The political landscape

Photo: Derek Turner

Green Albion – Restoring Our Green and Pleasant Land

Various authors, Conservative Environment Network, 2022, 101 pages, free download

DEREK TURNER welcomes a practical contribution to often overheated eco-arguments

Environmental protection is conventionally seen as a ‘leftwing’ concern, because its most voluble advocates are often equally vociferous on what are dismissively called ‘woke’ preoccupations, from asylum-seekers to transsexuals, or EU membership to Scottish independence. Yet there has always been a conservative kind of environmentalism – famously represented by the late Duke of Edinburgh, and his son – although at times in postwar history it has faded from view, sidelined by administrations prioritizing the economy over the environment.

If modern Greens often gravitate in leftwing directions, it is at least partly because from the 1950s on, mainstream conservatism developed a brusque, complacent and unimaginative streak, which held that business, ‘freedom’ and ‘growth’ mattered more than the natural world. Influential opinion-formers and politicians chortled at ‘tree-huggers’, and sometimes even said environmental damage was just Darwinism in action. An effect of this almost Randian reductionism was essentially to abandon a hugely important area of concern (and large swathes of university-educated and younger voters) to the ideological left – which whatever its other shortcomings could see that the environment was not only precious, but priceless.

This was ironic, because during the twentieth century socialist countries had a shameful ecological record. Soviet and Maoist economic, industrial and social practices laid waste their respective ecosystems, whilst in America supposedly retrograde conservatives took some difficult long term decisions, often against the wishes of big business backers. Theodore Roosevelt established the United Forest Service, five national parks, and fifty-one bird reserves. Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency and signed both the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, while Ronald Reagan designated more than ten million acres as wilderness. Whatever their other limitations may have been, these could at least see that conservation and conservatism are adjacent conceptually as well as alphabetically.

The natural world, with its blind instinct, harshness, hierarchy, and territoriality is not an obviously congenial area of interest for ‘progressives’ or ‘radicals’, who are usually more concerned with abstract moral values, and believers in human plasticity. Nature is neither egalitarian nor kindly, and examples from what was tellingly called the ‘Animal Kingdom’ lead logically towards a Hobbesian interpretation of the world. Early environmentalists and organic agriculture advocates were more often ‘right’ than ‘left’, seeing animals and landscapes as contributors to, and symbols of, national characters. Into the 2000s, there was a strand of English conservatism which supported hunting as rooted in national history and human nature, epitomised by writers like Robin Page, R W F Poole and Roger Scruton, and the huge, if ultimately unsuccessful, campaigning of the Countryside Alliance. The fact that in most modern Western countries environmental politics have become a kind of leftist reserve says much about the ‘culture war’ fighting capabilities of the West’s conservative parties.

In Britain, there are precedents for the Johnson government’s notable interest in environmental issues from energy policy via gene-edited crops (to reduce fertiliser and pesticide use) to rewilding. David Cameron’s Green stances earned him considerable scorn within his own party and from some in the Conservative press, but like Johnson he was borrowing from old ruralist Tory tradition, and more recent small-c conservative thinkers like Edward Goldsmith, who founded The Ecologist, and was instrumental in the founding of the Green Party. There were political precursors too. Macmillan’s, Eden’s and Major’s governments passed noise abatement and clean air legislation, while Churchill’s created several new National Parks (following the Labour government’s creation of the first, in 1951).

Although Thatcherite neo-liberal policies entailed a hefty environmental price tag – encouragement of conspicuous consumption, the opening up of ecosystems to rapacious corporations, road building, relaxation of planning laws – sometimes they also meant improved environmental protection, as the new private company executives became suddenly accountable to public opinion. Mrs Thatcher took a perhaps surprising interest in global warming, acid rain and pollution. Her aversion to the British coal industry was based at least partly on her knowledge of coal’s environmental impact. In 2012, former Friends of the Earth leader Jonathan Porritt noted marvellingly, ‘Thatcher…did more than anyone in the last sixty years to put green issues on the national agenda.’

In 1989, she told the UN General Assembly, ‘The environmental challenge that confronts the whole world demands an equivalent response from the whole world. Every country will be affected and no one can opt out… No single generation has a freehold on the earth.’

These were resonant words from a politician not even the most callow Objectivist could accuse of fuzzy sentimentality, or anti-business sentiment, or ‘big government’ instincts. There were contradictions in her outlook, but something in her sensed that governments have an historic and moral responsibility to protect the landscapes and wildlife which help define the character of the nation they govern. She saw that the Green movement, for all its faults, was addressing real problems. She could also see that the Greens would benefit greatly by the involvement of more down-to-earth ‘Blues’ to represent the legitimate interests of agriculture, industry and landowners, and balance frigid universalism with local attachments, and the ideal with the achievable.

Thatcher’s words are emblazoned along the masthead of the Conservative Environment Network’s (CEN) website, because of their insightfulness, but also because her name is likely to disarm anthropogenic climate-change sceptics, who are drawn almost exclusively from the political Right, from libertarian conservatives to populists in the Farage, Trump and Bolsanaro mould.

Environmental problems can seem intractable, the literature is frequently tedious, and ‘activists’ often smugly jejune. Considerable credit ought therefore to be extended to the politicians who have taken the trouble to contribute to this compendium, which nods at national nostalgia (Blake, Wordsworth, Larkin et al) but also offers practical suggestions on a range of interrelated issues. It is about time that Britain’s long-suffering landscapes were afforded less exploitative kinds of treatment – ‘undevelopment opportunities’, to allow it (and us) to recover.

There are contributions by eleven MPs and one peer on wetlands, peatlands, woodlands, maritime habitats, rivers, and some of the possibilities for UK agriculture in the post-Common Agricultural Policy landscape. The essays are topped by a Foreword by the Minister for Farming, Victoria Prentis, and tailed by an Afterword by Ben Goldsmith, Chair of the CEN, representing the public-spirited family which has done so much in recent years to force responsible environmentalism onto a sometimes reluctant party (Ben’s brother, Zac, is Minister of State for the Pacific and International Environment). It offers an ambitious and thoughtful vision for a renewed environment – even if we suspect much of it may never be realised, amid Brexit, Covid and global insecurity, on top of the usual political vicissitudes.

The Minister hails ‘the biggest changes to farming and land management in 50 years,’ using environmental land management schemes (ELMs) to make agriculture more efficient and improve food security, while increasing biodiversity and protecting existing habitats. Stroud MP Siobhan Baillie speaks of incorporating ‘natural capital’ into Treasury thinking, to restore 100,000 hectares of wetlands as carbon sinks, floodwater repositories, and refuges for rare species – and even as a means of improving mental health. Robert Largan calls for the rewetting of lowland peat where possible, new kinds of crops that can be grown on wetter soils, the banning of peat-based fertilisers, and the prohibition of disposable barbecues, often the cause of devastating moorland fires.

Michael Fabricant wants millions more trees to be planted, plus natural regeneration, and better protection from imported diseases by home-growing saplings – with special provisions for threatened temperate rainforest, and an updating of the Forestry Commission’s century-old charter. Hastings and Rye MP Sally-Ann Hart seeks to encourage coastal (especially saltmarsh) and undersea carbon sequestration, ban bottom trawling in Marine Protected Areas, and action on maritime pollution to increase underwater vegetation and boost fish stocks.

Andrew Selous gives a ‘Christian stewardship’ perspective, setting out ideas to improve management of statutory nature reserves as well as Church and National Trust properties, and improving biodiversity through a new land designation of ‘wildbelt’. He also calls for less intensive farming methods to improve soil and reduce flooding, with reduced grazing and tilling pressures, and using fewer chemicals. Craig Williams, whose Montgomeryshire constituency is threaded by the Severn, envisages an holistic riparian management strategy to cover tributaries and whole watersheds, with better waste management, bankside tree planting and channel restoration to reduce pollution, boost wildlife and reduce flooding.

Anthony Mangnall and Jerome Mayhew draw urgent attention to the financial pressures faced by farmers, but discern possible benefits from Brexit. While welcoming organic methods, they acknowledge these are not applicable to all farmland, and generally mean more expensive food. Rewilding, engaging and useful though it is, is not easily compatible with large scale food production, and needs to be tempered with a ‘land sharing’ approach (which Ben Goldsmith terms ‘wilder farming’). Ideally, their contributions would have been balanced by one making the case for rewilding, but they make valuable suggestions, such as less use of high-carbon chemical fertilisers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and chemical runoff into waterways, and market mechanisms to ensure attempts to contain carbon at home do not lead inadvertently to increased emissions abroad.

Jonathan Djanogly calls arrestingly for expediting cellular meat production – meat grown in laboratories from muscle tissue harvested from living animals. Cellular meat of course entails no animal deaths, far less land use and pollution, and far fewer hormones or other chemicals. This would not replace conventional livestock farming, but could open up huge new markets, especially in Asia, where burgeoning middle classes are demanding ever more meat that at the moment is not always available, or only at great environmental cost.

Baroness Jenkin is concerned with minimising UK food waste – the UK wastes more food than anywhere else in Europe – through better supermarket practices, redistribution of still–edible food to the neediest, more food waste collections by councils (that can then be used to make energy), and – a Thatcherian touch – thriftier household management to simultaneously benefit the planet, and save families money. The government’s ambitious (and hugely controversial) energy policy is scanted in this volume, but Pauline Latham demands an end to the burning of biomass, now known to be not renewable as once thought, in order to lessen air pollution and land use, as well as the carbon released by the removal and burning of trees. Ruth Edwards takes up the bosky theme, with a call for global as well as domestic action on deforestation, building on existing government commitments to bar imports of products like palm oil and soya produced on recently deforested land.

This book overflows with ingenious ideas which, if realised even in part, would go a considerable way towards meeting the objectives of the likes of Extinction Rebellion, without endangering the economy. But there are curious omissions. While it was only to be expected that the huge and complex area of energy policy would need to be treated separately, it is strange to have little or nothing about such matters as plastic pollution, factory farming of animals, the wasteful profligacy of the electronics and fashion industries, eco-building technology, planning laws, or the proper management of parks and verges for wild flowers. One would also have liked some detail on the thinking behind the crop gene-editing legislation presently going through Parliament, and about post-CAP farm finances, especially of smaller farms.

And what about overpopulation? The United Kingdom is already one of the most densely populated countries in Europe, and the Office for National Statistics predicts that the present population, of around 68 million, will increase to some 77 million by 2050, largely attributable to immigration. Whatever mitigations may be in place, or whatever fixes may be found, the truth is that more people equals less nature. The government is taking little or no interest in this subject, partly because busy with other matters, but also, one suspects, out of unwillingness. Yet if they do not start to soon, lovers of the British countryside, whether romantic rewilders, pragmatic farmers, well-meaning MPs or weekend walkers, may all ultimately find that their efforts, ideas and inmost emotions are rendered redundant by sheer pressure of people. ‘Greenness’ and ‘pleasance’, and sense of place, can only be located within quietude and space.

It is to be hoped that this admirable caucus will increase our sense of obligation to them by taking up these subjects in subsequent publications.

The booklet can be downloaded from

Auntie’s anti-conservatism

ALEX PUGH suggests some reasons why the BBC is so leftwing

I first worked in the BBC in 1981 in its Birmingham Pebble Mill studio. I well recall its large bar, where I sometimes drank with a middle-aged producer. One day, a Cheltenham MP named Charles Irving was in the news. This producer said to me, “He’s a hang ‘em and flog ‘em Tory like me”. Apparently Irving wasn’t (1), but that’s by the way. My point is I cannot imagine anyone in the BBC uttering such a view today.  I do wonder what this chap would make of the fact that since 2018, his old employer has its first Gender and Identity Correspondent.

Broadcasting is a strange world. It’s one where a man convicted of sadistic crimes against a male escort is welcomed back after jail (if he’s Boy George) – yet also one where leading names who say something the BBC doesn’t like hearing will not last long. For confirmation, see Pete Murray, Robin Page, Robert Kilroy-Silk, Sarah Kennedy, Carol Thatcher… And, I suppose, Jeremy Clarkson (2).

Are the broadcast media left wing – and if so, can we establish why ?  To keep things simple, I will focus on the BBC. 

Let us first define ‘left wing’. Time was when it meant socialist, with its policy of wealth redistribution, the abolition of class barriers  and even of capitalism itself. It’s fair to say such was what inspired the makers of BBC dramas like The Price of Coal, a 1977 two-parter for Play For Today. It was written by Barry Hines and Ken Loach, the duo behind Kes. Such work recalls the Italian realist school of film. It was of its time and helped explain why Play For Today was cited as proof in its day of the BBC’s leftist bias. Yet most of the Beeb’s prolific drama then was, if I recall, studio-based adaptations of famous novels. These tended not to be overtly political.

Left wing politics have since then had a big rebrand, in the mould defined by the late Stuart Hall of the Open University as “race, gender and sexuality” (3). Imported from the USA in the 1960s, this became the trinity of the British New Left. It was certainly the religion of New Labour and, thanks to their long spell in power, one that has been woven into the legal framework of modern life here, despite ten years of Conservative prime ministers. Policies such as multiculturalism lie at its core. The US notion of ‘political correctness’ derives from this broad ideology.

If that is how we’ll define ‘left wing’ today, we could look at the BBC’s output and decide whether this seems its prevailing mindset.  What’s more useful is to quote some individuals who have been the face of its leading service, national news.  Here are some interesting statements:

  • “The BBC is not neutral in multiculturalism: it believes in it and it promotes it” – or so a news executive there told Jeff Randall, a former Business Editor
  • “The BBC is not impartial or neutral.  It has a liberal bias not so much a party-political bias. It is better expressed as a cultural liberal bias” – this was from Andrew Marr
  • “At the core of the BBC, in its very DNA, is a way of thinking that is firmly of the left”.  So said the late Peter Sissons. He added: “I am in no doubt that the majority of BBC staff vote for political parties of the Left”
  • “Of course there is political correctness at the BBC” – that’s the opinion of Jeremy Paxman
  • “The Guardian is their bible and political correctness their creed”, said Michael Buerk
  • John Humphries later wrote of the BBC’s “even greater fear of the politically correct brigade and the most fashionable pressure groups usually from the liberal Left, the spiritual home of most bosses and staff”
  • Most recently, ex newsreader Jan Leeming complained, “Why is the BBC so in thrall to the woke minority while ignoring the wishes of so many of its loyal regulars like me? [W]e are all being infantilised, treated as if we can’t cope with anything that anyone might find offensive…Treating the population like children by sanitising everything, suppressing debate, and ‘no-platforming’ is extremely damaging. ”

Such remarks from seven of the BBC’s most eminent journalists of recent years not only suggest a striking pattern: they also leave you in no doubt the BBC must indeed be left-wing, if they all say so! Surprisingly, in 2010 the Director General himself – Mark Thompson – wrote “In the BBC I joined 30 years ago [1979], there was, in much of current affairs…a massive bias to the left”.  However, he continued “Now it is a completely different generation… It is a broader church”. So, no worries there then.

A cynic might say this change had come pretty quickly, for in 2001 another BBC journalist – Robin Aitken – had written “If the Metropolitan Police was ‘institutionally racist’, the BBC was ‘institutionally Leftist’”.  Later, in 2007, he stated “being a Tory in the BBC was the loneliest job in Britain” and added “ ‘Neutral’ for BBC journalists is left of centre for everyone else”. In his 30 years at the BBC, Mr Aitken had seen it “transformed from the staid upholder of the status quo to a champion of progressive causes”.

His timeframe interests me, because it makes me think of how I remember Radio 4 when working there in the early 1980s. Certainly there were a lot of left-leaning people in their 20s and early 30s, but the producers I worked for mainly struck me as mildly Tory. I was a bit surprised when the presenter of our show said, approvingly, “there are many Territorial Army men at the BBC”. He also suggested I join the RNVR: “I can see you in a sub-lieutenant’s uniform”. This was 1982. Alan Protheroe, the BBC’s Director of News who clashed so bitterly with Margaret Thatcher over the Falklands coverage that year, was himself a TA colonel.

My memory of that era was of a BBC that was quite a broad church, in a national industry with many Conservative-voting TV employees. It was ITV’s World In Action that was then considered the hotbed of TV left-wingery, although News At Ten was fronted by Alastair Burnet, a Tory. I cannot imagine the criticisms of the BBC quoted above being made back in the 1980s. There was of course a system then to keep the dreaded lefties out of the BBC: security vetting. For my job as a Radio 4 researcher, my name was sent off to some vague Whitehall desk to see if alarm bells rang. In the late 1960s, people accepted for the BBC graduate training scheme sometimes had the job withdrawn after MI5 said “no”. 

I’ve talked so far about news programming. But when we remember ‘the golden age of telly’, we most likely recall the comedies.  It speaks volumes about today’s BBC that it still shows Dad’s Army, but that was just one of many comedy series. The Good Life, To The Manor Born, Are You Being Served? and co. were all safely apolitical.  Today, what passes for TV comedy is frequently left-wing – for nowhere has dumped its traditional conservatism more than British comedy. I cannot imagine a right wing comic getting very far these days, whether in festivals or on TV.

A current affairs TV presenter told me in 1990 that clever graduates of the right entered law, those of the left the media. The BBC was always accused of being left-wing, albeit by Tories rather than by its own presenters. It begs the question how the left-wing BBC so trenchantly described by Messrs. Buerk, Paxman, Sissons and co. came into being?

I think three things have happened since the 1980s. TV has become detached from its regional roots, driven in part by the rise of London-based later arrivals like Channel 4, Sky and Five. Forty years ago, both the BBC and ITV drew huge cultural input from outside London. Pebble Mill, for example, made radio and TV for local, regional and national audiences. It fused broadcasters closer to their audiences, and provincial life is more conservative. Modern leftism by contrast is metropolitan: an increasingly London-centric broadcasting sector came to reflect this.

Secondly, Britain itself became more left-wing from the 1980s onwards. Just look at the ever-expanded higher education system. Broadcasting mirrors that trend. The Tories have an 80 seat majority based on almost 14 million votes. Yet well over 16 million voted for Labour, the Lib Dems, the Greens and Scots/Welsh nationalists. We live in a decreasingly conservative country, where even large corporations want to prove how right-on they are, and diversity is their new mantra.

Thirdly, wherever left-wingers or ‘progressives’ move into a field, be it universities, TV, or the civil service, they soon exclude anyone of differing views. Consequently, If someone were to attend a job interview in TV and express admiration for Margaret Thatcher or Enoch Powell, it’s hard to imagine he or she would be chosen.

In this new Britain, is it any wonder the BBC is left wing/liberal/PC – however you term it ? The new director-general, Tim Davie, stood as a Conservative councillor in London in 1993.  I doubt it will affect BBC editorial output, even if it does enable someone to say the organisation can’t possibly be left-wing if it is run by a Tory.

Editor’s Notes

  1. Sir Charles Graham Irving, 1923-1995, MP for Cheltenham. The Independent’s obituary certainly does not suggest ‘hang ‘em and flog ‘em’ tendencies
  2. In 1983, the BBC cancelled veteran DJ Pete Murray’s programmes after he called for listeners to vote Conservative. Ecologist Robin Page’s BBC appearances (including six years presenting the popular One Man and His Dog) dried up after various ‘controversial’ comments. Robert Kilroy-Silk was sacked by the BBC for a 2004 Sunday Express article entitledWe Owe Arabs Nothing”. DJ Sarah Kennedy claims she was forced out of the BBC in 2010 (ostensibly for health reasons) for her views on race and Enoch Powell. In 2009, Carol Thatcher was ejected from the BBC’s One Show for referring to a black tennis player as a “golliwog”. Jeremy Clarkson was replaced on the Top Gear motoring programme in 2015 after a fracas with a caterer, but also for a habit of ‘offensive’ remarks
  3. Stuart McPhail Hall, 1932-2014, Jamaican-born academic and co-founder of the New Left Review