We are told that the next election will be fought on urban turf. The traditional vision of the Conservatives being a party of rolling acres, Dibley-style villages and tweed and corduroy will be replaced with something more cosmopolitan.
But what does all that mean? The bedrock of Conservative values is that we resist social distinctions. The urban/rural divide is as unattractive to proper conservatives as the north/south one. We respect cultures, even traditional ones, and recognise that because Britain is not one size, a one size solution is no solution at all.
The problems facing Britain today are universal – it’s about jobs; about the private sector picking up where the public sector left off, promoting core values and about sticking up for strivers. People who work hard, play hard, save money, bring their kids up properly and save a bit for old age. Rural Britain is no different. The buzzwords of our urban malaise are deprivation, poverty, education, high fuel prices, travel costs, available housing and uneven health care. Talk to someone in mid Wales, Cumbria and the West Country and they will say “tell me about it”. In some rural cases it can be even worse.
There may not be the density of population, nor the media interest, and yes, crime is lower and the landscape more conducive to a healthy lifestyle. But case by case the story is much the same. When this was debated recently in parliament several things struck home. MPs had similar stories the length and breadth of Britain; everyone could cite overlapping issues, and if you remove the word ‘rural’ then we could have been talking about any of our cities in 21st century Britain.
There are two reasons why people live where they do – because they want to, or, because they have to. Rural isolation is a dream that many (until the first cold winter) of us hanker after, but for those that have to, it’s a different matter.
A house in the countryside can be disproportionately more expensive than the local average wage could ever aspire to, particularly in highly popular tourism areas such as National Parks, coastal areas or commuter belts. A family of four in certain parts of the Lake District will find it almost impossible. If you can find a house, it’s likely to be of ‘traditional build’ or, to be more accurate, cold and draughty and expensive to bring up to today’s standards.
Want to run a business from a rural location? An excellent idea until you discover your broadband speeds are amongst the slowest in Europe and your mobile phone coverage will be slightly worse than it would be if you chose Uzbekistan. No problem, you can pop out and use the local facilities instead. But I forgot, the local Post Office was closed under Labour, as were the petrol station, the pub and the local bank. And if, like me, you live in a National Park, you can marvel at its beauty, but if you want to expand your factory, extend your property or apply for change of use, brace yourself for a long fight.
For nearly twenty five years I have worked with rural communities, organisations and charities. They are fantastic doers with amazing drive and vision. Entrepreneurial, innovative, cheerful and mostly uncomplaining, they work on the basis that as no-one else is likely to deal with the problem, then they will. But should they have to? Britain’s countryside is as much about its people as its landscape, the two are indivisible. The Government is right to give it special recognition, to acknowledge that rural life is different and a force for good in our nation.
Hard working people, who strive every day to do the right thing, do not always want financial reward, but simply to be able to compete on equal terms with their urban counterparts. The Government is doing that but it can always do more. It needs to concentrate on what matters – jobs, housing, health, schools, transport and pensions. It needs to nurture an infrastructure that enables people to deliver that and resist the temptation to be gimmicky.
Women will vote Conservative if we have policies that respect families, not if we have all-women shortlists; minorities will support us if we deliver the tolerance and recognition that is reasonable and proportionate. Hard-working families understand where we are economically, but want to be sure that we do too.
If we deliver fair and sustainable economic recovery for all, then it will not matter one jot who went to school where or who they had to dinner. The rural constituent is as attuned to this as anyone, probably more so due to the unique perspective that a distant hilltop can provide.