The world has changed 

1 January 2003

Sporadically all societies go through major changes – the sort of changes that nobody can immunise themselves from, changes that everybody in the country is aware of. When this happens there is usually a big change in who and what “the establishment” is defined to be. The majority of the former establishment always accept it and try to find a new place in the world. A small minority can’t, and sometimes they turn violent. Such activities usually have precisely the opposite effect to the one intended, implicitly bringing down their argument by associating it with extremism and fanaticism.

An analysis of the so-called “Real Countryside Alliance” recently posted on the uk.politics.misc newsgroup was accurate on this front – the Real CA are the people who used to have kudos in the land even when they no longer had much power, the people who were still unquestionably well ahead of any pop-cultural figure in the order of Establishment only 25 years ago, but who have now retreated into their own world, and are of little significance beyond that. For the generation now in power, they are marginal figures while someone like Paul McCartney is the foundation stone for the culture in which they live, whereas it used to be the other way round, even when Old Labour were in power and certainly when the pre-1979 Tories held office.

In the 80s, as the Times and the Telegraph passed to big international capital, the Real CA set lost control of their own destiny (though the violence seems to be caused by their thuggish hangers-on, not the patricians themselves). They’ve been replaced in the Commons by the suburban arrivistes who now dominate the Tory benches; they’ve lost their feudal right to sit in the Lords. They know they’ve lost – their children remind them of their defeat every day as they turn up their Eminem CDs, and when they inherit the family silver (to appropriate Harold Macmillan’s description of Thatcherite privatisation) the next generation will see things very differently. This is the last gasp, and last gasps have a way of imploding in a vaingloriously spectacular way, as though their protagonists knew they were going to go down – they just wanted to go down in style.

Listen to BBC radio from the 70s. Notice the assumptions that the presenters held about their listeners’ worldview. Tony Blackburn or DLT or Noel Edmonds would play the new Wings or Elton John single as a temporary, disposable thing, rather as a modern Radio 1 DJ would introduce Liberty X, while any aristocrat, landowner or master of foxhounds would be introduced on Radio 4 with the clear assumption that the listeners would see them as special, as the backbone of their lives and their backgrounds.

These days, a Radio 2 DJ will play “Yesterday” or “Your Song” and introduce it with a reverence that was absolutely never heard on pop radio before the 80s – the assumption will clearly be that the audience of babyboomers and younger will regard Sir Paul and Sir Elton as key figures in the cultural set-up of this country, as major Establishment men.

Meanwhile, modern Radio 4 presenters will introduce an interview with one of the landowners, aristocrats and masters of foxhounds who were recently “named and shamed” on Usenet with no specific reverence at all, treating them as just another part of British life, on no higher a level than John Peel (whose professional name earns a new irony in this context), rather than as anything special.

25 years ago, the divide between Peel’s Radio 1 programme and the official culture of Radio 4 – epitomised by such programmes as “Down Your Way” with Brian Johnston and the Wynford Vaughan Thomas-fronted “The Countryside In.” series – was such that you could not imagine it being bridged in your lifetime. Never, it seemed, would the man who was championing the Sex Pistols be acceptable in the context of the station that the hunting extremists, then still effectively beyond criticism within an Establishment context, regarded as their own. Yet now Peel has a regular Radio 4 show, the Down Your Ways of this world are vanished for good, and it doesn’t even merit comment, such have the perimeters for what is culturally acceptable within an “Establishment” context changed. There lies the root of the Real Countryside Alliance.

The next time you read a fawning interview with Elton John or even Mick Jagger in the Times, think of it as a sign of who is in charge now. Throughout history, a minority of the old Establishment in any country at any time have been unable to take such dramatic changes (recently, a hunting lady pedantically corrected David Beckham for saying “Victoria and me” rather than “Victoria and I” – the panic of the old Establishment facing those who have usurped them). I wish it wasn’t like this, but history teaches us that it is one of the more unfortunate and regrettable human characteristics, something that humanity can probably do nothing about, no matter how hard it tries. The majority will always be rational, but we may have to resign ourselves to the fact that rationality will never be absolutely universal.

My disagreements with the more aggressively urban people on this subject come in the field (ha!) of their anti-ruralism. To an outsider, their discussions – or arguments – with the hunting fraternity would confirm all the worst and most archaic stereotypes of “the urban/rural divide”, a false dichotomy right from the start.

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