This post forms part of a series of guest blogs on thinkingcountry relating to the future of British agriculture and conservation in the light of Brexit. Over the coming months, the series will present a range of views relating to the future of British agriculture and environmental policy. In this post Bob Seago, a reserve warden from Essex, outlines what he believes Britain should safeguard in a future policy.
I am Robert Seago, born in Essex in the early 1950’s so therefore a late baby-boomer. Brought up at a time when children were allowed to go out to play, I spent many spare hours in a rough pasture dairy farm near Braintree, well aware of the dangers of the river, climbing trees and that some people were bad. I learnt some basics of dam building and fishing and I became familiar with every day wild flowers, birds and butterflies. Aided by the TV programmes of David Attenborough, Peter Scott and Gerald Durrell I became interested in the natural world. An interest in batteries and bulbs, chemicals and growing things led me into science and the system swept me to Reading University to study physics. I went on to teach science, not very happily, but eventually I did an MSc in Computer Science at Essex, and eventually ended up happily teaching there. Meanwhile, throughout my life I have had a keen interest in the natural world. I am warden of a small reserve with which I have been associated for 49 years. I believe that the goals which most people set for themselves to acquire wealth and power are ultimately unfulfilling and destructive. The world faces problems which most people and their leaders do not even see, but the human race has the ability to construct solutions and only needs to find the will.
I listened to some of the late poll counts in the EU referendum on 24th of June, with quiet resignation. Living as I do in the constituency of the only UKIP MP, where there had been almost no ‘Remain’ posters along the streets, I had anticipated the result. Nevertheless I became angry. In the run up to the poll I had generally kept my views to myself because so many of my friends supported different sides, people were heated, it became difficult to express one’s point of view in public, and it seemed that to pitch in would only stir more division.
The prospect of rolling back regulation by leaving would have been reason enough for me to remain. Successive UK governments have already sought to undermine rules borne out by science, and the British establishment had sometimes been checked by EU rules when the political opposition had not chosen to engage.
However, I felt lukewarm towards the EU. There was so much wrong with the Common Agricultural Policy, democracy in the EU was not good enough and the self-interest of so many national players resulted in ineffective bloated bureaucratic rules.
So why was I angry now? The leave campaign used a slogan ‘Give us our country back’. I could have adopted the same slogan afterwards, because the mood across the country had turned nasty with so much unpleasantness and rancour. That grizzly mood still festers on under the surface.
The Remain campaign was poorly conducted with David Cameron the only significant politician consistently engaging. I think that his comments, almost all about the threat to the economy, dismissed by ‘Leave’ as ‘Project Fear’, were far from convincing. Remain campaigners were restrained in their efforts, and for similar reasons to me were hardly heard. The Leave campaign on the other hand was conducted with vigour. Some of their points about democracy were in my view legitimate, but so much of their campaign, which confused the matters of immigration and refugees, and which continued to repeat claims linking spending on the health service with leaving the EU, was irresponsible and sickening.
In the chaos after the result, the Conservative party elected Theresa May, who had rightly been described as the only grown up politician still standing as party leader, to be prime minister. She has made a steady start and said some encouraging things. A few eyebrows were raised concerning the choice of some of her ministers but the future of our relationship with Europe will depend upon how she and others handle events as yet undefined.
I would expect there to be winners and losers in the new situation for Britain. As on previous occasions the economy may get a boost from a fall in the value of our currency, though I wouldn’t expect many Conservatives are comfortable with this.
Some people want to challenge the Brexit result in order to avoid leaving the European Union but I believe this would be a mistake at this stage because a large part of the country would feel cheated. However events may well decide exactly what will occur; there are plenty of ways that Brexit may still go wrong.
I intend to fight for things which we risk losing, when the protection afforded by the European Union may no longer apply.
There are many such matters but I will only discuss a few.
- Environmental pollution
EU Law has enshrined a precautionary principle regarding the use of chemicals and pesticides. The UK government, in efforts to support the wishes of interest groups, has sought exemptions. One of the main tenets of the Leave campaign was to roll back regulation.
It is clear that the present testing regime for new products is not always adequate. The widespread adoption of neonicotinoid pesticides was agreed, without adequate knowledge of sub-lethal effects on important pollinating insects, and its persistence in the soil was not fully tested. The UK (and the EU) should decide such matters using an independent science service.
‘The dirty man of Europe’, a label the UK wore in the 1980’s must not re-occur. The UK must not undercut environmental safeguards for short term economic advantage.
- Wildlife conservation
The most representative habitats, the inspiring wild places of Europe receive protection under the ‘Habitats Directive’. In essence if one site is to be compromised by development alternative sites have to be provided as mitigation. In a similar way the European Birds Directive afforded protection to a set of threatened birds, and was extended to other rare species.
These places and their representative species must not be sacrificed to aid the march of economic growth. To loosen the laws which have protected these places in the UK would deprive us of more of our heritage, and apply pressure on our European heritage.
- Employee safeguards
EU law has maintained rules which have resulted in baseline worker conditions, which must not be eroded to undercut European competitors.
The negotiations about our future relations offer us a chance to improve on the worst aspects of the EU. For example there are destructive rules, which encourage European farmers to grow damaging crops such as maize to manufacture biogas, and agricultural policy promotes a market for palm oil to be used in bio-fuels, which involves the trashing of tropical forest, supposedly to support sustainability. Both of these actions have been shown to be counterproductive and should be stopped immediately.
The Common Agricultural Policy regulations exempt natural features such as ponds, trees and hedges from Tier 1 payments and should be replaced with scientifically assessed objectives regarding food production, water quality, public interest and nature.
Opposition politicians should scrutinise every word of whatever decisions are made, it is no time for business as usual, in Westminster, where there seems to be a consensus for economic growth at almost all cost.
I have been privileged to work with colleagues and students from Britain, Europe and other continents. The people of the world coming to Britain are not the cause of the unfairness in our society; I will oppose those who accept or condemn people according to their nationality or race. The future of the UK should be one that is open to the world, and I hope that the outcome of the referendum will not be allowed to hinder that.