Monday, October 11, 2004
I am no particular fan of the Observer columnist Cristina Odone, whose moral certainty and irritating smugness I tend to find objectionable.
But her column yesterday (10 October) about country folk made an interesting point. Rural Britain is not all it is cracked up to be. And rural culture tends to be antithetical to Liberalism.
Odone paints an unflattering picture of rural Britain - "... the suffocating yearning for respectability, the curtain-twitching curiosity about what the neighbour's up to, the tedium of a social life whose high point is a WI coffee morning. Worst of all, bigotry thrives in a landscape almost wholly bereft of blacks, Asians and gays."
Cruel but fair, I'd say.
In Britain, we tend to idolise the countryside, yet few of us actually live in it or spend much time there. It is commonplace to hear politicians and lobbyists talk of "rural issues" but most British people live in suburbs - have you ever heard anyone talk about "suburban issues"?
Britain was the first country to industrialise and is one of the most urbanised in the world. Most of us inhabit just a dozen or so major conurbations. In the past thirty years, many middle class people have moved out of towns and cities to live in nearby villages but, in doing so, they have not become more rural. They have suburbanised these villages and priced out the original rural inhabitants.
Well, what has all this to do with the price of fish?
I am particularly impressed with the ideas in The Rise of the Creative Class. The author Richard Florida has found that there is a strong correlation between having a liberal and tolerant culture and enjoying economic success. He studied 100 American cities and found that those that are welcoming places for creative and bohemian people, ethnic minorities and gays are tending to thrive, whereas cities with a conservative and intolerant culture are tending to fail. Similar research is being done elsewhere in the western world and the findings are the same.
This analysis helps to explain the emerging culture war in Britain, currently most obvious in the violence provoked by the fox hunting dispute, but also manifest in other issues such as Europe and asylum-seekers. And it also has profound implications for the electoral strategy of the Liberal Democrats.
The natural support base for the Liberal Democrats is liberal people - tolerant, educated, cosmopolitan, individualistic - who tend to live in inner cities rather than rural areas. It seems obvious to me that the future of the party is in representing this growing class and that, as a consequence, the Lib Dems will make gains in cosmopolitan urban centres but will lose seats in rural backwaters.
For example, life is becoming increasingly uncomfortable for Lib Dem MPs in some of the more rural parts of the south-west of England, where they are going through agonies on Europe and hunting. Trying to face both ways on such issues, simply to hang on to a few rural constituencies at any price, risks undermining the party nationally by alienating our core support.
Conversely, the Liberal Democrats are making electoral breakthroughs in most of the major British urban centres. If the party understood this dynamic more fully, it would be better able to exploit it.
Liberal Democrat MPs representing rural areas have tended to exercise disproportionate influence within the party. I suspect they've had their day.