In a recent intervention in the planning debate, the Prime Minister wrote to Dame Fiona Reynolds, DG of the National Trust, to reiterate his love of the countryside.
“Both as Prime Minister, as a rural constituency MP, and as an individual,” he wrote, “I have always believed that our beautiful British landscape is a national treasure. We should cherish and protect it for everyone’s benefit.”
On this morning’s eve-of-conference Andrew Marr show, he went further, declaring that he would “no further put the countryside at risk than put my own family at risk.” At the same time he defended the need for planning reforms as part of his Government’s Plan for Growth.
Love of landscape and countryside of course has a long history within Conservative thought and philosophy, stretching back at least as far as Edmund Burke. The most commonly cited recent manifestation is John Major’s famous speech of 1993, in which he wistfully evoked “long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs” and quoted Orwell’s line (out of context) about “Old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist”. Roger Scruton’s opinion piece in the Telegraph, which alludes to GM Trevelyan’s Must England’s Beauty Perish of 1926, well illustrates this strain of modern Conservative thought.
Stanley Baldwin, who served in the Liberal-Conservative Coalition of the early 1920s, was Conservative PM for much of the rest of that decade, and was then a leading light in the coalition National Government of the 1930s (including as PM from 1935-7), was also given to waxing lyrical about his passion for rural scenes. Alexandra Harris, in her wonderful Romantic Moderns, cites Baldwin’s 1926 address ‘On England’:
The wild anemones in the woods in April, the last load at night of hay being drawn down a lane as twilight comes on, when you can scarcely distinguish the figures of the horses as they take it home to the farm, and above all, most subtle, most penetrating and most moving, the smell of wood smoke coming up in the autumn evening, or the smell of the scotch fires: that wood smoke that our ancestors, tens of thousands of years ago, must have caught on the air when they were coming home from a day’s forage.
As Harris argues, Baldwin’s descriptions of the countryside were couched in the language of nostalgia – as if such scenes were memories, or rapidly becoming so in the face of urbanisation and economic progress. Much like our own PM, Baldwin was skilled at harnessing emotive power in reaching out to the nation at large (and in using the media to do so). He saw the ‘love of country things’ as being ‘traditionally and subconsciously’ in the hearts even of those who had become essentially urbanised. The country, to Baldwin, represented “the eternal values and eternal traditions from which we should never allow ourselves to be separated” (all cited in Harris, p.174).
At the same time, however, such thinking within modern Conservatism can sit alongside an approach to growth and improvement that Nigel Everett once described as fundamentally Whiggish. As today’s Observer profile of George Osborne points out, the Chancellor has freely admitted to having “a metropolitan upbringing [rather] than a landed, shire-county upbringing”. The Financial Times article that he co-authored with Eric Pickles confirmed the idea that the Chancellor may not share the PM’s instinctive love of countryside.
The current Coalition is not just one between two parties, therefore. The planning reforms demonstrate two distinct sides of Conservative thought in operation, which are at times potentially in conflict with one another. The job now at hand is to find out whether there may be some middle ground that helps to achieve the twin outcome of protecting the countryside while promoting growth.