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Green and Pleasant Land? Brexit, Leadsom and the UK’s Ecology

by Archie Davies

The left has always been quietly sceptical of environmental conservation. The case for an ecological socialism constantly has to be re-made on the contested terms of an environmentalism which to many seems socially disinterested. On the other hand, hedgerows and leather-on-willow have long been a prop for the kind of right-wing English nationalism which drove the Brexit result, landscape and nature seem to fit less easily in progressive narratives.

It is a bitter irony, then, that that landscape’s future lies in the hands of someone who displays a disdain for its natural diversity and cultural variety. In Andrea Leadsom – the former candidate for prime minister and now the secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs – the contradictions of rampant neoliberalism and petty nationalism are crushing.

We know Leadsom’s views on agriculture as she has long been a blogger of the old school: opinionated, ill-informed and copious. We know she backs fox hunting and badger-culling and only learnt about climate change last year. Her views on farming are frightening.

The higgledy-piggeldy landscape of English nationalism will be transformed in her hands into the smooth space of industrial agriculture. Brexit was hardly the hedgehogs’ fault, but they – and the other creatures and people of Britain’s protected marshes, heaths and meadows – will pay for it.

Agricultural and environmental policy is notoriously complicated: managing recalcitrant natures and recalcitrant farmers is never clear cut. Creating, protecting and managing human landscapes involves trade-offs and nuances which strain even the most ecologically advanced systems of government. The current British landscape is as it is in good part because of a complex system of subsidies which encourage farmers to enact good environmental management for the sake of biodiversity. This includes mundane things like allowing long grass at the edges of fields, avoiding cutting hedgerows when birds are nesting and taking specific measures to protect bees and butterflies.

Put together, these create a lowland farmed landscape which – in many places, at least – retains a semblance of environmental diversity and health. The system is far from perfect; in fact, in many ways, it’s terrible. Nature is being lost at an extraordinary pace (60% of UK species are in decline, 20% rapid decline) and current subsidies are vastly skewed towards industrial agriculture.

But what Leadsom wishes to replace it with is worse. For her, like a true neoliberal ideologue, things are always straightforward. In one Brexit debate she said: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies.” In environment policy terms, this has a very particular meaning.

She wants to encourage something called environmental credits; to enable ‘trading’ between those with relatively low biodiversity to pass on their responsibility to retain environmental diversity to others. In other words, the barley barons of East Anglia can swap the need to protect nature with hillfarmers of Wales. You can turn bees into credits and trade them. The result would be barren landscapes of industrial agriculture, with pockets of remote nature. Of course, ecology doesn’t work like that, and the environmental risks are enormous.

These are multiplied by Brexit. The most important places for the protection of nature are under the wings of Natura 2000, an EU network of sites underpinned by the enormously effective and well-designed Nature Directives, which will now disappear to the UK. Nature doesn’t cluster in places where capital fears to tread. Quite the contrary. For instance the now-threatened protection of the Thames Estuary, or Falmouth Harbour. Both are key for unheralded creatures like the UK’s coral algae, maerl, and rare seabirds like redshanks and black-tailed godwits. Both are EU-protected. What will happen to them now?

This isn’t an argument to defend a nostalgic vision of patchwork fields. Rather, it is a question of environmental justice. Be it in cities or beyond them, the poor suffer disproportionately from environmental damage. A just food system requires cheap food which is ecologically produced. A just environment is one in which urban as well as rural natures are robustly protected. A just rural policy defends small farming businesses as well as butterflies. A just climate policy supports renewables – including on-shore wind – while it promotes community-led planning and community-owned energy. There are difficult balances to strike, for people and nature, and strong regulation is necessary.

With Leadsom’s hand on the tiller, these delicate balances are only going one way: towards an industrialised, intensive agriculture and the exploitation of nature by the unruly forces of commerce. The landscape will look different at the end of it, and fewer birds will sing in the hedgerows.

This appears inevitable, but it is bitterly ironic. In Leadsom, the John Major ideology of the countryside is alive and well. Major famously said in 1993: “50 years from now Britain will still be the country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers.” This nostalgia remains central to the vision of England that Leadsom embraces. Yet it is a mark of the change in the tenets of the right that Major’s winsome vision was in fact part of a speech arguing to remain in Europe, not to leave it.

Leadsom is of a different generation. There is plenty of warm beer and a profound social conservatism: she is opposed to gay marriage and single parents and positively terrified of non-married couples. But there is, too, the fanatical neoliberal commitment to unrestrained business and – in particular – finance. Brexit is busy revealing the screeching incoherence of this political ideology: obsessed with free trade, yet desperate to leave its megalith; obsessed with ‘global’ influence, yet desperate to give back its tools; obsessed with austerity, yet desperate to abandon its prime co-ordinated exponent; obsessed with economic growth at all costs, yet delighted to plunge into self-imposed recession; obsessed with finance and big business, yet happy to ignore its plaintive cries to remain. This incoherence will have tangible, disastrous effects for the environment.

So where is the left? Jeremy Corbyn has a clear platform of environmental socialism, support from Caroline Lucas, and many former Green voters flocking to his vision for the party. Yet the impending disaster for the natural environment is going largely unopposed while Labour is busy with its brutal self-mutilation. The new norms following Brexit will substantially be formed in these months. Letting Andrea Leadsom’s anti-ecological, industrialised, commodified vision become a given starting-point for designing a post-EU policy for farming and the environment is a travesty. Its ramifications could be devastating.

Photo: minniemouseaunt/Flickr

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Published 2nd August 2016

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