John Harris

Journalist & Author

Once, the Tories understood rural Britain. Not any more | John Harris

The anti-fracking protest in Balcombe is just the tip of the iceberg. All over Britain, a new countryside rebellion is brewing

Sight unseen, you would hardly have expected an explosion of rage in the West Sussex village of Balcombe. It sits just to the north of that well-known hotbed Hayward’s Heath, and suggests a mixture of chocolate-box cutesiness and commuter-belt quiet – hardly the most obvious setting for a carnival of dissent that has been supported by droves of local people, and such visitors as Bianca Jagger. There again, neither does Balcombe look like the kind of place that prospectors might identify as a potentially rich source of oil: even though we have long had a small-scale inland industry, oil is a resource that most British people have always understood as coming exclusively from under the North Sea.

Now, though, with George Osborne in a state of high excitement, freshly announced tax breaks and planning exceptions, and the word “fracking” all over the media, a new reality is upon us. For the moment, the Balcombe stand-off is its most obvious manifestation – though the big story is less about oil than natural gas, and the supposedly plentiful supplies that lie in shale rock deep beneath whole swaths of the country. The British Geological Survey reckons that Lancashire’s Bowland basin could supply the UK’s gas needs for 40 years. Meanwhile, prospecting licences for shale gas, coalbed methane and new oil supplies cover such diverse locations as Dorset, the Mendip Hills, the New Forest, and the East Riding of Yorkshire.

All over the country, an old story is back with a vengeance: the power of corporations and government colliding with much more human imperatives, and sparking trouble. It’s there in an increasingly widespread juxtaposition of hi-vis jackets, drilling kit and security guards, and serene British countryside. It was also evident in this week’s claims by the Tory grandee Lord Howell – George Osborne’s father-in-law – that though some parts of the country might have justified fears about fracking, in such “desolate” places as the rural north-east we should just get on with it.

In a country as deindustrialised as the UK, ministers will always go weak-kneed about grand projects and new technologies. But the lingering effects of the crash have pushed their thinking into the realms of the neurotic, as government has been seized by a mixture of fear, profiteering zeal and metropolitan arrogance. All of these extend beyond energy policy into such issues as road-building, the dazzlingly stupid plan for high-speed rail, the current mania for airport expansion – and such delicate issues for the liberal-left as house-building on green-belt rather than brownfield land, and wind farms.

“”Infrastructure” is this year’s most ubiquitous word, even though it probably leaves most people feeling either indifferent or slightly nervous. This year’s Tory conference, I would imagine, will hear rhetoric more suggestive of a Soviet party congress than a gathering of British Tories: lots of talk about energy security, salutes to the wonders of pipelines and power stations, and exhortations to further boost our growth figures and keep up with the Indians and Chinese.

By way of answering back, the people rattled by what’s happening to their communities may cite such functional concerns as traffic congestion and noise pollution, but their take on things runs a bit deeper than that, into the profound stuff of place, history and collective identity. Once upon a time, the Conservative party would have understood them: somewhere in its soul, after all, was an innate understanding of the more transcendental aspects of life outside big cities, and the elements of national life best kept away from the brutal ways of the market.

“The beauty of our landscapes, the particular cultures and traditions that rural life sustains – these are national treasures, to be cherished and protected for everyone’s benefit. It is not enough for politicians just to say that. We need leaders who really understand it, and feel it in their bones. I do.” David Cameron said that, five years ago. Now, by contrast, his party’s view of things is summed up by a pledge in Osborne’s 2011 budget, to “introduce a new presumption in favour of sustainable development, so that the default answer to development is ‘yes’”. The word “sustainable”, of course, was for the birds – here was a crude invitation to tarmac the planet.

Make no mistake: just as New Labour’s London-centric prejudices fed the revolt led by the Countryside Alliance, so another rebellion is brewing, stoked by the Mail and Telegraph – and spread much wider than the hoo-hah over foxhunting, from the UK’s rural wilds to the outer edges of the suburbs.

Given that the left is even more metropolitan than the right, as it grows louder, supposed progressives will doubtless come out with their standard sneers, bemoaning nimbyism and condemning anyone with small “c” conservative instincts as a hopeless throwback.

To that, there are two answers. First, it’s probably worth bearing in mind that the worship of concrete, smokestacks and growth for its own sake has tended to be a much more congruent fit with dictatorship than democracy. Second, as events in Balcombe prove, plenty of people are now standing in the way of an economic system that has never been more rapacious and corrupt, and demanding something surprisingly radical: peace and quiet.

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