Enough of the townie prejudice against the countryside

Most of the time, those of us who happen to live in the country are happy to ignore the casual urban prejudice which characterises British politics and the media. Now and then, though, the level of metropolitan silliness reaches a level which is impossible to ignore.

Those occasions tend to occur when big decisions affecting almost exclusively those living outside cities are being made, just as exclusively, by those living in them: housing plans, wind turbine developments, power stations, changes to the transport infrastructure. The debates may vary but what they all have in common is a high degree of urban ignorance, often revealing an inexplicable hostility to the mysterious world of the countryside.

Society has, on the whole, learned not to judge people on the basis of race, gender or sexual orientation, but rural stereotyping is more prevalent than ever. Sooner or later in these discussions, a succession of tired old clichés will tumble out.

The countryside is an essentially middle-class place of affluence and privilege, it is said. Those who live there are conservative, backward-looking and wedded to tradition. They are also innately selfish: that useful catch-all term of abuse “nimby” is rarely applied to those living in cities. They are more money-minded than urban people, forever obsessing (although they deny it) about the value of their house. For them, no progress should be allowed to spoil the precious view they have from their windows.

These casual, blinkered assumptions transcend political boundaries, and are as likely to be uttered by a business-friendly Conservative minister like Philip Hammond as by as aggressive a man of the people in the House of Lords as John Prescott.

Perhaps, tugging the burrs from my old ratcatcher coat and wiping the drool from my sagging jaw, I might correct, in my simple, country way, just a few of these expert views.

Those who live in the country are by no means better off than their urban counterparts. In the last report by the Commission for Rural Communities (subsequently abolished by the government, it almost goes without saying), 19 per cent of those in rural districts were living below the poverty threshold.

Selfishness and financial greed are urban not rural characteristics. If people argue for the landscape, the local environment and community, it is not out of beady self-interest, but because they value the qualities of the countryside. It is often why they live there.

It is a strange fact that, having spent at most an occasional weekend in the country, metropolitan commentators are breezily confident that they understand it. Last week, one columnist reassured readers that he understood all about the impact of railways on daily life and the need for quiet. He himself, an Islington man, lived near a track, and the loudest noise he ever heard was the sound of the crowds at the Arsenal stadium.

Nor is the argument in favour of local environments, and against grand political gestures, necessarily old-fashioned. Every survey of human happiness, a growing concern of educationalists and politicians, confirms that contact with nature, and a degree of tranquillity, have a positive influence on human behaviour.

The shortest stay in the country will reveal that more people are involved in local activities, have a sense of involvement with the community, than will be found in any city. In an age when computers are changing the way we live and work, it could be argued that it is those who champion an ever-larger, ever-faster and more intrusive transport network to hurtle business people around the country who are old-fashioned.

There is in fact more curiosity and knowledge about these big decisions and what they involve among those who live in the country than one normally finds in towns. Those who live in the rural landscape care about the detailed effect rather than the grand political gesture. They look beyond the debate’s well-worn clichés, and ask the awkward, interesting questions.

Is nothing private?

Hard on the heels of the revelation that some police are using lie-detectors comes more alarming news about our mental security. A boom industry is developing around what is known as “neuromarketing”. By attaching electrodes to the heads of those watching, for example, a TV commercial, researchers can measure brain patterns to reveal people’s true emotions.

Traditional market research – questions asked, replies given – has been found to have a flaw. “When you ask people to tell you how they feel, the very act of thinking about a feeling changes the feeling,” says AK Pradeep, a leading neuromarketer.

Finding a direct line to our unspoken feelings is already big business. Ten per cent of TV commercials have been tested this way. Companies, led by Google and Facebook (no surprise there) have been eager to use it. Presumably, there are Westminster spin-doctors working on a neuro-plan to tap to win votes. Soon, even our secret selves will be ripe for exploitation.

Independent, 17 January 2012