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Don’t turn Britain’s countryside into a culture war

Must everything be politicised? Credit: Getty

April 24, 2024 - 7:00am

When I read the title of this week’s John Harris column in the Guardian, my heart sank. Apparently, a “radical British politics rooted in nature is spreading”.

It’s not that I don’t believe him — indeed, I’ve written pieces on the rise of the Green Party in the Conservative heartlands. Nor is it because I’m a wicked Tory — if Left-wing activists are willing to devote a portion of their energy to genuine conservation, then good for them. I’m not the least bit ecosceptic, having devoted a fair proportion of my own life to fighting anti-environmentalism on the Right. What I fear, however, is that the struggle to protect and regenerate the British countryside is set to become a culture war.

Thanks to groups such as Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil, this has already happened to climate change policy. Rather than focus on the massive progress that has already been made on decarbonising the economy — and what needs to be done next — the so-called activists have hijacked the issue, making ridiculous demands (Net Zero in years rather than decades) and deliberately targeting their protests at the general public.

These antics are a gift to anti-green lobbyists. They only have to position themselves against the straw men so naively provided by the other side and, suddenly, their ecophobic grift is box office again.

The thought of the same happening to nature conservation is depressing beyond words. The last thing we need is to break up the national consensus on this issue. By all means campaign on relevant causes such as cleaning up our rivers, but don’t rewild the countryside with Left-wing hobby horses: we have enough invasive species as it is.

For instance, Harris writes about “access” to the countryside — as if there weren’t over 140,000 miles of footpaths, bridleways and byways in England and Wales alone (according to the Ramblers Association). He also praises the efforts of groups such as Muslim Hikers and Black Girls Hike, but then claims these were needed to undermine “ancient and exclusionary cliches about green spaces”.

He fails to elaborate further on that point, but it is symptomatic of a classic “the countryside is racist” genre. You really aren’t going to meet many white supremacists out in the sticks. Indeed, you’re unlikely to meet many people at all. Aside from the obvious tourist traps, our green spaces aren’t just wide open, they’re mostly empty. To visit rural Britain is to have the place to yourself.

Perhaps that’s why some on the Left want to “[give] nature a set of legal rights” — as if rivers and forests were people too. But rights, as well as needing to be human rights, should also be exercised alongside responsibilities — and not just by farmers and landowners, but by all of us.

Those who espouse radical politics — for instance, the festival-goers of Glastonbury — have a particular responsibility to lead by example. All too often, though, they don’t. Certainly, I’d be much happier about Harris’s desire to have people “joyously and defiantly tangled up” with nature if that didn’t include their rubbish.


Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.

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Martin M
Martin M
28 days ago

The Left is capable of turning pretty much anything into a culture war.

Milton Gibbon
Milton Gibbon
28 days ago

Is it a straw man if it is something that a good proportion of them actually say/think/implement as policy? I agree with the sympathies of this article but was it necessary to list off your “credentials” on a forum like this – not a “wicked Tory”, fighting anti-environmentalism on the “Right” (not the left?). Just leave that tothe Guardian and leave your arguments to stand on their own merits.

Nell Clover
Nell Clover
28 days ago

“Massive progress that has already been made on decarbonising the economy”?!

UK consumption based emissions are roughly unchanged in 30 years averaging 900MtCO2e per year.

UK territorial emissions have fallen because we’ve shifted, and are still shifting, manufacturing to China. That’s not decarbonising the economy, that’s shifting parts of the economy elsewhere.

To not know this, or to mislead, is not acceptable from anyone pretending to be a policy advisor. To the reader: do you think the author is deluding himself or you? Who stands to gain from such enormous factual errors?

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
28 days ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

Delusional thinking and lack of logic seems to be a prerequisite for anyone involved in policy advice and politics. By shifting manufacturing elsewhere we do nothing to affect global temperatures. By making our economy less productive per person and expanding our population we have actually weakened our resilience in the face of climate changes. But what can one expect when politicians happily legislate to enable a man to become a woman. Magical thinking and incompetence.

Andrew R
Andrew R
28 days ago

Critical Theory has no end, it’s neurosis clothed in academic acceptability.

2 plus 2 equals 4
2 plus 2 equals 4
28 days ago

“the countryside is racist”

One of the most moronic tropes of the “progressive” left. And that’s against some stiff competition.
Of course rural areas are predominantly white. The UK is a historically majority white country and still 85% of the population is white. Most of the 15% non-white population live in big cities because that has always been the natural pattern of immigration to the UK. Immigrants settle where there is housing, jobs and a community they recognise.
It doesn’t make the “countryside racist”.

Peter B
Peter B
28 days ago

People who claim that “the countryside is racist” may well be though.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
28 days ago

To say the countryside is racist is mere trolling. The countryside is has no opinion regarding anyone’s race. Individual country dwellers may regard Townees of any colour unfavourably if they come in with a chip on their shoulder regarding the ignorance of the yokels and a lack of awareness about proper behaviour in the countryside.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
28 days ago

The UK is a historically majority white country and still 85% of the population is white.
And as the deep thinking First Minister of Scotland had made clear, THAT is the problem. For people like him, majority white = racist.

Shrunken Genepool
Shrunken Genepool
28 days ago

That he celebrates radical activism in relation to the concreting over of the green belt but also wants open borders and unrestrained population growth testifies to a bizarre cognitive dissonance. But since he’s also unsure what a woman is, I suppose that’s to be expected

Peter B
Peter B
28 days ago

John Harris has done some great on the ground political reporting in the past. Usually from built up areas in the north and midlands. But on this subject, he’s just a cretinous luddite.
There he is banging on about the M3 cutting through Twyford Down and the Newbury Bybass as though those were acts of environmental destruction. Reality check for Mr. Harris – the A34 used to go smack through the centre of Newbury with masses of diesel lorries slowly trundling over the ancient bridge in endless traffic jams. The vast majority of people wanted these roads and the country is far better off for them. And richer.
They’re not interested in the environment or countryside at all. Just pushing a minority agenda onto the rest of us.
They’re not even interested in facts. Hence the never ending propaganda about the “shocking condition of our rivers”. Well, I went canoeing along the River Wye (officially a disaster zone according to the media) last June and several friends went in to swim. No issue.

John Riordan
John Riordan
28 days ago

“Perhaps that’s why some on the Left want to “[give] nature a set of legal rights” — as if rivers and forests were people too.”

I think this one’s easier to answer: it’s merely the same old passion that Statists have for creating ever more jobs for pointless, expensive and under-employed bureaucrats.

The ideological bulls-eye for such people is to create offices of state that oversee something that happens entirely without the assistance of the government, cannot possibly be ruined by the existence of a government department relating to it, yet can somehow eventually come to be believed by voters and taxpayers as indispensable to it.

A Ministry for Breathing, perhaps, which after a couple of decades couldn’t be shut down without a politically-significant number of idiots believing that they’ll suffocate as a consequence.

Nathan Ngumi
Nathan Ngumi
28 days ago

Indeed.
Culture wars obscure the real issues about climate change, energy transition and security, etc. It would be a pity if UK succumbed like USA.
Stand your ground on policies, laws, regulations, etc. like in the Netherlands where woke initiatives of left-leaning green activists were defeated at the ballot by common sense solidarity of farmers.

Shrunken Genepool
Shrunken Genepool
28 days ago

I hate these people. Absolute fools

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
28 days ago

The author mistakes green activism for a cause. It is not. It is a racket on which many are dependent for their livelihoods. Their goal is not persuasion, it’s not even substantive action. It’s the perpetuation of the appearance of a problem. That’s it. The same applies to those in the race hustling, gender confusion, and other sectors within the activist industry.
When the “argument” is couched in activist-speak such as access, inclusion, and all the rest, that’s a clue that no serious argument is being offered, let alone advanced. It is simply the current formula. Saying that something is racist or exclusionary or colonialist or whatever else is how the game works. Those are the incantations of today’s societal wizards whose only purpose is to maintain the grift for as long as possible while looking for new avenues to exploit.

R Wright
R Wright
28 days ago

I just pretend the countryside is racist to discourage irritating city slickers from coming out here and ruining it.

jane baker
jane baker
25 days ago

I’ve just visited a village not far outside the city where I live. It was impromptu. A bus came along and I jumped on. The best walks are often the unplanned spur of the moment ones. I had a small package to post so I did that in the village post office /shop. I noticed right away how well spoken + dressed the people all were,even the young woman in vaguely hippie clothing but I suspect designer hippie. The stock in the shop was notably upmarket,it was posher than Waitrose. Actually nothing wrong with any of this. I’m going back to buy some cheese. I knew they recognized me as “not PLU” but I don’t think it was a skin colour matter. I think a wealthy Indian family or a high achieving black family would be perfectly acceptable. It was a class thing.
My clothes,my shopping trolley. Ive heard they are “cool” now but maybe not my one.
It’s kind of ironic that I know the names of most British wild flowers,their lore etc and I’m a lifelong gardener but at the most basic level it is the money you have that qualifies you to “live in the countryside”,the people I know who have moved from town to country don’t know a water crowfoot from a Lords and Ladies but thats not important. I would say that there sometimes is a cool, bristly sense of ” you shouldnt be here” not spoken but a sense,in many non-tourist villages. But I honestly don’t think it’s about race,often those people are the most passionate advocates for rights for migrants (cos they know they won’t get to live within miles if their village)and they often have artist,songwriter ,poet friends of colour. It’s more about class + income.