Cornish Tin Mine” by neil hanson is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
One much-remarked feature of the EU referendum in 2016 was the micro-targeting of social media adverts by the Vote Leave campaign according to potential voters’ pre-existing concerns and commitments. I don’t know about you, but the algorithm left me relatively in the dark. I was happily spared some of the more lurid anti-immigration ads that have since come to light. However, I was targeted by numerous posts promising me that, outside of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, the UK could do a better job of protecting our wildlife, countryside and farms. Predictably enough, the Vote Leave marketing team did not, in the end, have a lot of luck with me: these days, an urban-dwelling, Guardian-reading, latté-sipping University lecturer of the sort who writes blogs for Renewal. Nevertheless, a love of the natural world, wildlife and rural landscapes, concern about healthy food and biodiversity, and a care for animal welfare, may well be among the things that unite large numbers of us on different sides of that Brexit debate, which still seems such a cipher for the things that divide us. Wherever we live, the countryside and the rural matter to all of us who eat food, breath air and enjoy nature – and it should also matter to those of us on the left who care about social exclusion, poverty, poor infrastructure, unaffordable housing and the vibrancy of local communities.
It is therefore good and welcome that Keir Starmer gave a speech to the National Farmer’s Union (NFU) on 22 February, promising that, ‘from now on, British farming and the countryside will never be an afterthought for Labour again’. Luke Pollard – the Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – will also be conducting a wide-ranging review of the party’s policies. The range of topics that Starmer discussed with the NFU included how to replace EU subsidies and resist downward pressure on food and farming standards, how to improve rural infrastructure from broadband to buses, how to address rural poverty and the loss of villages shops, post offices and pubs, what to do about unaffordable rural house prices and the closure of community hospitals. Not to build our role, but in speaking about these concerns he could have been listening in to our recent Renewal editorial meeting, in which they were all raised as urgent ongoing post-Brexit and post-pandemic concerns.
These are all vitally important issues to address, then: the British countryside is at a particularly perilous moment. Whilst the Vote Leave campaign promised in all those targeted ads to ‘reward the work farming does for the environment’ and Michael Gove has declared that ‘post EU exit the UK will be an environmental super power’ and consistently stated that Brexit would not lead to any diminution of environmental or animal welfare standards, the Government is already relaxing the rules on the use of neonicotinoids which are poisonous to pollinators and launching consultation into whether to reverse the ban on gene-edited crops and livestock. The trend towards intensive farming, which has been ongoing for decades, could be further entrenched by the pressures of Brexit on farmers, with all the dangers of more zoonotic disease, suffering for animals and carbon emissions that go with it.
We are also, and not perhaps unrelatedly, in the midst of a strange and rather ugly debate about what the countryside is and who it is for, as Kavita Maya has recently discussed in Renewal. Professor Corinne Fowler’s excellent work with the National Trust to help particularly schoolchildren understand the historical links that the countryside and country houses have with slavery and colonialism has mysteriously become controversial. The ‘Common Sense Group’ of Conservative MPs wrote to the Daily Telegraph in November 2020 to denounce this historical project to tell a complex and often shameful story about the past on the curious grounds that it is trying to ‘sanitise history’ (28 MPs and peers signed the letter). Starmer may well be on the right track, at least in terms of political tactics, in treating this sort of nonsense as beneath his attention, just as the Tories sense a productive political battle in pursuing it. The whole way the ‘debate’ is framed plays into a notion that an ethnically diverse and socially liberal urban group of voters is now Labour’s ‘natural’ (pun intended) base, whilst the countryside remains the white and conservative bastion of traditional England and an older set of values.
Not only does this ignore the real colonial histories and hoarding of colonial wealth in the countryside, the migrant labour on which our food production continues to depend after Brexit, and the mutual dependence between the rural and the urban that comes from leisure, holidays and days out (in the National Trust and elsewhere), from which the exclusion of people of colour is the violence of estrangement from the natural world. It also seems to misunderstand what the British countryside, in large part, is. The tiny village I come from (and in which, as a teenager, I lamented the lack of a good bus service past 6pm) is regularly described by estate agents as a ‘beautiful rural setting’. But as those estate agents also know, there were two working textile mills there when I was growing up. This makes me sound as though I was a child in Victorian times, but I’m talking about the 1980s and the longest survivor kept going until 2000. This is not only true of Northern landscapes: the ‘garden of England’, Kent, despite its pretty picture postcard image has a history of (de)industrialisation that we forget. And if we all have to take our summer holidays in Cornwall this year, we may not choose to notice the remnants of the tin mining industry in favour of the majestic views. What we now think of as the countryside shares many of the problems of our deindustrialised towns and cities – including the deindustrialisation and unemployment that went with it. It therefore shouldn’t surprise us that whilst the only seat Labour holds in Kent is now in Canterbury and those dark satanic housing conversions in my home village are also, since 2019 and only by a narrow margin, in a Tory seat, Tony Blair’s 1997 victory ran through 170 of the 199 constituencies classified as rural or semi-rural. We can’t afford to ignore those rural voters: their concerns are also urban concerns and the protection, success and future of our countryside matters to us all.
At Renewal we are going to keep thinking about the ideas, the policies and the strategy that we need to address the multiple issues that touch on wildlife, nature and rural affairs, whilst trying not to re-entrench the urban/rural divide. Subscribe now to make sure you don’t miss our special issue addressing many of these questions later in the year!
Cathy Elliott is a Lecturer in Political Science at UCL and a contributing editor of Renewal.