Saturday, April 23, 2005
Down Your Way
The Liberal Democrats today highlighted rural issues.
I don't wish to criticise the party's rural plans as such but would make this observation. Why do we talk of 'rural issues' but not 'urban issues' or 'suburban issues'?
Most British people live in cities. Britain is one of the most urbanised countries in the world, with approximately 90% of the population living in urban settlements. Britain was also the first country in the world to urbanise; the size of its urban population had overtaken the rural population by about 1850. Yet we do not necessarily talk of the issues in urban areas as 'urban' issues, whereas we do with 'rural' issues.
Having once been a candidate in a rural constituency, I know that most people's concerns are the same as you will hear anywhere else and are not distinctly rural. It is true that rural communities have some issues that are distinct from those in more urban areas, such as the threatened closure of village schools. But it is not always helpful to talk of these issues in terms of ruralness.
Take agriculture, for example. It is usually raised as the main 'rural issue'. But is it? Most people living in the countryside no longer work in agriculture. Most agricultural problems, on the other hand, are bound up with the broader problems of the food industry, such as the monopoly purchasing power of the big supermarkets, and are not a function of the rural location of farms.
I look forward to the party's pronouncements on 'suburban issues', so we may ponder the cultural and spiritual poverty of lives lived in dreary housing estates, where no communal amenities (such as shops, schools, pubs or restaurants) are within comfortable walking distance.
The party will tackle the 'continuing crisis' of suburban dinner party conversation, providing grants to enable people to talk about anything other than house prices or school places. Homeowners would be required to seek planning permission before watching a TV makeover show, and rate relief would be offered to newsagents that bother to stock a complete range of broadsheet newspapers.
Well, I can dream, can't I?
The urban and suburban manifesto is at www.libdems.org.uk/party/policy/manifestolist.html.
Scroll about half way down. If you reach the rual manifesto you've gove too far.
There are many admirable policies here but very little that is specifically urban or suburban. The proposals in the list of 'top priorities' could each be applied to any sort of environment.
An urban policy does not consist of a reiteration of one's general policies while inserting the word 'urban' here and there.
Liberal Democrats should be celebrating the city. Cities are vibrant and (small 'l') liberal places, unlike the countryside, which tends to have a (small 'c') conservative culture.
In contrast with other Europeans, the British have not come to terms with urban life, despite the fact that most of us live in cities. In the nineteenth century, we had a strong civic pride in this country, but then William Morris (a socialist, by the way) came along with his 'back to the land' movement and, ever since, most British have been fantasing about living in a country cottage with roses around the door, while abandoning their city centres after 6pm to teenage drunks.
We need a specifically urban policy that celebrates the city as a potentially liberal and creative place to live and work, and explores how a sense of civic pride can be restored.
As for the suburbs, I would simply wire up everyone's sofas and put 40,000 volts through them.
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