This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Liberty and Livelihood march in London – the biggest rural protest the UK has ever seen. Abi Kay looks back on the historic event. This article as first published in the Farmer's Guardian.
In the early hours of Sunday, September 22, 2002, hundreds of thousands of farmers and other rural folk from across the UK advanced upon central London for the Liberty and Livelihood march.
Farm trucks and Land Rovers festooned with Liberty and Livelihood stickers wound their way down quiet country roads all over the country, heading to coach stops and stations for special charter trains which would take them to the capital.
The main focus of the event, organised by the Countryside Alliance (CA), was opposition to a ban on hunting with dogs in England and Wales proposed by Tony Blair’s Labour Government, but a wide range of other grievances from rural communities were linked with the demonstration.
The protest had been postponed in March because of the foot-and-mouth outbreak, which, according to CA chief executive Tim Bonner, ‘fed into a feeling of anger’, but a much longer-held sense of injustice among marchers ran deep, with placards marked up with phrases such as ‘Town and country, not town over country’.
Mr Bonner, who at the time of the march was a free range egg producer in Devon, was originally hired by the CA for just six weeks to help promote the demo.
He said: “It was about the countryside coming together. People understood the injustice of the hunting legislation and also wanted to make a really strong statement that the countryside stood together and you could not just pick off one part of rural Britain and think it was an easy hit.”
Jeremy Loxton, a home counties CLA territory manager who attended the event, agreed, saying the ‘rural way of life was under attack’.
“We are an urban nation and as rural people we felt very neglected,” he said. “At the time, rural Britain felt sidelined. It was a chance to remind people we had a voice. It felt massive.”
Massive is an appropriate word to describe the march, with 407, 791 protestors eventually sheep-clicker-counted at the finish line.
According to reports, it took more than six hours for people queuing at the start of the official route to filter through.
Hunting horns and whistles were blown by participants as the march passed key landmarks such as Downing Street.
“We filled London,” said Mr Loxton.
“It was a carnival atmosphere. It was heartfelt, people’s sense of injustice, but at the same time, it was a chance to get together with likeminded people and there was a party atmosphere.
“There was a bit of anger, but people were just so grateful and slightly flabbergasted that as many people had come together as they had.
“For us it was only an hour and a half drive, but some people had come from miles away. That hit home how strongly people felt, that they were prepared to put that much effort into it.”
Nicholas Onslow, another attendee who was involved in the organisation of the march, agreed. “There was a sense of power,” he said. “The driving force was the adhesion of rural communities who had just had enough.”
Despite the carnival atmosphere, the protestors always remained respectful.
Ian Davis, a beef farmer from Herefordshire, recalls: “It was so noticeable that although 400,000 people marched through London, none of us dropped any litter so there was no need to clear up after us. “It is hard to overstate how unusual that is for a London march.”
Another attendee, Juliet Blaxland, told Farmers Guardian one of her overriding memories was when the crowd around her passed the Cenotaph war memorial near the end of the route.
“Everyone was silent, bowed and removed headgear, as instructed by a kind of word-of-mouth general consensus that we should,” she said.
Opposition to the protest from animal rights activists on the day was minimal, with Mr Bonner claiming they would have been ‘embarrassed’ to try to counter such a massive demo, which had support from all kinds of other rural groups and organisations.
“There was a wonderful unity about the whole operation,” he said. “That is what made it as successful as it was.”
Success, though, can be measured in different ways. In terms of sheer scale, the demonstration was undoubtedly an achievement.
But did it have any practical effect? Mr Bonner is adamant it did. “We did as much damage to the Government as we possibly could,” he said.
“That was important, not just to make us feel better, but because it sent out an unmistakable message to politicians of every party that if you want to mess with the countryside, there is going to be a price to pay.
“I do think the politics of the countryside would have been very different if we had laid down and taken that legislation, if we had not all stood together and made the extraordinary statement we did.
“Ministers were more willing to listen and less ready to consider some of the more extreme stuff pushed from the animal rights movement.”
Mr Bonner does, however, acknowledge politics runs on a 20-year cycle. And with memories of the march now fading, a new administration may need a reminder of the clout of the countryside.
But whether a new protest is the way to achieve that is still very much up for debate.
“I am asked at least once a week and have been for the past 20 years ‘when are we going to march again’, and my answer is we need a moment,” said Mr Bonner.
“You never know quite what it is, but I think we will know when we get there.” Mr Onslow is more pessimistic. “It is often discussed among grumpy old men in the countryside – should we march again,” he said.
“Sadly, I think the answer is no. Unfortunately in this country, there has been a lot of movement to divorce people from the countryside.
“Onlookers will watch protestors pour milk on the floor in Harrods and not understand what those people – if they had their way – would achieve, which would be the removal of livestock from the countryside.
“I am afraid another Liberty and Livelihood March would actually be counterproductive in terms of public opinion.”
Mr Loxton is equally sceptical about a future demo.
“There has been an apathy which has swept over rural communities,” he said.
But also social media has given us an alternative channel. People would argue you can be as effective, if not more effective, through social media than through a physical presence.
“I would be very surprised if anything like this ever happened again.”
For Mr Bonner, a farming industry facing a series of problems with multiple, sometimes unclear causes, or harbouring different views on issues such as trade would find it difficult to mobilise.
“There is no one to blame,” he said.
“We had the advantage back then of having a clear enemy. It was the Labour Party, rather than the Government.
“But who do you blame for the problems in the agricultural industry at the moment? I do not think if we marched on the Kremlin we would make much difference.”
There is, though, he believes, the possibility that something could be coming down the track that would bring rural people out of the countryside to march on London once again.
“It needs to be an issue where there would be such blatant prejudice that it raised the hackles of practically everyone in the countryside,” he said.
“That is the sort of issue which could potentially generate the kind of reaction we saw 20 years ago.
“If it comes, it will be around the concept of a managed countryside versus the dreams of the rewilding industry. That is a fundamental issue about whether rural communities are part of the countryside.
“What the tipping point is, I am not quite sure, but I do think that is the issue of the next 20 years.”
Originally published in the Farmers Guardian on Thursday 22 September, 2022.