Now that the UK’s exit from the European Union is but days away, it seems an opportune time to reflect on what the new regime might mean for nature and the countryside.
The future of nature did not figure prominently in what passed for debate before the 2016 Brexit referendum, although conservation organisations put on record their belief that Brexit would damage nature in the UK. This lack of attention might seem surprising, since for EU sceptics the Common Agricultural Policy has long symbolized the bureaucracy, waste and arbitrariness that they associated with EU membership. Moreover, British farmers contrived to combine dependence on EU subsidies with grievance at the bureaucracy and constraints involved in getting them.
And it turns out that Brexit has strong rural roots. I recently read a fascinating paper on this by Sally Brooks of the University of York, published in the journal Sociologica Ruralis. While much has been made (particularly since the disastrous showing of the Labour party in the December 2019 elections), of the tendency of ‘left behind’ working class voters in northern cities to vote for Brexit , Brooks notes that rural England also voted strongly to leave the EU. The rural vote was 55% to 45% in favour of leaving, with the highest ‘leave’ polls lying in the East Midlands, on the borders of East Anglia: the two highest Leave votes were in rural South Lincolnshire constituencies (Boston 76% and South Holland 74%), a region of good soils and productive farms heavily dependent on EU migrant workers.
Behind this vote, Brooks argues, there lay a vision of English (rather than British) nationalism that drew heavily on nostalgic ideas of rural England. This imagined countryside was a feature conservative nostalgia through the twentieth century, from Kipling through Stanley Baldwin or Churchill to John Major. The Conservative Party presented itself as the protector of rural tradition.
This image of an unchanging rural world survived the progressive transformation of the countryside, its communities and nature: estates were broken up and farms amalgamated, machines replaced farm workers and the hedges and ditches of inefficient old landscapes were reworked into the factory floor of the productive British farmer. Through it all, the imagined English countryside, of hedgerows, cricket, old churches and pubs, seemed to offer a sense of continuity. Rural was ethnically homogenous (meaning white) and spoke of permanence, even as Suez and small bitter colonial wars marked the end of imperial dreams. The rural scene was a refuge from the cultural and economic changes emerging in Britain’s increasingly diverse, cosmopolitan and multicultural cities.
Sally Brooks argues that this changed in the 1990s, as counter-urbanization brought affluent urban in-migrants to rural areas. From green wellies to fine dining, the rural became fashionable, and villages sprouted fancy cars in front of former farmworkers’ cottages. The old agrarian ruralism was challenged by newer and more complex ideas of the rural.
There was a powerful politics of reaction. In 1995, the Countryside Alliance was founded to campaign for the threatened ‘rural way of life’. They built on issues such as the proposed ban on fox hunting to create a much wider agenda opposed to rural transformation. A series of London protests culminated in the Countryside March: Liberty & Livelihood in September 2002, which attracted 400,000 people.
The rural/urban fault line exploited by the Countryside Alliance built on the idea of a threat to rural England (and therefore England itself, and by extension the UK) that came from the cities, and from immigrants, and, above all from ‘Brussels’ and the European Union under the 1992 Maastricht Treaty.
In the years of Labour government (1997-2009), this idea of a battle between the rural/tradition and urban/modernity provided an ideological banner under which disenfranchised Conservatives could organise. It was fertile ground for the rise of UKIP (the UK Independence Party). The idea of an imperilled English ways of life, of ‘Europe’ as a ‘foreign’ threat, was red meat to the rising Eurosceptic right wing of the Conservative Party. It was their power that led David Cameron to promise a referendum on EU membership before the 2015 general election, and to hold it a year later, triggering the years of rancorous debate that have followed.
What I have been trying to think about is this: if Brexit came in part from a particular vision of rural England, what ideas are likely to shape the future of rural areas in Brexit Britain? Policy choices have been well signposted. Very quickly after the 2016 referendum, environmental organisations turned to lobbying for nature in the post-Brexit future that is now upon us. Under arch-Brexiteer Michael Gove, the government started to ask some surprisingly open and novel questions about how agricultural and environmental policy should be organised. In 2011, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government published a White Paper on the natural environment, The Natural Choice and a ‘strategy for England’s wildlife and ecosystem services’, Biodiversity 2020. In 2018 it published A Green Future: a ‘25 year plan to improve the environment’, and Parliament passed the Agriculture Act, which promised a new ‘Environmental Land Management’ system, which would replace the old system of agricultural subsidyies with payments for environmental benefits (better air and water quality, improved soil health, higher animal welfare standards, public access to the countryside and measures to reduce flooding).
This is not place to get into the details. But despite the optimism among some conservationists, I find myself reflecting on what ideas and principles are likely to shape the post-Brexit ecology of the UK. What will be revealed by the new governance regimes? Which interests will be best served by the new policies? Where will nature find space as the new political economic regimes unspool?
First, I think it is clear that British conservation policy will continue to be Balkanized, with separate policies for Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland dealt. This has been a growing trend since the old Nature Conservancy Council was broken up in 1990. It has been an important part of the sense of identity in Wales and Scotland created by devolved governance, and brought some conservation benefits (notably Scottish national parks). It has allowed a variety of policy experiments, but reduced the consistency of conservation policies across the UK.
Second, British conservation policy is likely to become more parochial. It will lose its European horizon. The hope of many Brexiteers is to free the UK from ‘Brussels bureaucracy’ and from pan-EU agreements. Although EU nature policy (notably the Habitats and Water Directives) has drawn heavily on previous British experience, Brexit Britain wishes to be shot of it all, able to make its own rules. However good those rules are, and however effectively we concentrate on protecting species and habitats characteristic of these islands, the idea of nature in Britain managed as a coherent part of a continental whole will be weakened. In an era of rapid climate change, threats to migratory birds, or invasive wildlife diseases, policy isolation brings risks, however alluring it looks.
Third, paradoxically, Brexit Britain looks likely to pursue an aggressive policy with respect to nature outside Europe. The nature we are encouraged to be concerned about is increasingly understood as ‘global’, in tropical rain forests or African savannas. A Brexit British government might well hope to please a nature-minded electorate by ‘standing tall’ internationally. The cynic might see control of deforestation or the wildlife trade in the tropics, or the creation of vast protected areas in UK Overseas Territories, as much easier targets than (for example) regulation of scallop trawling, salmon farming, neonicotinoid pesticides or foxhunting. The protection of global nature offers politicians ample opportunity for good grandstanding with limited danger of political blowback at home.
Fourth, Brexit conservation policy will be carried forward under continued austerity. Whatever happens, economic forecasts suggest there will continue to be little money for the everyday grind of governance. And much though British people may love nature, when laid alongside other priorities for a shrinking tax base (the National Health Service, roads, public transport, social services – the list is endless), it is likely that government conservation investment will continue to shrink. It is also likely to be dominated by novel and experimental projects: the 25 Year Plan points to small dollops of new money for tree planting, for ecological restoration, a ‘nature recovery network’ and ‘green infrastructure’. These are all good ideas, but unless funding is sufficient to take them beyond the photo opportunity and Twitter story, they will not be worth much. The government has found a neat mantra in ‘public money for public goods’, but the bottom line will depend on how much public money there proves to be. The key decision here will be how much of the money that formerly went on agricultural subsidies under the Common Agricultural Policy is directed to conservation. Future spending plans will be revealing.
Fifth, in the context of ongoing austerity, Brexit conservation will be increasingly private, dependent on philanthropy, the Lottery and corporations to secure and manage wildlife-rich land. In 2010, the Lawton Committee called for conservation landscapes to be ‘bigger, better, more joined up’. Those looking for exemplars of such strategies inevitably point to big private estates, either owned by wealthy individuals (e.g. Knepp or Glen Feshie), conservation organisations (e.g. RSPB, National Trust) or corporations such as water companies. Luckily, there have always been enlightened wealthy landowners who have favoured nature, and British conservation policy has always been a pragmatic mix of stick and carrot, working with the owners of private land to conserve nature. Government spending on nature conservation dates back to the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act. In the heat of planning during the Second World War it was accepted that it was in the national interest to conserve nature, and this should not be left to the whim of the wealthy, or done entirely at their expense. It will be interesting to see how nature governance evolves in our Brexit future.
Sixth, it seems increasingly clear that in future nature will only survive in the UK where the market finds space for it. The politicians creating Brexit Britain are opposed to ‘big government’. They want low taxes, and are happy to live with limited government revenues and limited controls. The idea of ecosystem services and natural capital now pervade all UK government thinking about nature. The idea of nature as something that can be destroyed or restored or created opens up a neat link to the working of markets. Whether formally managed in terms of ‘biodiversity offsets’, or more loosely treated in terms of ‘net gain’ (a central idea in the 25 Year Plan), we are likely to see nature pushed around, destroyed by development here (in Green Belts or transport corridors) and created there (new ‘village greens’ or urban flood-control ‘wetlands’). There will be good-news stories to offer social and formal media, but there are already too few government scientists to measure ecological change. And I fear that once-powerful government bodies will have teeth that are only good for smiling in photo-ops.
I have written about my own complex feelings about the 2016 referendum elsewhere. My sense of loss and alienation in the country I grew up in has not yet eased to any great extent. Yet I accept the need to live in the moment. I try sometimes to do as our Brexit enthusiast leaders urge and look forwards. But when I do, I see a bleak picture, of nature reduced to what a shrunken state can pay for and what the elite can buy and chooses to manage well. Meanwhile, I see us fed stories of nature and countryside made good and flourishing, of private vision and corporate wisdom. I fear we may be beguiled by weak versions of the old myth of an unchanging countryside, without either the scientific capacity to measure how things are changing or awareness of non-human life thinning around us.
These are not predictions. To follow Margaret Atwood, in her introduction to The Handmaid’s Tale, they are more like ‘anti-predictions’. Perhaps, if I describe the future I fear, it won’t happen like this. I hope not. For the moment, I can but wait and see.