Next week, the nation’s leaders will head back to Westminster, to put the country back together again after lockdown. In preparation, we asked our contributors: what should be on the cabinet’s reading list? What book should our politicians bear in mind, in confronting the next term’s challenges? Tom Holland recommends Mark Cocker’s study of conservation, Our Place: Can We Save Britain’s Wildlife Before It is Is Too Late?
A book by an ornithologist may seem an odd recommendation to be giving the Cabinet. Britain’s brief love affair with hearing birdsong was a feature of the lockdown at its most unforgiving: a reminder of the economic deep-freeze that ministers are desperate now to put behind them. The country needs to get back to work. People need jobs and homes. The great engine of the economy needs to be set humming again. The Government will live or die by its ability to fill roads, and offices, and shops.
But this only renders my recommendation the more pressing. The solace that people over the course of this unsettling year are finding in the natural world will not have come as a surprise to Mark Cocker. As brilliant a stylist as he is a naturalist, he has a genius for articulating what is felt by many of us, when we take pleasure in the spectacle of wildlife, as something inchoate and unconsidered. In Crow Country, he explained and explored his fascination with the raucous corvids of a single Norfolk valley; in Birds and People, he provided a panoramic analysis of the hold that birds exert on the human imagination across the sweep of the entire globe. Neither book, though, is my recommendation to ministers.
Instead, I offer them Our Place. A study of the role played by conservation charities over the past century, it may — on the face of it — sound rather niche. The kick, though, comes in the subtitle: “Can we save Britain’s wildlife before it is too late?” The answer that Cocker gives to this question is precisely why ministers need to read the book so urgently: “Nature is slipping from these islands: slowly, steadily, inexorably, field by field, dyke by dyke. Not since the last ice age has Britain been so stripped bare of its natural inhabitants.”
Why, in a country that, measured statistically, is the most nature-obsessed on the planet, is this being allowed to happen? Cocker’s book is eye-opening in the way it zeroes in on a bleak irony: that the very obsession of the British with the natural world may have contributed to its degradation. An alphabet soup of charities committed to saving wildlife has served to frustrate any attempt at coherent campaigning — and to break up ecosystems into unsustainably tiny fragments.
Conservation organisations ranging from the Forestry Commission to the National Trust have destroyed swathes of deciduous trees and wild uplands by replacing them with “a loathsomeness of conifers”. The Common Agricultural Policy “effectively bound the country into a federal farming state, against which there was no redress, apart from internal reforms instigated by the EU itself.” The result, over the course of the past half century, has been the ecological equivalent of a doomsday machine.
Why should this matter to ministers grappling with a horrendous array of other challenges and crises? For two reasons. The first is that — with Britain’s departure from the EU — a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity has opened up to set environmental law on a wholly new track. Those suspicious of the Government’s green credentials may well be justified in fearing the worst — but there is cause for hope as well as pessimism.
As Michael Gove — during his tenure as Environment Secretary — efficiently demonstrated, there is political advantage for the Government in identifying itself with the conservation (or even the re-introduction) of wildlife. It is not only dread-locked activists who fret about extinction. So, too, do fly-fishermen in the Tory shires. And herein lies the second reason. Voters’ appreciation of what the natural world had to offer them during the lockdown will not have faded now that the lockdown itself has been eased. Ministers have a political as well as a moral responsibility not to let the “cold stains of absence” in the map of this country’s wildlife spread any further.
If they do want guidance on the sheer monstrous scale of the problem, and the possible solutions to it, then Cocker’s book — at once a hymn of love to our flora and fauna, and a sombre jeremiad — is the place to start.