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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > June 2019 > The other left behind England

The other left behind England

Fed up since the hunting ban, rural England provides a readymade base for the Brexiteer right. But the Tories should be wary of chasing after a lost past
© SCOTT BARBOUR/GETTY IMAGES

I have been on two political demonstrations in my life. The first was the Countryside march in 2002, at the time the biggest in history, which protested against New Labour’s proposed ban on hunting with dogs. The second was the People’s Vote march for a second referendum on 23rd March this year. In going on both marches, I suspect I was in a small minority. Whereas the UK-wide Brexit vote was 51.9 per cent, across the English countryside as a whole it was appreciably higher, at 55.3 per cent, and in some thinly-populated areas the difference was striking. Boston and South Holland in Lincolnshire notched up Leave votes of over 70 per cent; in West Somerset it was over 60.

And yet much of the analysis about Leave voters since the referendum has focused on so-called “left behind” post-industrial urban centres. This has warped our understanding of why Brexit happened and affected how we have dealt with the aftermath. Theresa May has earmarked a £1bn Stronger Towns Fund, an undisguised sop to those parts of the Midlands and the north whose Brexit vote her Tory government has chosen to interpret as a cry of anguish.

There is—as yet—no equivalent pot targeted at rural leave areas, although they, too, often feel “left behind,” albeit in different ways. Money alone is not necessarily what they want. For many rural Leavers, their vote was as much about culture and identity. Looking back to the battle over fox hunting, we can see the first stirrings of the embattled rural identity that has since found expression in the 2016 vote to leave the European Union. It comes with a way of thinking that might be called nostalgic, and which can often be out of step with England’s urban/suburban majority.

That was seen in 2017 when the Tories’ promise to review the hunting ban was blamed for alienating many young voters, and Jeremy Corbyn’s vow to defend it likely helped him pile on votes in the big cities. But the rural identity is not something which a Tory party pushed back into its heartlands could safely ignore—even if it wanted to. Indeed, the regional skew of the Conservative membership points to relative over-representation of the rural and provincial places, compared to the big cities. Seeing as this membership is the selectorate that is set to pick our next prime minister, the restive identity of rural England could before long determine the next occupant of No 10.

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