Lords of Misrule

The destruction of the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill by the “new” House of Lords shows that it’s just as bad as the old one

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 10th August 2000

When Earl Peel steps onto his grouse moor on Saturday, to blast a few bundles of feathers out of existence, he could be forgiven for experiencing a certain smugness. Infestations of ticks are likely to make this a less than Glorious 12th, but his diligent protection of his land appears to have forestalled a more pressing threat to the traditional values he has vowed to defend.

This was to have been the last season in which the bloody recreation of the few could be used to justify banning the quiet recreation of the many. Had all gone to plan, by next summer the government would have begun to implement the carefully regulated, if timid, right to roam on the mountains, moorlands, rough pastures and commons of England and Wales. No longer would we be forbidden to walk the wild uplands on the pretext that we – rather than the people blowing them to pieces – might disturb the grouse. No longer would we be banned from lying in the grass and watching the clouds go by. The land from which, through theft and violence, we have so long been excluded would have been, in some small way, ours once more.

But one of Britain’s most ludicrous anachronisms – our exclusion from the countryside – appears to have been preserved by an even more absurd one: the House of Lords. Earl Peel and a number of his Tory conspirators, nearly all of whom (whether hereditary or appointed) are major landowners, have shown that, though reduced in number, they can still ruin everyone else’s enjoyment. Through a blatant and outrageous filibuster, they may have succeeded in pushing the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill into oblivion.

While debating the bill in June, Earl Peel complained that “it is based on ideology rather than common sense.” After mocking townies for their ignorance of the countryside from which they have been banned and insisting that a right to roam will lead inexorably to devil worship in rural areas, he and his peers went on to show us what true common sense entails. Grouse moors, Earl Peel insisted, are rich in wildlife as a result of stringent “predator control”: to preserve the birds and mammals, in other words, some of the rarest of them have to be eliminated. Endangered stag beetles and adders, Earl Ferrers reasoned, should no longer be protected, but should be stamped on, on the basis that they “are nasty, beastly things. They bite.” The red grouse, Baroness Masham argued, must not be disturbed, because it “has a unique flavour and it is a great delicacy for many people.” Four noble lords, Earl Peel among them, assured the house that the Association of Chief Police Officers has called for a ban on walking after dark. But when the Ramblers’ Association contacted ACPO, it insisted it had done no such thing.

A fortnight ago, they put their common sense into action, by tabling amendments to the bill. The places in which people could walk, Baroness Byford and Lord Glentoran insisted, must not include “land predominantly covered by water”, roads, schools, hospitals, film studios or rubbish dumps. As none of these were to be included in the bill anyway, and as subaquatic rambling has yet to become a major sport in Britain, the amendments might seem less than urgent. But all must be debated before the bill can move on. Having complained that “the timetable of the Bill [renders it] totally unworkable”, Baroness Byford set out to ensure that it did just this.

“It is not right,” Earl Ferrers insisted during the debate in June, “to fetter, curtail and even threaten with criminal sanctions those who know what the countryside is about”. It would be unfair, Baroness Byford suggested, to “prevent people from participating in their lawful recreation.” They were talking, of course, about hunting, but the principle surely applies to every traditional rural pursuit. So it comes as something of a surprise to discover that these great defenders of human liberty have also tabled an amendment which would turn swimming in rivers and streams, sailing, rowing, canoeing, camping, organised games and, marvellously, annoying a landowner into criminal offences. As if to prove how vital to the legislative process this Byford-Glentower amendment will be, they have ensured that it would also become a criminal offence “to commit any criminal offence.”

Now forgive me if I’m wrong, but it was my understanding that the whole point of a reformed House of Lords was that a tiny special interest group should no longer be able to hold the rest of the nation to ransom. Yet these amendments are as preposterous as any tabled in the bad old days of hereditary rule.

Surely it’s obvious to anyone that this ridiculous second chamber isn’t working, that its deliberations bear about as much resemblance to democracy as Zimbabwe’s farm invasions bear to land reform? As Baroness Byford remarked, while discussing a different class of vandals, “once again, we must legislate for the few who seek pleasure in destroying the results of so much work.”