Over the coming days and weeks The Clearing will be publishing Lie of the Land, a series of responses to the Referendum exploring what leaving the EU could mean for conservation, wildlife and our relationship with the land. Please add your voice by posting comments below or submitting a longer contribution – either in images or words – to The Clearing editors.
As a novelist, part of my job is imagining how things look from someone else’s point of view. This skill may well be what gave us the edge on other animals, or even other human species: being able to second-guess your competitor is a survival advantage, and may, of course, be used malevolently as well as compassionately. This is possibly what spelt the end of our rival subspecies, the bulkier and bigger-brained Neanderthals.
If I imagine myself as a rural conservative, or as a Welsh villager, or as a factory worker in a northern city left stranded by industrial decline, then logically I would see the EU as being a subsidy-providing benefactor with an ambient noise of social democratic goodwill, protecting my basic rights as a citizen to a minimum wage, human rights, sufficient food and environmental health. The alternative? To be left entirely to the changing whim of successive UK governments and the huge economic pressures of America and China without the safety net of the European continent’s social ideals, these having been forged in the bitter experience of war and occupation and focussing on unity rather than disunity.
But no, these very same people voted to leave the EU. They voted against their own interests. The Welsh villagers know their stricken ex-mining communities are heavily funded by Europe (it says so on their road-signs), but a significant majority seem to desire those funds no longer. Tory country dwellers know that the Common Agricultural Policy, for all its serious flaws and ever-changing policies, has kept their farms and their associated communities reasonably safe from cheap imported factory-farm gunk from America, Brazil and elsewhere, which would lead to their ruin, but they still gave the EU two fingers. Ditto for places like Wolverhampton (which I stayed in last month, and eerily quiet it was) or Sunderland, cradles for Britain’s vast industrial wealth over the last two hundred years, and now abandoned by their own governments extolling London-based service and financial industries rather than the smoke and grime of material production. A large proportion of their population voted Leave. In order to inhabit these Brexited minds in a novel (my most recent, finished last week, is set in contemporary Lincolnshire, home of UKIP), I have to understand that they see the EU as primarily a foreign force, and foreignness is bad (except when they go on holiday).
Yes, apart from being lied to by the Brexit leaders, they were heavily influenced day after day, year after year, by the quasi-propagandistic contents of the Sun and the Daily Mail and by cynical, lying columnists like Boris Johnson or the appalling James Delingpole elsewhere in the right-wing press. Yes, innate prejudices (no human being is free of them entirely) were gradually massaged by the UKIP team and parasitic opportunists like Gove so that immigration became the main issue. Yes, the media (including the BBC) were craven, never asking the right questions (what is your detailed five-year plan, dear Brexiteer, if you win: for northern Ireland, for example?), but this still fails to explain what appears to be a self-harming, even suicidal, decision. If in return for that cash, the Leave voters had had to walk about in Euro-uniform and replace Welsh with French, or work for nothing in Euro gulags, or be force-fed with snails and sauerkraut, I would understand things from their point of view. But I’m not sure they had had to do anything in return for that largesse: and the highest Leave votes were in areas including those least touched by immigration.
To put myself in their shoes, I have to allow an algal growth of emotional anger and blatant prejudice, mixed with wilful blindness, to cover the clear waters of thought. Excusing them as victims, or praising them as plucky fighters for sovereignty, is too easy. I even know a few who are highly intelligent and decent human beings. Yet they have right royally buggered things up, from scientific research to the arts (pity our finest music colleges), from pensions to our own shaky Union, from security to small businesses, to decent European food to diplomatic relations to our own image in the world, which is now closer to Mr Bean than Churchill. And it’s unlikely there will now be a single immigrant less.
And the environment?
Britain is separated from the continent by a relatively recent stretch of seawater. Many years ago, participating in a dig in Jersey, scraping the cold earth around a Neanderthal hearth, I looked up from the cliff crevasse and saw snow-flecked valleys and hills instead of sea, roamed by mammoths and sabre-toothed tigers. This vision – a time-slip, if you like – has never left me. The white-sheeted Dover cliffs are dramatic witness to sudden fracture, the aftermath of a prehistoric event that would make any tsunami look pitiful. When the waters broke and scoured out their gull-swept channel, they left either side intact: the downs of southern England continue on identically into Picardy. During the Great War, farmworkers and others who had never left Wiltshire or Berkshire or Sussex arrived in the rolling chalklands of the battlefields (generally after a night journey) imagining that the whole world was like this.
This is how I like to see Europe. Our islands are splinters off a massive core to which we also belong, whether or not our individual DNA happens to descend from the first intrepid arrivals after the Ice Age. The EU recognises this in its environmental policies. If we have cleaner coastal waters, beaches and rivers, it is only thanks to European directives. I live in a wild, mountainous area of France where the ancient pastoralist way of life (sheep and goats) is only kept going by European funding through its Rural Development Programme. The same applies to the Lake District. Complex arguments about rewilding aside (flocks are destructive to flowers and infant trees in the fields where they graze, but to imagine the Cévennes entirely without shepherding gives me the shivers), this is a good thing overall. At muddy ground level, fell walkers have European associations such as EOCA to thank for expensive repairs to long-distance paths. Private charitable bodies existing on a local level can apply for generous EU grants: it is not a question of some centralised, liberal-capitalist behemoth throwing cash at the big boys.
Despite the National Trust and our love of gardens and pets, the UK has an appalling record of curating its own islands. If we have lost 90% of our flower-rich meadows since the war, it is entirely our fault. In a recent vote to ban the bee-decimating neonicotinoid pesticides produced by the mighty German chemical companies Bayer Cropscience and Syngenta (which zealously lobby the European parliament), the UK was one of the handful of countries who rejected the option of even a partial ban. If you want to see what marvels we have trashed at home, visit the eastern Carpathians in Romania, an ecological niche of smallholdings packed with flowers, butterflies and a few wolves on the uplands, where horse and waggon still rule. The EU has subsidised experts to study this seeming paradise, keen to find the best, most sensitive way forward, and while the rules and regulations are often infuriating (families can no longer sell their single cow’s milk without pasteurising it first), its general approach to such issues is rapidly evolving towards a less profit-driven appreciation under vocal Green pressure.
France, third biggest user of pesticides globally thanks to its wine industry, has gone further than the EU in unilaterally imposing a total ban on the use of neonicotinoids and glysophates from 2018, in the teeth of protests by farmers and wine-growers. The French government plans to halve the use of pesticides by 2025. We have yet to see any such radical gesture from a UK government, which generally appears in thrall to the economic argument, narrowing almost every aspect of life down to the profitable. They are among the few countries wanting to ease EU rules on imported GM crops, for example, or to free up the use of GM seeds supplied by Monsanto. For European Greens, the UK’s departure must be something of a relief.
If the Brexiteers had been visionary, socially aware ecologists, seeing our islands as an extraordinary sweep of sea-encircled landscape populated by a stunning richness of post-Ice Age flora and fauna – including human beings – with a detailed and proactive emergency plan to restore the place environmentally within strictly democratic bounds, would I have voted Leave? Probably not, for the sake of unity, but for many reasons (some hinted at above) this is a hopeless pipe dream, anyway – a fantasy. Nevertheless, the National Trust, which (along with numerous other bodies) does do something approaching the above for modest pockets of land as well as, astonishingly, great lengths of our coastline, has four million paying members. It seems that this deep love and respect for the earth-matter of Britain, and an apparent care for its flowers, trees, fish, insects and birds, or of its modest surviving beasts, or for its damp yet kindly air, never extends to political action, nor to a broader vision of the whole.
Andrea Leadsom, the Brexiteers’ new environment secretary, may not turn out to be as laughably bad as a recent predecessor, Owen Patterson, but initial signs are far from encouraging. Her first pledge was to repeal the fox-hunting ban. She has threatened to ditch grants for working pastoralists, suggesting they look after ‘the butterflies instead’; I’m not sure this counts as a sudden enthusiasm for George Monbiot’s radical views on rewilding, but as a patronising item of ignorant hogwash. The term ‘climate change’ has been dropped from the energy department’s title. The new order is almost certain to be sympathetic to fracking. Ecology as a term has been bustled away amidst empty blither about social justice; the claim about ‘restoring biodiversity’ in the Conservative manifesto is too vague to mean anything at all, and runs counter to the behaviour of Tory MEPs in the European parliament.
Now I come to the bitterest truth of all. I am not sure that ecological factors weigh heavily, or at all, in the mindset of the population at large, which (as I have said) often worked against logic or its own best interests when voting in the referendum. If dissolving or bypassing environmental regulations and trusting power to local authorities proves, in most cases, to be disastrous, it is a sobering thought that it might even prove popular. Take an example from Lincolnshire, birthplace of UKIP. Near Whitton’s Park in Lincoln, there is a precious stretch of unimproved grassland with a seasonal pond, called Hobblers Hole: it has an impressive wildlife-count, the pond sheltering a rare type of crested newt – a European-protected species. Targeted by the city council in 2014 ‘as the most viable and beneficial location’ for a new skatepark, the council claiming the scheme to have been ‘carefully thought out to enhance both the ecology and amenity value of the site for all residents’, Hobblers Hole has been vigorously defended by a handful of determined nature lovers.
From both an ecological and technical standpoint (safety, lighting etc), it is clear that the choice is hopeless. However, most of the comments in the local papers over the last two years have been unpleasantly violent attacks on the ‘nimby’ protestors, with claims that Hobblers Hole is ‘an overgrown waste of a site’, ‘derelict’ and so forth, several suggesting they move ‘the newt’ (imagining there is only one individual) to another site. This sad story has a happy end, however, not only because development of the gifted site is probably illegal on several fronts, but also because the protest group could have taken the matter to Europe, given the crested newt is officially protected within the EU. The council backed down earlier this year. In our brave new post-Brexit world, once it’s properly in place, I’m not sure that this consoling outcome would be achieved.
Studying these issues at a microscopic or local level is instructive. But everything is now changing: we are in a state of flux that no one appears to be controlling. On a general, panoptic scale, I sense a huge step backwards, and an opening of arms towards the blindly destructive economic forces of Boris Johnson’s favourites, China and America, the world’s greatest and most careless polluters.
All we can do is resist, and (like the defenders of Hobblers Hole) not give up, meanwhile cherishing what is left of our land.
Adam Thorpe was born in Paris in 1956. His first novel, Ulverton, a panoramic view of rural English history, was published to great critical acclaim in 1992 and is now considered a modern classic. He lives in France with his family and currently teaches at the Ecole Supérieure des Beaux Arts de Nîmes and at the University of Nîmes.
F.L. Attenborough’s aerial photograph featured above, ‘The field pattern of parliamentary enclosures, Leicestershire’, was one of many he took for W.G. Hoskins’ book The Making of the English Landscape. Attenborough (as well as being father to David and Richard) was principal of the University of Leicester, where his collection of photographs is kept.
Read more Lie of the Land articles.