On September 22, 2002, over 400,000 country people marched through London, England, on behalf of “rural rights.” Organized by the Countryside Alliance, the march was the largest in the history of the United Kingdom.
The Countryside Alliance formed to protect a rural way of life under increasing attack from well-organized animal rights groups, environmental extremists and indifferent governments. Originally established to defend so-called “country sports” like hunting and angling, the Countryside Alliance quickly became involved with other rural issues, from agriculture to forestry, to rural housing, even to trespass laws. This evolution seems natural, perhaps inevitable. No matter what “door” is entered in rural policy, be it farming, forestry, hunting, livestock raising, you name it, it quickly becomes apparent that the entire rural system is at risk, not just one sector. In England, they have discovered that working in isolation, or better yet, fighting among themselves, merely arms the enemies of the rural lifestyle, who are legion. They picked off rural groups one at a time.
Those days are over in Britain. The Alliance deals with all aspects of rural life, and strategies to defend it. A glance at their web site (www.countryside-alliance.org) shows work on environmental and animal rights issues, farming policy, rural development, a wide range of activity. Their site is updated daily and news releases are constantly being generated.
The London march clearly crossed all income and class lines. Aristocrats and gentry marched with working people and farmers, all united on behalf of rural Britain. A parallel “Beacons” program was in place for those who could not make the march. Based on a medieval tradition – English villages sett bonfires to warn neighbouring villages of attack – the modern “Beacons” revival lit up the countryside as thousands of country bonfires showed solidarity with the marchers.
Press coverage was thoughtful and reflective. More than one commentator noted that it takes a lot for “Middle England” to get angry, but rural England has been pushed over the brink and the entire country had better listen. The Times of London quoted one marcher who said, “Money matters but freedom brought us here.” Another headline was “Yesterday, Our Nation Spoke from the Heart,” while yet another more ominous report said, “Countryside will Erupt in Fury if it is not Heard.”
The same pressures are being exerted on all rural societies in the developed countries, which is why the march attracted participants from Canada, Australia and the United States. Rural Canada is an easy target. Cities hold many more parliamentary seats than the countryside. Unthinking governments catering to urban majorities think little of attacks on the vulnerable rural minority and its pursuits. The record of the last decade looks like a vicious downward spiral. Examples include the proposed Species at Risk Act, the animal cruelty act, firearms registration, anti-farming regulations, new natural resource use controls and the onerous Fisheries and Oceans regulations, and on and on. Most of these new rules come from Ottawa, where Toronto holds fifty seats and Manitoba fourteen.
To quote that great American philosopher, Woody Allen, “95% of life is showing up.” The Countryside Alliance is definitely showing up on behalf of rural England. It would be no surprise to see the same thing happen in rural Canada.