinging, on the take, none too bright – farmers are rarely invited to give their views on the changing face of the British countryside.
So, at a time when huge decisions concerning the landscape are being made, the voice of environmentalists, developers, ramblers, even the huge army of new country dwellers who have defected from towns are all heard more clearly than those who are trying, with increasing difficulty, to make a living from it.
Molly Dineen’s film went some way to explaining how this situation developed. Not only are we more of an urban society (think of our recent agriculture ministers: Nick Brown, Margaret Beckett, David Miliband) influenced by essentially townie criteria, but dyed-in-the-wool country people are bad at playing the PR game. While they feel passionately about the countryside, they will not emote over matters of animal welfare, preferring simply to run their own farms as humanely as possible.
There is a sense of privacy in the country, a tradition of not interfering with the business of others and assuming that the same courtesy will be extended to you, which counts against them in a busybody world. Suggest to most farmers that they are running their land in an environmentally responsible way, planting trees, leaving headlands and wild patches for nesting birds, and they will be affronted. The idea that they might be conforming to an outsider’s view of the countryside will appal them; they are simply farming as previous generations have done.
The perspective of the responsible farmer is complex and unlikely to mesh with the realities of spin and Whitehall. Livestock is a crop, and yet should be treated with respect. The landscape itself needs to earn its keep, but without being exploited.
Our culture prefers a straightforward kind of hypocrisy. We prefer not to think of animals dying for our supper. We express concern for humane farming practices, while allowing supermarkets to reward foreign producers, whose lower prices for meat have been achieved at the price of animal welfare. We worry about foxes and badgers, while giving no thought to the appalling methods of the poultry industry.
One would think that the kind of intelligent, awkward views caught in The Lie of the Land would be at the centre of the debate about the countryside, but they are not. Those who live off the land should be listened to every bit as carefully as a some researcher from Whitehall or Cambridge. To quote the words of a farmer interviewed by Molly Dineen, we are all in this together.
Memoirs of a fame junkie
There is a significant pay-off for the fame junkies who have elected, for peculiar reasons of their own, to live their lives in the public eye. Because everything is material for their own publicity, the worse they behave, the better it is for their profile.
So the skinny American blonde Paris Hilton, who has built a fragile reputation on being amusingly thick on various reality television shows, will be celebrating the decision of a court to punish her for drunk-driving with a 45-day jail sentence.
Even now, negotiations for Paris’s heart-rending prison diary will be under way. For literary guidance, she might glance at Naomi Campbell’s account of doing community service as a cleaner. “I find solace in sweeping,” Naomi wrote.
* Who would want to be a traffic warden in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea? In addition to being abused by the well-heeled owners of 4X4s, they are now, apparently, expected to be scattering parking tickets like confetti.
The council has set National Car Parks, the firm responsible, a target of about 100 tickets per warden per hour. Every 24 hours, the borough should distribute at least 840 tickets and oversee 36 clampings.
Here is a neat little parable of life in the target culture. Under the form of mixed economy pioneered by New Labour, public welfare and private profit have become inextricably enmeshed. Illegal parking, so the thinking goes, is a bad thing. In 2007, the business of distributing fines is a job for private enterprise. So the point of the exercise ceases to be traffic control and becomes a profit centre. Where there is money to be made, those earning it need to be given targets, bonuses, incentives. Somewhere along the line, the concept of public good, civic justice has been lost.