Ruth Davis traces how the green movement and the wider left became estranged from people’s everyday lives – and how we might come together again around an English politics of nature
A month before the EU referendum vote, I sat down to write an essay about how a love of place, cemented through memory, can be one of the most powerful and beautiful forces in our lives.
I argued that in forgetting or disavowing our attachment to place, the environment movement had become estranged from many of its natural supporters – including those living in the countryside, and the worse off in society who bear the brunt of bad housing and poor air and have little or no access to green spaces.
The reality of that estrangement could not have appeared more stark than on the morning of 24 June, when it became clear that the country had voted to leave the European Union.
For the green movement, the vote was a major blow – leaving many feeling that decades of work to protect nature, public health and the climate were now at risk. But whilst that sense of hurt is understandable, giving it expression by attempting to challenge the legitimacy of the result, or blame leave voters, will serve neither us nor the country well.
Leave voters did not vote for shoddier housing, dirtier air or less wildlife. But neither did we offer them a shared language or a shared sense of endeavour, around which we could come together. And as long as we are staring at our fellow countrymen and women across a cultural chasm, we will all lose.
I now believe more passionately than ever, that it is through the recovery of a more generous politics of place here in England that we can begin to bridge the gap. The left has neglected a love of family, home, work and country that is central to most people’s lives. We need to try to imagine an Englishness that speaks to our past, whilst involving everyone in owning and shaping our future. The urgency of doing so is now startling. The pleasures and rewards are yet to come.
Thatcherism and the death of the post-war conservation movement
The division that became so obvious during the referendum campaign has in reality been decades in the making. To understand it we need to go back to 1979.
I was twelve years old and until then had lived most of my life in a condition of magical intimacy with my surroundings, tightly bound to the square mile or so that encompassed my friends’ houses, our school, the sweet-shop, and the fields and streets where we played.
It was a world experienced at a height of four foot (or more if we climbed a tree) and filled with bright detail. But beyond this miniature kingdom trouble was brewing. I can recall the chilly exoticism of evenings lit by candles during the three day week and the unease that possessed the country as it struggled with economic stagnation and industrial unrest. As the general election neared, dread engulfed me. I had a feeling that something enormously important was ending. Until that moment perhaps it had been possible to believe we were a country with a sense of common purpose – that post-war solidarity was still alive. With the election of the Thatcher government, and the implicit declaration of industrial civil war, it died.
Bitter strife followed, dividing north from south, police from civilians, workers from employers and financiers, town from country. For those who lost their jobs it was a disaster. It was only later, though, that the cultural impact of this schism was fully understood, as the habits, traditions, values and contribution of millions of English people were buried; not just by the economic policies of the 1980s, but by the response of the modern left.
Looking through the lens of environmentalism offers an insight into this wider story, because the trends that influenced green politics also contributed to the crisis of trust that now exists between Labour and its potential voters. These trends help to explain the reluctance of the progressive left to embrace and shape a resurgent sense of Englishness.
Losing the English people
As we lurched into the 1980s the land itself became a battleground. Agricultural intensification was changing rural England beyond recognition. Hedges – the bones and sinews of our countryside – were being grubbed out. Walking through the fields at this time was a hazardous business, with crops sown to within an inch of every footpath and bathed in a mist of chemicals that made your eyes water. Green lanes and paths of custom going back thousands of years were blocked or went under the plough.
Alongside the growth of this prairie agriculture, other iconic battles raged between conservationists and the government. Road schemes proliferated. The Twyford Down section of the M3 desecrated one of loveliest hills in southern England and the infamous Newbury bypass cut through 120 acres of woodland.
The response was varied, and sometimes included direct physical opposition. The anti-roads movement was perhaps the closest thing we had to an authentic, place-based politics of resistance, uniting concerned residents with artists and activists. Its protests had an anarchistic joy, manifested in the take-over of major highways, but for all their creativity they remained mired in the wider problems of the left at the time. They struggled to connect with mainstream society and were viewed with suspicion by more socially conservative and reticent parts of the labour movement.
Conservation bodies were painfully ill-equipped to respond to the crisis. The Nature Conservancy Council, established by Royal Charter in 1949 to protect Britain’s wildlife and special places, took on Mrs Thatcher over tree planting in the Scottish peat-lands and lost. We have never again had such a clear-sighted constitutional champion of nature. Nor did the numerous amateur natural history societies fare any better. I can remember looking out over a desolate Northamptonshire field one summer’s day and cursing the silent army of botanists and birders who cared enough to record the destruction of the countryside, but not to fight back.
My response was, I suspect, characteristic of many who later came to shape the New Labour project. The only things that seemed to matter anymore were money and the law. Long established customs, unwritten contracts, conservation delivered through benign neglect – all that was over. The free-market was at the gate. The public was disinclined to wrap itself in the flag of international socialism. We needed a modern, rational environmentalism. We didn’t need love, we needed numbers.
Environmentalism in the new century: A flight from the politics of place
And so the contemporary green movement began to take shape. Conservationists like me embraced New Labour with alacrity. We developed an Action Plan for biodiversity with an attendant plethora of targets. The plan itself had some very impressive results. But almost by its very nature, it was indifferent to place. It didn’t matter ultimately where you provided the 2.5 bitterns per hectare as long as you met your KPI.
And whilst conservation became more professional, green activism became more international. Environmentalists united with economic justice campaigners to protest about the impacts of globalisation. Then climate change rapidly emerged as a colossal threat to the life chances of future generations and of millions of people in the developing world. The zeal of green groups was directed against fossil fuel production and consumption. Less time went into protecting local water or air quality, or safeguarding green spaces – not least because our membership of the European Union meant that we could take some basic protections for granted, rather than having to fight for them at a national or local level.
I am in no doubt whatsoever about the urgency of tackling climate change and the need for sustained international co-operation to do so. I also believe that the quality of our environment was greatly improved through our membership of the EU. Yet I also worry that this collective shift in perspective left us with too little to say to people about the importance of place and the wonder of nature; or about the role of our sector in improving their everyday lives.
This estrangement helps to explain the difficulty we found ourselves in 2008, and after the subsequent general election which brought the coalition government to power. Under pressure from the right and desperate to kick-start the economy, David Cameron quickly shed his erstwhile public enthusiasm for green issues. George Osborne was even famously reported as viewing Britain’s bird-life as ‘feathered obstacles to growth.’ Their collective judgement was that much of the working class, as well as many voters in middle England had come to see green policies as irrelevant or even alien to their interests.
With hindsight, we can now see that these very same groups of voters thought that the European Union was alien to their interests, and voted against it in great numbers last month.
For the green movement, the unavoidable conclusion must be that our politics has become entangled in the public imagination with a broadly metropolitan sensibility that is culturally alien to much of England, and is of little of relevance to the poor.
For a movement founded to protect the countryside, and to help ordinary people fight off land-grabs and pollution, this is a parlous state of affairs. Indeed without action it could become an existential threat. So what could be done?
Thankfully, the seeds of an answer have already been sown. For almost a decade now, the National Trust, Woodland Trust and RSPB have been investing carefully in re-building the foundations of their support by connecting people to places and nature. Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace have begun to use their substantial clout in campaigns against air pollution in our cities. Anti-fracking protests have united local people with activists in towns from Sussex to Lancashire. Slowly but surely, the green movement is starting to remember how to tap into public concern.
Where we come from matters: Re-connecting with English voters
But any authentic politics of place must listen to people when they describe where they come from; and huge numbers of our people call themselves English. They are proud of their country and its rich artistic and political traditions which are often intimately linked with its land. The support of these people, many of whom feel their Englishness has been neglected or belittled by the left, and who voted in droves to leave the EU, remains critical to the environment movement if we wish to renew our political legitimacy.
If green campaigners fail to respond to the concerns of working people struggling with poor housing, meagre employment prospects, and a degraded local environment we cannot realistically think of ourselves as ‘on the side’ of the disenfranchised. If we don’t find common ground with England’s rural and coastal communities, our hopes of protecting our land, natural resources and workforce from exploitation in a post Brexit world will founder.
People up and down the country are making and re-making their local identities and creating a generous Englishness. What is stopping us being a part of this renaissance?
The answer is that we are the problem. Parts of the left continue either to reject any form of national identity as regressive, or see Englishness as a coded endorsement of colonialism, or worse, an accommodation with racism. In green circles this manifests itself in a fear that love of the English countryside is part of a cultural project that undermines diversity and protects privilege. This view has even been used to question the worth of contemporary artists who document rural life or English history – including (for example) Adam Thorpe and Geoffrey Hill.
Such a narrow and defensive approach to our cultural life is unworthy of the left. We can do better and imagine our kind of England, proud of its land, language and culture, and open to its diversity. A patriotism that is welcoming to all who wish to contribute our shared life and common good. We have a long history of English radicalism to call upon. The wanderings of Thomas Hardy’s Tess were, after all, those of an abused peasant woman exiled from her home. And if anyone wishes to feel the bones of resistance poking out from under England’s chalk soils, they have only to read W H Hudson’s masterpiece A Shepherd’s Life and weep at the sentences of death and exile handed out for stealing a sheep.
Labour and the green movement have much to gain by weaving such stories into a modern sense of Englishness, not least because they give us some precious clues about how we might renew our bonds with each other, and with the natural world.
Innumerable English writers and artists have understood that by walking over the land and working on it, by being fully present in it, we can come to know it intimately, and claim it as our own. An English politics of nature that draws on Jon Cruddas’ ideas of earning and belonging, would be something worth fighting for. Its heroes and heroines would be the custodians of our parks and pavements, as well as our seas, mountains and rivers. They would be botanists and ornithologists, farmers, builders, mechanics and inventors, anyone who participates in the poetic and practical business of walking on and working for the land.
Building such a movement would be a shared civic endeavour, in which green groups and wildlife societies, local co-operatives, clubs, schools and faith communities all played their part.
An English politics of nature – Four acts of renewal
We could begin by promising to help the children of England visit and spend time in the countryside, working alongside farmers, foresters and fishers to learn about and appreciate nature. There are already brilliant people making this happen, including the author Michael Morpurgo and his wife Claire, who run the ground-breaking Farms for City Children. But we could multiply this a thousand times if it was the core of a new politics of nature, and we actively recruited people up and down the country to help. Yes, we must make sure that biology and natural history are properly taught in the national curriculum, and that children get fresh air and access to nature during the school day. But let’s not wait – let’s show how it can be done, and in doing so help re-build bonds between our towns, cities and countryside.
Next, let’s re-ignite the community of amateur naturalists and citizen scientists that built the conservation movement, and whom we need now more than ever. The erosion of the independence and expertise of bodies such as the Nature Conservancy Council might have begun under Mrs Thatcher, but it has continued ever since with vengeance. Every day more pressure is placed on government scientists to say less about the state of nature. In the world after Brexit, when many of our existing nature and public health laws may come under pressure or need to be re-written, our civic power will become our most powerful and necessary defence. We can record the presence or absence of wildlife in our gardens, fields and hedges, or the presence of dangerous chemicals in our food and water, and share this information as never before. We can monitor the air quality on our streets when government fails to do so. We can build the case for British nature and environment laws based on publicly owned and independent sources of information, and designed to protect the health of our population and our countryside. One example of this kind of project from the US, where universities are helping volunteers monitor levels of herbicides in their bodies, shows what can be done through civic effort.
Using modern mapping tools, we can also start to protect the places that we love – whether meadows, allotments, parks or playing fields. By describing what we want to preserve or change in our communities and capturing these things in neighbourhood plans, we can lay the foundations of a new English Commons. And when government or private capital threatens to destroy or enclose them, we can organise around their defence and come to each other’s aid. As a statement of our intent, let’s set up parish and neighbourhood walks, marking out the boundaries of our special places and laying out where we want to see decent, affordable homes.
And last but not least, let’s back ourselves to lead a new English industrial revolution, inventing and manufacturing the kinds of goods and technologies that heal rather than harm nature. This wouldn’t just make our homes warmer and our air cleaner; it would also see our products being sold all over the world, in a booming global market that is already worth trillions. As we seek to re-establish our economic place in the world, we can own concepts like the ‘northern powerhouse’, using them to make us world beaters in technologies like electric vehicles.
If we were to do only a part of this, we would immeasurably strengthen our ability to remodel a political economy that pits people against nature and nature against progress. We would also provide ourselves with a powerful foundation for renewed international leadership on issues such as climate change, where our withdrawal from the EU creates the need for a fresh start. But whatever the ideals we work towards, and whatever the global solutions we seek, let us remember that home is where the heart is. Humans are sticky creatures; like burs, they cling to where they land, the hooks of their affections burrowing deep into things that strangers would scarcely notice, like a single tree or a napkin of land at the end of a street. The places we live in, the country we live in, is crossed over and over by invisible trails of love and belonging. When we forget this, we forget ourselves.
It is the young and old who see this most clearly and whose dreams and memories we hold in trust. My father is 92 now, and he remembers the last country fair held in his Hampshire village. It was a ramshackle affair, run by a farmer who was selling up and wanted enough money for a last night in the pub. The prize attraction was a ride on a bad-tempered pony, and the reward for staying stay on its back a gold-fish kept in the local stream. I am there when he tells me this story, longing to ride the horse and pick out a shining fish from the water. And I am filled with pleasure when I watch him telling this same tale to his grand-children. He and I understand that by walking in the garden together or down the lane with the dog, by talking over the past or picking out the birds and flowers we love in the hedges, we are bound to one another and to the earth. This is an affirmation of the meaning and value of his long, fruitful life; and a blessing beyond price.
A shorter version of this piece appears in the forthcoming summer issue of the Fabian Review.