While the political world debated a young Labour politician’s decision to vote for a certain candidate in his party’s leadership elections, outdoor enthusiasts were mulling over his pronouncements made in a packed little hall in a small Derbyshire town.
David Miliband in cheerful mood at New Mills
David Miliband’s profile hit a peak this weekend with his stated support for Gordon Brown as next leader and therefore Prime Minister, but devotees of the mountains, fells and moors of Britain were dissecting his thoughts, made public before an audience of walkers, climbers, politicians and an odd comedian – we’ll let you decide which best fits the label – at the celebrations marking a piece of civil insurrection by a young Manchester Communist.
Clearly, Miliband was out to court the traditional Left with much of what he said at the Kinder Scout mass trespass 75th anniversary event. Speaking to grough, he said: “I’m here today because I want to honour the rebels with a big cause who said ‘Up with this, we will not put’ and I think that it’s important to say that we honour their memory with the way we support national parks, with the way that we implement the Countryside and Rights of Way (CRoW) Act but also from the next steps that we have with respect to coastal access.”
grough asked Mr Miliband if he was confident of getting coastal access legislation through this Parliament. He told us: “That would be premature. One of the things that we learned was that you have to bring people with you on this.
“We want to make sure we get all the best ideas. We asked Natural England to look at all the options. We now want to give them a view of the wider area and build a coalition, so I want to move with all due speed but not with haste.”
He described moving towards the type of access legislation that Scotland has as ‘virgin territory’. So don’t hold your breath on that one.
The Environment Secretary warned that the Conservatives did not see outdoor issues in the same way. He said they had set out their priorities: “One of the first day’s legislation would be to re-fight the argument on hunting with dogs and that doesn’t give me confidence about what their views might be on these sorts of issues and equally I’m very confident we’re going to have a strong Labour-party victory at the next election, so hopefully we won’t have to cross that bridge, but this isn’t an issue that divides people on political lines and I think the Government’s record in this area is good – admittedly it took 50 years after the first national park to get the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, but we did get it – and all of the people who visit your website, they’re an important part of the enjoyment you can get but they’re also champions of a way of life that respects the countryside. If you give people responsibility, you get it.
“What’s wonderful about the Countryside and Rights of Way Act is that all the predictions of doom did not come to pass because actually people behave in a responsible way when they go on to public or private land because they enjoy nature and therefore they respect nature.”
Oh, and just for the record, asked if he would be standing for the Labour leadership, Miliband said: “I’m not a candidate.”
Later, addressing his audience, which ranged from veterans of the trespass movements of the 1930s to a toddler battling to have his voice heard over that of the composed politician, he said: “The song [The Manchester Rambler] says: ‘I’m a wage slave on a Monday, but I’m a free man on Sunday’.
“Now, the purpose of the legislation we put through and the purpose of the further legislation we need to put through is that people should be free Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, not just one or two days a week. That’s what we’re going to carry on. That’s what people were fighting for 75 years ago.”
It’s as close to fighting talk as you’re likely to get from a New Labour politician.
It was left to the voice of old-fashioned mountaineering socialism, Jim Perrin, to take us back into the realm that Benny Rothman inhabited. He told the gathering: “In the 1930s, you could enter there [the Pennine hills] if you wrote in from the right Manchester address, politely requesting permission to do so. And as long as the ejaculatory morons who purportedly owned the land weren’t too busy there at their habitual pleasures of slaughtering the white hare, the golden plover, the curlew and the red grouse, you could go there, if you had those permissions.
Jim Perrin, the voice of traditional action
“It was a Red, with a grouse against this status quo who mined those exclusive ramparts and made a bridge, through which entered that crucial tradition of post-war, Socialist, countryside legislation which has continued right down to the Countryside and Rights of Way Act.
Sounding a note of caution on New Labour, Jim said: “I want to take you back to that April morning almost 75 years ago up at Bowden Bridge and point out something terribly obvious. That morning, some elder statesman of the burgeoning outdoor movement had been deputed to speak, saw the massed ranks of the constabulary arriving in Hayfield and he opted out. His place was taken by a 20-year-old Jewish, Communist motor fitter and his name was Benny Rothman.
“What would happen to a rough-and-ready 20-year old today, if he were to put himself at the head of a major political protest and march? What use would our present Government make of Thatcherite legislation to shut him up?”
Ramblers’ Association chair Kate Ashbrook told the meeting the fight wasn’t over. She said: “Now, let’s grasp the future. We have two immediate goals. Firstly, let’s put right the errors in the CRoW Act. Let’s see real freedom to roam on down land. For most of us in the South of England, it’s a bit miserable to see that those areas of chalk down that we thought were going to be on the map were excluded as semi-improved grass land.
Kate Ashbrook speaks at the event
“Secondly, we need freedom to walk around the coast, not just on a path, but actual freedom to walk around a broad band where we can enjoy a beautiful landscape.
“It’s really good that the Secretary of State has expressed his support for that.”
Ms Ashbrook also paid tribute to the Kinder trespassers and all those who had battled for access to the moors. She said anyone walking on access land owed a debt to Benny Rothman and his band of campaigners: “Whenever we enjoy those rights, we should be remembering those trespassers of 75 years ago.”
It’s clear David Miliband is marked for high office in a future Gordon Brown administration. All those packed into New Mills town hall must hope that whatever exalted cabinet position he finds himself in, he remembers the words he spoke in memory of the Kinder trespassers. Who knows, he may even move with due speed into virgin territory.
grough will be bringing more details of the Kinder trespass celebrations later this week, including interviews with some of the seasoned campaigners from the 1930s.