Interview: Lt Gen Sir Barney White-Spunner

The current military hero of Lt-Gen Sir Barney White-Spunner is the 18th-century tactician Frederick the Great. ‘He was a pretty odd bloke,’ he concedes, ‘but he was also a soldier, a visionary and a poly-math-and he loved his dogs.’ Most of this sentence could apply to Sir Barney, too; he certainly isn’t odd-he’s sensible and amusing company-but he shares with the former King of Prussia a quality of free-thinking, an ability that usefully elevates him above what might be considered the cliché of a retired general leading a countryside organisation.

Like his hero, he also has much-loved dogs-two labradors and a terrier-plus a hunter and sheep. ‘Barney has given us a lift,’ says an employee at the Countryside Alliance (CA) where he became executive chairman this year after leaving a distinguished army career. ‘He’s a leader, and you can feel his presence as he walks down the corridors. We all adore him.’

Post-Hunting Act, the CA is a big brief. It has 105,000 members to keep enthused about issues from post offices to ‘digital apartheid’-he points out that he got a better signal in Helmand than in Dorset, ‘which is loony’ funding wildlife research and supporting farmers on milk prices and badger culls while remaining mission control for hunting. ‘People ask why we don’t just concentrate on field sports [the CA’s roots when it was the British Field Sports Society], but if we’re to be effective, we have to cover everything else. Field sports are part of the “warp and weave” of rural life, as Nicholas Soames said, but we need to take a different view on their future.’

He explains with a compelling intensity that is easy to listen to and makes you understand why he commands loyalty: ‘The Act will be repealed, but to think we can just sit back afterwards is immature, because we’re going to have to defend hunting for ever. The Countryside Marches and all that were great and got everyone focused, but now we’re in the boring bit when you do your homework and plan your strategy. People will shout “whoo” when repeal comes, but the battle will go on’-he apologises for the constant relapses into military lingo-‘threats to shooting are increasing and we find the RSPB rather unhelpful on the raptor issue. Hunting will still be centre stage.’

He is optimistic, however. ‘Dare I say it? Yes, I do. Some new Labour MPs take a more mature attitude towards rural issues than some of their more Socialist seniors. They don’t like the Hunting Act giving them an anti-rural image. Dennis Skinner said it was revenge for the miners, which shows it wasn’t a law against hunting, but against people who hunt, and that makes it a bad law. My weakness is that I’m an eternal optimist-I tend to think the best of people-but I do think there’s now a more sensible attitude [at Westminster].’

Dreams of the English hunting field have long been a consolation to soldiers overseas-it must have been something to look forward to amid the horrors of Iraq, where he commanded the multinational division-but Sir Barney avoids too many misty-eyed references. ‘It keeps you going when you’re away, but then there’s a certain irony when you’re fighting for other people’s democracy and you come home to find your own being taken away.’

Sir Barney’s corner of England, a homely west Dorset long house, is certainly green and pleasant and it wouldn’t take a detective long to deduce that its owner is a foxhunting man. We’re on a tight schedule-a family outing to Gifford’s Circus is squashed in between Melplash Show and going on holiday. His charming wife, Moo, pops in to ask how many shirts he’d like to take to Greece and the children (he has three) express mild incredulity that they’re being allowed to go somewhere other than Scotland. ‘Actually, I’m rather looking forward to it-reading, sailing, bit of fishing.’ He is, however, no field-sports bore and reads widely-poetry, fiction, history.

A Roman Catholic, he recently wrote for The Tablet and was due to visit Lambeth Palace on the subject of church sharing. ‘It’s a Barneyism, nothing to do with work,’ he explains. ‘I’ve got a real thing about how all Christian denominations should share one building. An awful lot of Catho-lic churches are unappealing to worship in and a lot of village churches are under-used. You can’t force it on people, but I’ve only had one anti letter so far.’

He read history, with economics, at St Andrews, and wants to do more writing about military history. The ‘big money’, he says, is in the Second World War, but he’s keen on the 17th and 18th centuries, ‘when so many Euro-pean armies were finding their genuine origins. The modern army owes a lot to Cromwell’s New Model Army. Waterloo is also a particular passion. I find it very relaxing; when I get fired up is on discovering there was a perceived view at the time. I love primary sources.’

His immediate focus, however, is on establishing long-term funding at the CA and repealing the Act. He wants countryside organ-isations to avoid duplication and unite, creating a membership of 250,000 plus. ‘I’d like to live in a rural Britain free from crime, with communities able to conduct business with the same digital access as our urban cousins, and I’d like to enjoy country pursuits according to my conscience. There could be a nirvana where all these issues are resolved and we’re just concentrating on education, but there’s no foreseeable end to the campaigning.’ It seems you can take the man out of the army, but not the army out of the man.

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