... the countryside, that is. This was one of the themes of The Lie of the Land on Channel 4 tonight. It turned out to be a stunning, morally complex, film.
I actually came to Hull on the back of working in rural adult education to run a project in North Yorkshire and have written both on the project and on rural social exclusion. Gradually, I have been sucked back into the urban environment but three things this week reminded me of why rurality is a pressing political topic, and one that is mostly ignored by the mainstream media.
Molly Dineen’s fine film showed agriculture squeezed by profit-hungry supermarkets' retail monopoly and the new policy of a Labour government that curiously “favours the landowner over the farmer”. It was a lament for what was being lost; independent farmers – natural Tories in many ways – self-reliant and being strangled by an arcane bureaucratic subsidy system, which gives large amounts of cash to the biggest landowners at the expense of the food producer. Apparently unconcerned with food security, Britain is now content to be a food importer.
I have also supervised a dissertation this year from our Scarborough campus about the decline in the Scarborough fishing industry. One of the best sections is a description of the culture clash between DEFRA officials and the small, independent fishermen and their families at a ‘consultation’ meeting. Once again, strangled by quotas that do nothing for conservation, small-scale fisheries have collapsed.
Both showed people with an intimate knowledge of their trades being confronted with a bureaucracy that controls their lives, speaks a different language, and knows little of what they do. And when power is invested in the ignorant, the knowledgeable lose.
The third thing was Dispatches on Channel 4 this Monday. It looked at the losers from the process of the massive economic growth underway in India. Despite an annoyingly upbeat conclusion, it showed graphically that, unsurprisingly, it is the poor who benefit least. What was most striking was the loss of livelihood, apparently deliberate, of small independent, subsistence farmers. They are being squeezed by debt, land loss to industry, and a policy of commercialisation of agriculture. Government ministers talked blithely of moving hundreds of millions into industrial employment. The reality is that they will end up semi-destitute in the slums and shanties that surround the great cities.
All these are symptoms of a global rural crisis that dispossesses the poor and bankrupts the small producer. As more and more agricultural land is taken out of production and turned into industrial estates, housing or simply picturesque leisure parks for affluent urbanites, a question looms; what are we to eat?