I am a regular watcher of the BBC’s Question Time, although I should probably stay away for the sake of my blood pressure. Yesterday evening a special ‘Britain after Brexit’ episode was broadcast, during which an audience which was divided as the country was at the referendum (roughly 52:48) posed questions to a panel composed of (in no particular order) Suzanne Evans (UKIP), David Davis (Conservatives), Nick Clegg (Lib Dems), Melanie Phillips (The Times), Alex Salmond (SNP) and Keir Starmer (Labour).
Tomorrow, Theresa May will trigger Article 50, allowing negotiations to begin to decide the future relationship between the UK (or what will be left of it in a few years) and the European Union. As Keir Starmer said during the programme, we all need these negotiations to work. I was a remainer and believed strongly that the future interests of myself, my family and my country were based within, not outside the EU, in terms of economy, diplomacy and political capacity. A long time ago, I accepted that the majority of Britons voted to leave. We have a parliamentary democratic system in this country and it is important that we stick by its principles and move on. However, I cannot get away from the fact that I still feel like my future is being decided by others who do not care for my opinion or my interests. No matter what they say, the 52 are moving ahead with their own agenda, discounting the 48. I am far from a character of division. I work to bring people together, and yet I struggle to see a way forward here.
I see my future in the UK. I wish to build my business here, support a family and give back to my society. However, the way Theresa May’s government is going about constructing that society is making things far more fluctuant in my mind. No matter what she says she has become a character of division. She has failed to bring people together and shows little sign of changing her agenda. The Brexit process could be far more inclusive and collaborative, but instead people have been shut out of process, with a small Tory clique deciding the way ahead.
My single moment of relief during the Question Time programme was when Nick Clegg stood up for the younger generation, my generation, who voted overwhelmingly to remain (on a tangent I believe the Lib Dems could do very well if they pushed this agenda forward and became the voice of the younger voter). The average age of the panel last night was 58.5. David Davis, the man who is leading the negotiations, is himself 68 years old. He is negotiating for a future that he and his peers will not see. He is negotiating this on behalf of a younger population who didn’t vote for this future but will live with the consequences for the longest amount of time.
Predictably, yesterday’s debate was centred around the economy and immigration (and the future of the UK itself, with indyref2 looming in Scotland). Unfortunately, as my mind turns to food, farming and the environment, most people do not think about these issues as those of us directly involved or with a deep interest in them. I do not believe that funding for the land sector will drop enormously post Brexit, but I fear for its place as a negotiating pawn. In many ways, it is hardly worth discussing as we don’t know the course that the negotiations will take. However, as someone who is planning to spend a lifetime in this sector, I cannot help but worry. In addition to Question Time last night I caught up with Sunday’s Countryfile, during which Tom Heap asked (yet again) what impact Brexit could have on the countryside. It angered me how a direct comparison was made with the situation in New Zealand where subsidies were removed overnight. Sure, Tom acknowledged that hundreds of farmers went out of business as a result and there were dozens of suicides, but it came across that this was an afterthought and that generally going down this path would be the best route. I fundamentally disagree. Whilst I am no fan of unnecessary paperwork, a certain amount of regulation is necessary, as is a degree of ‘stick’ from the government toward landowners. I know that many farmers and landowners do brilliant work for conservation on their land (I like to count our own farm among this number) but we cannot pretend that the situation is rosy. The State of Nature report needs to be our wake up call. The new countryside stewardship scheme has been a huge turnoff for many farmers, and in my view a disaster for farmland conservation on a wider scale (albeit for those who choose to take it up I think it has a large number of benefits). We need conservation practice to take place on all farms. In my mind at least, a drop in farm support payments at the cost of deregulation is not going to help water quality and filtration, biodiversity, anti-flooding measures, carbon storage and all the other benefits that taxpayers currently receive from farms. Lots of farmers will quite simply not engage with ‘the birds and the bees’ stuff. I favour a system of payments for ecosystem services, along with availability of capital grants to boost investment. As a nation, we need to invest in the countryside if we want rural communities to survive. I fear that, even though it tipped the balance in the referendum, it will be rural areas that will lose out as a result of Brexit. I hope I am wrong, but it’s like I said before the referendum: it’s a matter of demographics. By 2030, 92.2% of the UK population will live in cities. That’s a measly 7.8% living in rural areas. With a government intent on cutting spending further and further, what basis can we draw on to believe they won’t continue during and after Brexit? I dare the government to keep the £3 billion within the rural economy, and indeed expand it. I doubt they will, but I hope I am wrong, for the sake of my future in the UK.