Mel Stride , Conservative MP for Central Devon, on bridging the gap between urban and rural communities in 2014
Perhaps it was ever thus – countryside pitched against the city. In the 18th and 19th centuries there were the tensions of industrialisation sucking produce and people out of our rural communities whilst simultaneously implanting the arriviste landowners of the great new industrial age.
More recently we have the dry but deep division of government expenditure – the on-going battles on school funding, rural transport, policing, how quickly and effectively we roll out broadband to our more isolated communities et al – concerns that occupy a great deal of my time and energy in Westminster.
But in recent years a sharper, more bitter divide has formed, etched out around how country folk should be permitted to run their lives, thrown into relief by the extent to which we are constrained from getting on with resolving our own problems without undue interference from the centre – or from what is often caricatured, in that snide couplet, as the "metropolitan elite". Hunting and bovine TB fall squarely into this space.
That the 2005 Hunting Act would end up as an unworkable attack on centuries of country living should have come as little surprise. All was perhaps presaged by those MPs (many of them urban) who, at the time of the ban's first stirrings, simply referred to it as retribution for Margaret Thatcher and the miners' strikes. The flaccidity of this Act was confirmed by Tony Blair who, in his memoirs, admitted that his Government's assault on hunting had been a regrettable mistake.
The continued growth in the attendance at Boxing Day hunt meets (estimated at around 250,000 people last year) is not only a testament to the depth of rural support for hunting but perhaps a pointer to something greater and more fundamental still – a message from thousands of country folk who, in many cases, want little more from government than to be left alone.
Or to put it another way, perhaps for them, it is Ronald Reagan's memorable maxim that holds firm and true – that the most terrifying nine words in the English language are "I'm from the government and I'm here to help".
Bovine TB has similarly become something of an urban-rural touchstone and has been the subject of vigorous debate, much of it based upon emotion (with a pinch of celebrity spice thrown in) and with far too little focus on rational discussion. If there is any doubt about the central importance of these kind of issues in the battlefield of town and country then consider the latest spat between the Countryside Alliance and the RSPCA with Sir Barney White-Spunner, the head of the Alliance, making some damning observations of the world's largest animal charity.
Sir Barney, argues that the RSPCA focuses far too much on the more political arena of animal rights rather than that of animal welfare. I am inclined to agree with him – it is surely hard not to find some fault with an organisation that pursued a private prosecution against a hunt in Oxfordshire at a cost of £326,000 – how many people had to rattle tins to raise that?
The judge in the case questioned whether the money could have been spent more wisely whilst the charities watchdog warned that future prosecutions should represent a "reasonable and effective" use of its members' funds.
In another case a judge criticised the charity for spending £10,000 pursuing an elderly lady for her tardiness in taking her cat to the vet. The RSPCA is also campaigning against the control of badgers in the fight against bovine TB, something that has deeply distressed many of our dairy farmers and that will only make getting on top of a shocking disease that leads to much animal suffering, that much harder to achieve.
So there you have it. Perhaps there will never be a moment of complete peace between town and countryside. Perhaps a measure of tension is a healthy concomitant to respectful co-existence. Perhaps.
But whatever the future may hold, let's hope that 2014 is a year of more thoughtful attempt.