A post by Phil Edwards on the Tory phone box posters links to Jonathan Raban’s review of Phillip Blond’s Red Tory. Blond is known to be the think-person for Cameron’s Big Society concept, of which we’ve been hearing … well, we heard about it earlier in the month, I think it was a Tuesday. Raban locates the intellectual heritage of Red Tory in the Catholic Distributist League; a 1920s movement championed by G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. New to me, but the basic idea seems to have been more or less this: widespread property ownership is good; rural life shows the way. By all means, be a capitalist, but be a capitalist with a small shop, or a small farm; serve the needs of local folk for a fair price. And go to church.
David Cameron’s constituency is Witney, on the Oxfordshire / Gloucestershire border. This is a part of the world I have some experience of; it’s where some of my family live. I won’t name the village, but Cameron is their MP, and don’t they know it. I’ll try to describe what it’s like around there.
Just as the Distributists would have wanted, a church features centrally in every Cotswolds village; there might also be a common, or some stocks (disused, but cherished). Generally, there’ll be a clear visual hierarchy; it’ll be obvious today, as it would have been three hundred years ago, which houses are supposed to be those of the wealthiest and most dominant. There may be a tract of social housing; but it won’t be central, or in the most picturesque part.
Nothing new in any of that, you might think. But there’s more. The settlement pattern of your typical Cotswold village reflects the historical pattern of English agricultural land tenure; you find houses standing side by side along a central street, each with a strip of land out back. Once, the strips were long and were farmed; today, they are truncated into gardens where some people grow some vegetables. This allows an illusion of self-sufficiency: produce is traded locally, often on an honour payment system (someone puts a basket of tomatoes on their garden wall, and you pay for what you take). But if you did some basic agricultural economics here, you’d quickly show that if the locals tried to eat only what was truly local, and if they tried to pay for it with what they themselves made locally, they’d starve. Despite superficial appearances, they’re just not equipped or organised for that. Artisanal enterprise? There’s a silversmith in Stow-on-the-Wold who might be good for a stirrup cup, but you’ll look long and hard before you’ll find an independent maker and vendor of shoes, saddles, wicker trugs, garden trowels or whatever else it is that’s supposed to be made, sold and used in the countryside.
Even if the locals were equipped as if for the agrarian idyll, I’m not at all sure they’d enjoy it You have to look to what’s not so obvious as you stand in the middle of a Cotswold village: the machinery that makes the whole lot viable and – for some – a lot better than bearable. There are railway lines that make villages into practical commuter settlements, for instance. An older innovation, sure, but the station car parks still fill up reliably on week days. And if trains are not your thing, there’ll be four-lane roads and/or motorways within twenty minutes’ driving time. Either way, you’ll have a car. Further, the blanketing with transport infrastructure means that you won’t just get access to your ordinary high-capital, high-energy, large-scale, globally-supplied need satisfier such as Tesco Extra; interesting retakes on the shed retail concept are also reachable. Daylesford Organic, for instance: a creation of the Bamford family (as in the manufacturer J. C. Bamford). Officially it’s a ‘farm shop’ but it has too many parking spaces for that. What’s more, produce doesn’t just leave the Daylesford Organic farm shop by truck (for the other Daylesford stores, and also for the Ocado distribution centre); it arrives by truck as well: I’m thinking of the Italian olive oil and the Spanish almonds. I don’t know where they get their trugs.
I’ll save the holiday travel habits of Cotswoldians for a later post. I think it’ll be obvious what my point is. Much of what is presented as ‘small scale’ and ‘local’ in the constituency of Witney isn’t small small or local. It’s just more of your aspiration with a countryside theme. The people who buy into Witney are the type who like to patrol the parish bounds with the dogs; they’re usually English-esque – pale, clean shaven and corduroy clad in the case of the men – but they come from all over. And the people who start their lives in the village council estate and then leave; well, they go all over. Alex James, in his extraordinarily creepy 2007 puff piece about the Bamford retail operation, says that “there is not even a hint of the bad things about the world here”. But you can’t start with a visual aesthetic and end up with a social policy. If what you see around Witney is what inspires Blond-ism and hence Cameron’s Big Society, then both of those are just self-comforting fantasy.
PS: check out Tamara Drewe.