openDemocracyUK: Feature

Culture wars: why does rural England vote Tory?

Why have voters in rural constituencies like North Shropshire traditionally voted Conservative, and will changing demographics alter voting patterns in the future? Third in a series of four on the culture wars

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
15 December 2021, 12.00am
Llwyd Mansion, constructed in 1604 in Oswestry, Shropshire
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David Pimborough / Alamy Stock Photo

There is a lot of speculation about whether the Liberal Democrats will take North Shropshire in this week’s by-election. But what’s extraordinary is that the Conservatives might keep it.

With the government tangled in a thicket of scandal, from corruption to Christmas parties, much of it caused by the dubious behaviour of the outgoing MP, Owen Paterson, why is it even a question?

Why do so many people in rural England always vote Tory?

For me, it’s hard not to compare northern Shropshire with northern Perthshire, where I grew up. For a start, as with my home county, I’m endlessly having to tell English people where Shropshire is (three-quarters of the way up the Welsh border, turn right).

Both are made up of iconic countryside and administered from an ancient market town on one of Britain’s mightiest rivers: the Tay and the Severn, respectively. Both areas are between an hour and two hours’ drive from a major urban centre: Edinburgh and Birmingham: commutable, but only just. Both act as gateways to more remote areas still: the Highlands and North Wales.

True, Perthshire is a bit richer, about half as densely populated and has slightly cheaper housing. But, for an English county, Shropshire is about as close to home as it gets for me.

But its politics are totally alien to Perthshire. And very poorly reported by the London-based media. If we are going to begin to comprehend why England overall votes the way it does, we have to try a lot harder to understand places like this.

Other than a Liberal one-night stand in 1904, northern Shropshire in its various forms has been faithful to the Tories in every election since the Great Reform Act of 1832. Northern Perthshire has, over the same period, shifted from Liberal domination until the 1920s to trending Tory until the 1990s, and to the SNP ever since.

In the Perth and Kinross council area, 61% of people voted to remain in the EU; in Shropshire, 56% voted Leave. Pete Wishart, who’s represented northern Perthshire since 2001, has a consistently progressive voting record on everything from corporation tax to LGBTQ rights. Owen Paterson, who was MP for North Shropshire from 1997 until, beset by scandal, he stood down, triggering the current by-election, is of the Brexit-supporting, badger-slaughtering, equal-marriage-opposing Conservative ilk.

It’s not just these two counties. In general, rural Scotland is contested territory. Most constituencies outside the main cities have been political battlegrounds between the Tories and their nemeses of the day for two centuries. Meanwhile, most of the English countryside has shown a level of party loyalty unparalleled in any other region of any other country anywhere on earth.

In simple terms, this difference is why England tends to elect Conservative governments while Scotland votes to the Left. After all, urban areas in both places tend to plump for progressives. And this comparison doesn’t just apply to Scotland and England. Though it’s true that rural areas trend to the Right across the Western world, the most sparsely populated areas of Spain, Sweden, Norway and Germany have all voted for the centre-Left in recent elections. Nowhere votes to the Right as consistently as rural England.

It’s not about farmers

“It’s weird, isn’t it?” said Sophie Padgett, an organic food grower in North Shropshire.

In a rural area, it’s natural to look for the answers on the farms. “I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that if you’re a tenant farmer, you’re pushed to do really intensive things on the land,” she added.

Where once, farms might be let out over generations, she said, it’s more common these days to get a contract for ten years, creating pressure to extract as much as possible from the soil – meaning that farmers are afraid of regulation.

The Tories have always been the party of middle-class business owners, including farmers. For a generation, that has meant support for asset-stripping and maximum extraction.

It’s not just about small, precarious businesses, though. In 2005, there were nearly 3,000 farms under five hectares in Shropshire. After a decade and a half of consolidation and agricultural decline, there are just over 400.

With centralisation has come degradation. “The condition of the topsoil is awful. There doesn’t seem to be an idea of stewardship of the land,” said Padgett.

However, Tory farmers are only a small part of the story. Across Shropshire’s four constituencies, there are now fewer than 4,000 farms in total and 10,000 farmers, farmers’ spouses and farm workers. There were 129,000 Conservative votes across these seats at the last election.

By the way, Shropshire has more people working in agriculture than any other English county except Hereford or Cornwall. Most of them probably aren’t doing the kind of farming you’re imagining, though: the vast majority of the county’s livestock is accounted for by its six million chickens. Think battery hens more than sheep dog trials.

Across the UK, ever-bigger tractors and quad bikes, plus BSE and foot-and-mouth disease, have pushed farms to centralise and automate their operations, and cut workers over the past 30 years. As in Perthshire, and as in most rural areas, more people in Shropshire work in healthcare or retail or manufacturing or education than work in agriculture. Combined, farming, forestry and fishing contribute only 2.7% of the county’s economic output.

There is a lot of romantic mythology about the English countryside. It’s a long way from the reality of carefully trimmed, chemically sprayed fields and golf courses, with plundered topsoil blowing away in the wind, taking jobs with it.

Agrarian simulacrum

None of this means that the mythology itself isn’t important. The fact that farming is essentially a fringe activity across rural Britain doesn’t deny it a strong cultural pull – partly, I suspect, because it’s just so visible: it still takes up vast areas of land. Partly because we all care about and rely on what it produces. Partly because all of our ancestors were farmers, and for many of us this was the case until quite recently. “That’s how my dad voted” is still a top reason people give for their choice of party.

And partly because of the deep ideological connection between symbols of feudalism and Anglo-British nationalism.

The remnants of this millennium-old class system certainly exist in Perthshire. I know, because it’s the world I grew up in. My family has lived on the same small-by-Scottish-standards estate since it was given to my ancestor Neis Ramsay in 1232 by the then king of Scotland.

I was sent to a boarding school founded by William Gladstone to bring the English public school system to Scotland, and learned the etiquette of highland balls, pheasant and grouse shoots, and posh drinks parties. I speak with an essentially English accent and know more about rugby than football.

This vestigial feudal class system across rural Perthshire is based on land ownership, family ties and social customs, not just cash and capital. If you look back through the list of the county’s MPs through the 19th and 20th centuries you see lots of double-barrelled surnames: hyphenated connections to the old aristocracy. In fact, one of the county’s most famous MPs, my great-great-aunt Kitty, was also the Duchess of Atholl.

And of course these people weren’t just elected by each other. When Kitty triggered a famous by-election by resigning as a Tory to protest against appeasement of Hitler in the 1930s, the staff on her husband’s vast estate were rounded up and sent out to vote for her. Rural life was shaped by the class system, deference and loyalty, and lots of people bought into that.

It’s not surprising – after all, this was a ruling class which sustained itself through imperial plunder and so could afford to buy support.

But as this essentially feudal way of life has dwindled in rural Scotland, so has the Conservative vote. Big estates are no longer major employers and posh Scots aren’t bounty-hunting officers of the empire any more: we’re a marginal cultural curiosity.

Of course there are still plenty of people who sometimes vote Tory – the party nearly took the seat in 2017. But the cultural pull of the aristos isn’t there. Almost no one thinks that people like us ought to be in charge any more. Thank God.

Why hasn’t this happened in England?

Partly, perhaps, it’s because the ruling class of England’s more fertile plains was always a bit richer, on average, and has managed to maintain intergenerational wealth and power for a bit longer.

Class, power and identity

In 2014, Owen Paterson’s (now sadly late) wife Rose Paterson, chair of the Aintree racecourse, was appointed deputy lord lieutenant of Shropshire, one of the Queen’s representatives in the county.

Her brother, Matt Ridley, the fifth Viscount Ridley, is a Tory member of the House of Lords, regular contributor to The Times, a prominent climate change denier and the owner of an estate in Northumbria which includes England’s biggest open-cast coal mine. He was also chairman of Northern Rock when it collapsed at the start of the 2007/8 financial crisis. Their uncle, Nicholas Ridley, was a prominent Thatcherite minister in the 1980s, with ancestors sitting as Tory MPs as far back as the 1700s.

These sorts of connections generate hard political power – access to information and advice about how to win nominations and seats, introductions to other influential figures, and to people with money. Paterson’s early political career was bankrolled by Lord and Lady Howard of Rising, an ancient castle in Norfolk.

While the middle classes of other European countries had revolutions to overthrow aristocratic centres of power, England’s attempt to do so earlier than everywhere else – in the 1660s – failed. The country’s ruling class was then able to make the transition to the capitalist world through its imperial successes. Thirty per cent of England’s land is still owned by the aristocracy.

Partly it’s because a number of cultural institutions gathered around that ruling class still have significant pull in the English countryside. “There’s still a lot of hunting, of shooting, that sort of cultural English countryside activity,” said Padgett.

And it’s not just posh people who get involved – working-class people “would go and do the beating”, she added, referring to the work of walking through the woods driving pheasants towards those holding guns.

“There’s a cultural pull – it boils down to a sense of identity,” she said. It’s an identity built out of deeply class-divided experiences like these, which shape how people know each other and leads to the forming of ‘county sets’ among the wealthy – friendship groups which become power bases in their own right. Identities also provide filters through which people make sense of the world.

All these things exist in Perthshire too. In fact, land ownership is even more concentrated in Scotland. But there is one difference. While Scottish people aren’t much more progressive on most issues than people in England, monarchism and the implicit deference to posh people that comes with it is an exception.

The romantic memory of the failure of the Jacobite uprising means that Scottishness isn’t as connected to the House of Windsor or any modern conception of monarchy as Englishness is. The memory of the Highland clearances means that rural landowners are generally seen as baddies rather than representatives of the national spirit. Scottishness tends to try to shirk blame for the empire rather than claim it was brilliant.

The central institution of Anglo-British nationalism is the monarchy. If French nationalism is about mythic revolution, then the moral of the British story is the virtue of the class system, which holds the Windsors high on its shoulders – the idea that hereditary power is patriotic. Posh people are treated as sensible and serious, as ‘prime ministerial’, as the kind of people who ought to be in Westminster, and in charge.

Car culture and the growing commuter belt

While it can feel like the English countryside has stayed the same forever, in reality, things are changing rapidly. In his 1973 book ‘The Country and the City’, Raymond Williams viewed England’s shifting perspective on the two through the lens of literature. As he put it, “The specific histories of country and city, and of their immediate interrelations, have been determined, in Britain, by capitalism.”

In England, this means enclosure acts that eliminated the peasantry and make so much of the English countryside feel like a sort of hemmed-in extension of suburbia. It means the construction of carefully planned landscapes, with their big country houses and rolling estates. As Williams wrote about this manufactured scenery: “Stand at any point and look at that land. Look at what those fields, those streams, those woods even today produce. Think it through as labour and see how long and systematic the exploitation and seizure must have been, to rear that many houses, on that scale.”

If the land was stolen through the seizure of enclosure, the labour was funded through the plunder of empire. England’s carefully curated vistas, the sceneries of the landscape gardener ‘Capability’ Brown and the painter John Constable, are an enduring legacy of colonialism, a constant reminder of who its winners were.

These days these landscapes are most often seen from the road. Modern capitalism interacts with the countryside through property prices and car culture.

Just as the combination of globalisation and agricultural automation has driven people out of farming, a revolution in transport has allowed city workers to come to the countryside. In the past couple of decades, in much of rural England, farmers have been replaced by commuters.

Pre-pandemic, 35,000 people living in Shropshire worked outside it, almost all of them travelling by car, largely into Birmingham or Manchester. And, on the whole, they earn more than people who stay in the county for work.

A lot of rural England is like this, with so much of the countryside rolling in the orbit of one of the country’s major conurbations – London, Bristol, Birmingham, Liverpool-Manchester-Leeds-Sheffield, Nottingham, Portsmouth-Southampton and Teesside.

Just as London’s home counties stockbroker belt is Tory because it’s where your boss and landlord live, Shropshire provides the same ex-urban utopia for the wealthy of the West Midlands. Think ‘Real Housewives of Cheshire’ but for Brummies rather than Mancunians.

These are the winners of the neoliberal years, protected from contact with human frailty by stony garden walls, shaded car windscreens and piles of wealth. They’ve bought the romantic English rural myth, but let’s not pretend they get their hands dirty in the frosty winter soil.

If you look to areas which are more genuinely remote, rather than ex-urban, then they aren’t nearly as safe for the Conservatives. The Lib Dems are highly competitive in Cornwall, and held North Norfolk and half of Cumbria for years. Where Tories are competitive in Perthshire, they are nowhere in Na h-Eileanan an Iar.

And it’s not just middle-aged rich-ish people who’ve moved out to the country with their kids. Counties like Shropshire are increasingly vast retirement villages, where pensioners go, if they can afford to – people whose wealth lies not in their labour, but in the price of the land and houses they own.

The UK’s net wealth has more than tripled since 1995, with growth equivalent to an average of nearly £100,000 per person. Three-quarters of this is accounted for by increases in the price of houses. As openDemocracy’s Laurie Macfarlane has put it: “In just two decades the market value of land has quadrupled, increasing recorded wealth by over £4 trillion. The driving force behind rising house prices – and the UK’s growing wealth – has been rapidly escalating land prices.”

For those who own property, this means vast quantities of unearned wealth. And hundreds of millions of these pounds magicked-up by the UK’s inflating property bubble have been released as equity, and spent on holidays, cars or buy-to-let houses.

Of course, the money isn’t magicked out of nowhere. It comes on a conveyor belt from poorer and younger people, who have to work ever harder to afford to buy a house. But these people tend to be concentrated in cities, where there’s easier access to work.

It’s not surprising that people who get rich from the labour of others are likely to support a government which facilitates them. But I think it’s helpful to look at this another way, too.

Bargain-hunt Britain

When Harold Macmillan accused Margaret Thatcher of “selling the family silver” in the 1980s, it was meant to be a criticism. A generation later, it’s a national obsession and a major TV genre.

Earlier this year, an episode of the ‘Antiques Roadshow’ made headlines because it was watched by more people than the BBC’s Olympics coverage, with an audience of 4.7 million. The British equivalent of the brilliant US show ‘Queer Eye’ is ‘The Repair Shop’ - which, rather than being about mending people, is about fixing up their heirlooms. It’s watched by about 10% of the British public.

The antiques trading game show ‘Bargain Hunt’ is more popular than ‘Dr Who’, while ‘Fake or Fortune’, ‘Money for Nothing’, ‘Salvage Hunters’, ‘Antiques Road Trip’ and the aptly named ‘Flog It!’ captivate an army of pensioners every day as they are encouraged to dream of the possible treasure left in their attic by some long-dead relative.

Surely no human society can ever have been so obsessed with flogging off relics of its glorious past than Britain today. And it’s no wonder. As a country we don’t really produce wealth, we sell the dwindling assets of the empire, whether tangible trinkets, access to offshore havens, public-school educations or reputations to those who need theirs laundered.

It‘s also, therefore, not surprising that a large swathe of society – particularly the older and whiter populations of rural areas, who are more tied to their asset wealth – are quite so defensive about that past.

“There’s a backlash against things that are too politically correct,” Padgett told me. “Anything that’s seen as a bit woke.”

When the new Common Sense Group of Conservative MPs bangs on about statues and flags and history, this is the context we should see it in.

In urban areas, where people meet and get to know those from different racial, national or cultural backgrounds, they tend to quickly learn to like them, and develop more inclusive ways of talking about and seeing the world, because ultimately most people are quite nice.

But rural areas like Shropshire are remarkably monochrome. “Shropshire as a county is not very diverse,” says Padgett. “You don’t meet a big cross-section of people. You can’t see why [movements like Black Lives Matter] would be relevant.”

Perhaps that’s starting to change, though. In the past year, house prices in Shropshire have risen by 12%, compared to a UK average of 8%, though prices remain a little below the national average. The pandemic and rise of home-working have encouraged millennials to start to move out of cities as we have babies and yearn for more space. And as this new generation – which unlike its parents and grandparents didn’t grow up with memories of war and empire – moves into the countryside, it takes its politics and values with it.

In last year’s local elections, Labour and the Greens took council seats in what would once have been thought of as true-blue parts of the English countryside from Oxfordshire to Suffolk. I wasn’t surprised – I used to live in Oxford, and many of my friends have moved out of that city in recent years, unable to afford to stay and have kids.

It’s not inevitable that the English countryside will be Tory forever. The SNP took North Perthshire from the Conservatives by organising working-class voters in market towns and mill towns, leading campaigns against cuts, and knocking on even the most remote of doors.

The Lib Dems may win this by-election, but if the Conservatives are going to be shifted from rural England in a more permanent way, it’ll take more than a quick sprint in the middle of a national scandal.

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