Is there really the great divide? John Rees examines the changing landscape of the countryside
There are few ideas so settled in the national consciousness as the notion of the difference between town and country.
For city dwellers the country is a place of rest and quietude where change is slow to non-existent. This is the green and pleasant land where the English ‘hearts of oak’ reside, the home of John Bull yeoman, where the congregation is still called to Sunday prayer by the tolling of the church bell. This is where the squire, the JP and the vicar have been the arbiters of the fate of rural commoners since time out of mind.
At least this is true of England. The Celtic nations are another story.
This picture has always been as much ideology as reality. Long ago Raymond Williams described in his masterly The City and the Country with forensic detail how each age regenerates its own myth of a ‘disappearing past’ centred on the countryside. Each generation mourns a vanishing past where things were more peaceful, more ordered, more rural, and more stable. All contrasted with the too fast changing modernity of city and industry.
The truth is that the English countryside has neither been wild nor unchanging for centuries. It is not virgin land set aside from modernity but a managed environment subordinated to market drives. It is not a wilderness but a garden, nearly every corner of which has been made and remade by economic imperatives and social struggles time and time again.
This is not the place to trace that long and complex history. But some recent work from the Office of National Statistics, based on material from the 2011 census, shows that contrary to popular image, life and attitudes in town and country have probably never been so closely aligned.
Only 18.5 percent of the population of England and Wales live in rural areas, and of those 9.5 percent live in ‘rural towns and fringe areas’. A mere 5.7 percent live in villages and 3.5 percent live in rural hamlets and isolated dwellings.
Those living in the country are on average 8 years older (45 rather than 37). Country dwellers are healthier than town residents, but there are more disabled people living in rural areas.
Country residents are 10 percent more likely to have been born in the UK, and 18 percent more likely to be white. They are also 9 percent more likely to be Christian, although there is also very little difference in the numbers saying they have no religion.
In the country you are 13 percent more likely to own your own house and it’s 9 percent more likely the house will have a classic one family occupying it.
But it’s not true, as it is in some areas of Europe, that the English and Welsh countryside faces depopulation. In fact, the numbers living in the countryside grew by 6.4 percent between 2001 and 2011, only 1.7 percent slower than growth in the towns.
Indeed, in the North East, Yorkshire, Humberside, and the West Midlands the rural population grew faster than the urban population.
Interestingly, there are more skilled workers in the country than the town. But there are also more managers, senior officials and directors. No doubt this last fact reflects the increase in both home working, facilitated by the internet, and commuting in professional jobs.
The larger proportion of skilled workers partly reflects the green site industrial construction. But, as anyone who knows what the actually existing English countryside is like will confirm, it also reflects the number of extension-builders, kitchen installers, central and solid fuel heating engineers, drive and garage construction workers, painters and decorators who service the ballooning rural upper and middle classes. Indeed, one is far more likely to come across one of these workers’ white vans on a country lane than to meet an agricultural worker.
In short, the English countryside is becoming suburbanised, and the convergence of social statistics and attitudes is a result of this. Politically this is no bad thing. Progressive politics will find here some soil in which to grow. And it is already a fact that the great waves of protest in recent years, say over the Iraq war or Palestine, have found their echo in small towns and in the countryside.
Of course, the town will still lead the countryside because numbers, collective experience, trade union and political organisation are all still overwhelmingly concentrated in the cities.
But these changes may not just be about what the country brings to the city. They may also raise questions about what life is like in the country. If the English countryside is a managed environment, then who does the managing?
If it is a national resource for those that live in the towns as well as those who live in the country, who will say in whose interest the country should be shaped?
As of now it is still landlords, from the remains of the aristocracy to the massive supermarket chains, farmers, developers, and local authorities, mostly Tory, who say what will be done. Once nationalised bodies that controlled our woodlands and canals have been semi-privatised.
The truth is that attitudes may be changing in the county, but the control of power is not.
- The survey can be found here. Raymond Williams classic is: The City and the Country (Hogarth Press, 1985, originally published 1973).
John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher) and ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German). He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.