New Board members for Natural England: the banker, the mandarin, the natural capitalist and the media exec.

 

 

 

An image speaks a thousand words, doesn’t it. Imagine being the person at Defra who decides which image to use for each story. “Natural England board members appointed.” Natural. England. Something natural perhaps. Hmm – perhaps a picture of a soaring Eagle. Ooh no, bit controversial they’re being shot all over the country. Ok how about a wildflower meadow? We don’t want to upset the farmers. Err dolphins? Oh god, that’ll just remind people that post-Brexit fishing is in a complete mess. Let’s just go with the Defra name plate. Keep it neutral, boring.

Yesterday Defra announced four new members have been chosen to join the Natural England Board. Natural England Board has ten members. The Board sets the strategic direction of Natural England’s work, and is in theory independent from Defra. In reality Natural England lost its independence when the Cameron Govenrment came in in 2010.

The Board members that are retiring are:

Andy Clements – who has had a long and illustrious career in bird conservation, latterly as chief exec of the British Trust for Ornithology – the BTO. The BTO gather the data on bird populations which is then used to influence how the land is managed, at least in theory.

Teresa Dent – chief exec of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust. GWCT, or the Game Conservancy as they used to be known, have a foot in two camps, conservation and shooting. In the past they have produced valuable research on birds and other wildlife living on farmland, and how to tweak management for their benefit (mostly in order to shoot it).

Simon Lyster – Simon has worked in nature conservation at national and international levels for well over 30 years. He was a senior director at WWF and at one point Director General of the Wildlife Trusts, but I think it’s fair to say he was too radical for them back then.

Professor Mike Winter from Exeter University is a rural policy academic so has expertise useful for developing Natural England’s countryside stewardship agri-environment scheme.

All four of these have experience, expertise and a wide network of contacts with the environmental and conservation world.

The six that are staying are:

Tony Juniper – chair. Doesn’t really need an introduction.

Lord Blencathra – deputy chair. He’s mad keen on hunting, and I wrote about Lord Blencathra back in August 2018.

Marian Spain – newly appointed Chief Executive after a long period as stand-in. Marian was previously running my old stamping ground at Plantlife.

Catherine Dugmore – a chartered accountant from Price Waterhouse – the firm that ran the “industrial scale” tax avoidance factory.

Prof Sue Hartley – Prof of Ecology at University of York.

Henry Robinson – farmer with 1000 acres of land near Cheltenham; and former President of the CLA.

The four new directors are:

Kerry ten Kate – one of the leading lights globally in the natural capital movement. Kerry developed the ideas behind biodiversity offsetting. Kerry and Tony have worked together a lot over the years.

Rosamund Blomfield-Smith – worked in the city at Morgan Grenfell the blue chip merchant bank, before moving to Rothschilds and ING Baring. A city banker.

Kim Shillinglaw. A TV executive, Shillinglaw commissioned Horrible Histories at the BBC so deserves a lot of credit for that. She went on to head science and natural history commissioning, before a  stint as controller of both BBC2 and BBC4, when 4 lost its own controller. She also commissioned Springwatch and Autumnwatch. In more recent times she’s been in the commercial sector at Endemol.

Peter Unwin. Unwin was a senior Defra mandarin when I spent far too much of my time at meetings with Defra civil servants, back in the day when that was my day job. Unwin left Defra in 2015, having first joined the Department of the Environment (DoE) in 1983. I remember Unwin as a senior figure, who would slip into meetings after they had begun, sit quietly listening and then slip out again, often without saying anything.

There you have it. Four senior figures from the conservation world, replaced by none.

This leaves the board with a hunter (and former Tory politician), two natural capital champions, a banker, an accountant and a former civil servant.

On the plus side, there’s someone who has a real expertise in engaging the public with stories about nature; an ecology academic, and a farmer who is undoubtedly interested in nature.

I understand Natural Capital is the only circus in town now, and that’s just reality, whether I like it or not. But Natural England is supposed to be first and foremost the Regulator, for the natural environment. I don’t get the impression from these new appointments, that regulation is going to be top of the list of priorities when the Board sets its agenda. Not just its agenda, but Natural England’s agenda.

As I discussed yesterday post-pandemic, and post-Brexit for that matter, society is having to deal with The Freeloader Problem, perhaps to a greater extent than it has in many decades. One way of challenging the Freeloaders is Regulation. From what I’m hearing, the Freeloaders are at work in the environmental sector just as much as they are elsewhere.

We need Natural England to be that strong effective regulator, more than ever.

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Natural Capital, Natural England, regulation | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Coronavirus diary: the Freeloader Problem

It’s Magic Monday, or Happy Monday or whatever new slogan has been dreamt up by Dom Cummings and his Vote Leave team in Downing Street to distract us.

How quickly things change.

Just last December Cummings and his libertarian band of brothers (and a few sisters but mainly brothers) were celebrating their resounding victory in the General Election. Then Coronavirus came along and swept all their dreams, of smashing the system and letting the free market rip, away. Then Dom himself added cream on the top of that Coronavirus Tsunami, by showing the people that he really didn’t see himself as one of them. It had all been a ruse.

Segueing seamlessly from the iconoclast to the icon, in a single week of revelations. Dom’s political career, or at least the current incarnation, now survives from one day to the next.

So today we are invited to celebrate the end of lockdown. The Shielded Can Walk In the Streets! The Children can Return to School! Everyone Can Go To The Beach!

Except everyone has already gone to the beach. At least down here in uber-sunny Dorset.

Pictures of Bournemouth beach and Durdle Door were widely shared over the weekend on social and traditional media, inviting comments of astonishment and concern. Social distancing might have been possible at Durdle Door until two air ambulance helicopters had to land on the beach, at the same time, forcing the thousands into a pack, almost like penguins in the Antarctic. Three people (they must by definition have been young men) had seriously injured themselves jumping off the Door into the sea. (spoiler: there isn’t enough depth of water and there are rocks.)

Now I’d be the first person to point out that, generally speaking, the chances of catching coronavirus from standing or sitting near another person outside is going to be very low. But what about standing in a queue for an ice cream, or in the car park, or on the single path to the beach. Or after a few cans of beer? I don’t know. I suspect the chances (the R number) starts to go up, the more people there are, the more alcohol consumed.

The rest of us – the locals (yes I know I’m a blow-in, only here for 23 years) but I do feel like a local some of the time, stayed away. We had friends who lived in West Lulworth, and know what’s it like during a normal Summer.

I went for a walk on one of my well-worn local circuits. Down to the river, across the water meadows, back through the town. It was pretty quiet, a few family groups. Quieter than it had been in a long time. Perhaps some locals had gone to the beach. The meadows were all looking parched. Haylage was cut and baled, in May. I can’t remember a year when everything has been this early. I was thinking there won’t be much to see in the countryside aside from a lot of brown fields, in a few weeks time. A Red Kite dipped and curled in the thermals off the river banks, as if it really was on the string of a skilful flyer. A youngish dad had caught a little fish, perhaps a Trout fry, in one of the streams and was trying to interest his little daughter in it, perhaps a little too over enthusiastically. She didn’t seem so keen on leaving the dry of the river bank.

Haylage mown & baled from the Frome water meadows. © Miles King

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

During the depths of lockdown this walk would be preternaturally quiet. Bird song would be so loud as to startle. Yesterday a Cetti’s warbler exploded its song – well not really a song, but a violent expulsion of air, about 3m from me. It was loud, but the noise from the bypass was louder.

It’s a paradox.

Even though there is still much less traffic the normal, it’s as though those on the road are trying to make up for the absent ones. As though there is an aural space that must be filled. There is a physical space, left by the absent traffic, which means that those who wish to can go faster, accelerate faster, achieve yet higher revolutions per second, and that little bit more g-force in the small of the back, or the fingers gripping the handlebars. Can I get it up to 12000 before I have to slow down for the next roundabout?

Did the pressure of lockdown build up such that it needed to be released in a mass exhalation, a mass acceleration, a celebration of noise – and fire? Witness the ever increasing number of fires now being lit – ostensibly by accident as single-use barbecues are lit on tinder dry heathland or moor. Perhaps subconsciously the food is the excuse, the underlying reason is that release of energy – the pent up energy of lockdown.

Fire, is after all, just a release of energy.

I don’t imagine the wildlife killed or made homeless by the 220ha Wareham Forest fire will sympathise.

smoke from the Wareham Forest fire ©Miles King

 

Of course Dom doesn’t care. He may be relishing this outpouring of libertarian behaviour.

Why shouldn’t I have a barbecue on the heath, if that’s what I want. Who’s going to stop me?

Why shouldn’t I go as fast and as loud as I like on the bypass. Who’s going to stop me? (speeding had dramatically increased during lockdown)

Why should I take my rubbish home when I can leave it in the park, the council will come and clear it up.

Why shouldn’t I jump off that cliff if I want to. The NHS will patch me up afterwards.

Why shouldn’t I kill as many raptors as I can find during lockdown. No-one’s going to see me.

Why should I care about climate chaos? it’s sunny. Let’s go to the beach

This is known in economics as the Free Loader or Free Rider problem. It’s people taking advantage of opportunities to benefit themselves, provided by the collective action of society. And it feels like there has been an outpouring of free-rider behaviour since lockdown started to collapse on or around VE day. Once it’s out of the genie’s lamp it can be very difficult to put back in.

I read a report of a survey this morning suggesting 57% of people didn’t want things to go back to the way they were after coronavirus has been tamed or passed through – and that home working would stay, commuting would decrease and even foreign holidays might decline. All I would say is that, based on what’s happening at the moment, there will be a significant section of society who are thinking how can I take advantage of this situation for my own personal benefit, and screw society. We can call them the free-loaders.

Tackling the free-loaders is going to be a significant challenge post-coronavirus. And having libertarians like Dominic Cummings in power is going to make that challenge much much harder.

Posted in coronavirus, Dominic Cummings, free-loaders, libertarians | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

A few thoughts on how Coronavirus might reshape the UK

will zombies take over Britain?

I’ve been putting off writing this blog, but after the weekend’s Cummings and Goings, there was a certain inevitability that it had to be written. The question I keep asking myself, as I am sure many of you are also poising – is:

What is the UK going to look like after the first, second, and even third waves of coronavirus have passed through in the next year or two?

Apologies if some or indeed all of these thoughts are only half formed – that is in the nature of crystal ball gazing – the clouds parts for a second before closing again – and I’m no Yoda.

I suppose it makes sense to consider how life will change as a result of the virus continuing to circulate in society – as opposed to the long future when a vaccine or effective antiviral treatment becomes available, assuming either of those actually happen. I think, as with most things, that they will happen eventually, but that could be a long long time away.

I’m not going to continue to prefix everything with “I think” because it should be obvious to you all that these are my thoughts – and as usual they could be right or wrong.

I’m going to start out making an assumption which I think it is now safe to do. That is that people are not going to catch coronavirus when they are outside, unless they are outside and very close or actually physically in contact with another person. This virus spreads indoors or via direct physical contact between people. It spreads through the air (droplet or aerosol) and on surfaces indoors – in trains, buses, planes, cars, factories, offices, shops, restaurants, cinemas, theatres, hospitals, care homes. You’d have to be incredibly unlucky to catch it from touching a gate or sitting on a bench in the park.

Work

The nature of work is already changing radically and I think that will continue until that long future vaccine/treatment. Face to face meetings will largely be a thing of the past, beyond one to one’s or a few people space far apart in a room, for a very short time. Unless they move outdoors. Large offices with tens, hundreds or thousands of people in them – how will they survive? Factories where much is already automated are continuing and can function in the future, indeed this may spur a further round of automation. Others where close contact was the norm and hasn’t changed – well look at what’s happening with outbreaks in meat processing plants – here but much more in the USA. What is happening is that workers on low pay with no other choice are being forced to continue to work in unsafe working conditions with the constant threat of catching the virus. Over a hundred years of progress in workplace safety is now at grave risk.

But manufacturing has long been a minor element of the UK economy. We are a service economy – jobs are office jobs or in other parts of the service sector, particularly leisure  – shopping, eating out, cinemas, music etc. Shopping was already moving online and that has obviously accelerated hugely during lockdown. This was always a one way street. Now retailers find that street has disappeared altogether. How many more big names and small shops will re-open? As each month goes by the chances diminish, which is why the Government is now desperate to re-open the economy, even if it means risking the second wave appearing before it would normally have done ie in the late autumn/winter.  Those that can move online only will do so. Others may find they can survive by limiting the numbers of physical shoppers entering shops – as those that have stayed open are finding. But unless fixed costs change, no retailer can survive with only 10% or 20% of former footfall. Fixed costs mean rent, business rates (for which the Government has offered new exemptions), energy costs, staff costs etc. The big one is rent.

Owning and renting out Commercial Property is big business. It’s worth about £100Bn a year, 7% of the economy, using the Gross Value Added measure. That’s about the same as the entire food and drink sector (UK agriculture is worth 0.53%). Commercial property covers everything from shops, retail estates, massive shopping centres, office complexes, industrial estates, big storage sheds on the M1, you name it. It’s all sitting there making money. Money is made two ways – from rent, and from capital appreciation ie the value of the property goes up (or down.)

It’s such big business, that lots of money, searching, always searching, for a return on investment, flows into commercial property. Since the 2008 crash the search for a return on investment has become frenetic, because of historically low interest rates and other factors. That money could be coming from individual investors or institutions, like private equity funds, hedge funds, pension funds.

What happens to the commercial property market if shops close or can’t afford to pay their rent? Just looking at Dorchester where I live, there are lots of empty shops – they have been empty since 2008. Or some have been filled for a year or two while they have a cheap introductory rent deal. Then they are empty again when that runs out. The landlords don’t care whether the shop is empty because they can bank on capital appreciation, the value of the property going up, over the long term. What happens to that value if those shops are never filled again? What happens to all the money invested in big office complexes if no business ever comes back to occupy that office space? It becomes worthless.

Those places could be revamped for some other purpose – but equally they may just be demolished or abandoned. Repurposing industrial or office space for residential use is fraught with problems, as the Government has found because that process started several years ago.

Many people have found that it is possible to do their jobs, to some extent at any rate, from home. Obviously this has its advantages and drawbacks and as someone who has worked from home on and off (mostly on) for the last 27 years it didn’t make much difference to me, but I appreciate that trying to concentrate on some knotty problem with a 2 and 5 year old running around screaming, when you’ve never had to try and do that before, could be something of a nightmare. But equally, if you could do your job at home and not have to do a 2 hour each way commute every day on a crowded train – what would you do? Even 10 years ago the idea of being able to have a meeting with 10 people online with video would have seemed a pipe dream. Now it’s a daily occurrence – and if you have a decent broadband connection it works most of the time. It may not be perfect, but then again how many times were people late, or just never appeared, at physical meetings because a train was cancelled, or there was an accident on the motorway.

Transport

Does this spell the end of mass-transport commuting? It’s hard to see it continuing in the same fashion as before. Our creaking rail system which has been severely damaged by mismanagement and ideological obsession with creating fake markets. Overcrowded unreliable trains have a new dimension – take one and play a daily game of Russian roulette – will today be the day you catch coronavirus when someone coughs and fills the entire carriage with aerosolised virus particles? Buses could conceivable survive but with fewer passengers on each vehicle, but any public transport system where the future involved far fewer passengers would mean either much higher prices or a massive public subsidy. It’s difficult to imagine anyone being prepared or even able to pay more for their tickets, especially if they are struggling because their income has dropped. And this Government, despite it’s emergency bail-outs, is not going to change its spots and start giving large subsidies to keep ticket prices down.

Does that mean everyone jumps in their cars to commute? That’s certainly possible but the roads are already at full capacity. And there’s also a new found appreciation that cities and large towns are nicer places to live, and healthier, when there are fewer cars around. Already in London and other big cities, road networks are being transformed to encourage more walking and cycling. Cars are being excluded or strongly discouraged. If everyone jumped in their car to make the commute they previously used the train for, the roads would immediately become permanently gridlocked. Most drivers know this. Those that don’t will find out in the first week they try.

What about a massive new road building programme then – say multiply the current £28Bn new roads programme by 10 and create lots of construction jobs to help the economy. As anyone who takes an interest in these things know, you cannot build your way out of a congestion problem, because new roads generate their own new traffic, on top of the traffic problems they were supposed to solve.

And then there’s HS2. The Government is forging ahead with HS2, mostly I think on the basis of the sunk cost fallacy, which is “we’ve already spent this money, so if we stop now, we’ll have wasted it all.” HS2 won’t be open for business for a long time and I guess they think that coronavirus will have been sorted by then. They may be right. But if the rest of society has shifted to a different pattern of working, what will be the point of having it? If people don’t need to get from Manchester or Birmingham to London in comfort, with a few minutes shaved off the journey time, they won’t use the train.  Imagine what a couple of hundred billion pounds invested in the national cycle network could do.

Leisure

this is already getting to be a long post so I’ll stop soon. But I wanted to say something about leisure. So much of our economy is based around what could loosely be described as leisure, in the sense it’s the stuff we do when we are not working. I already mentioned shopping. For some that means football, whether watching it in the pub or going to the match. Other sports are available, to take part in or watch. Or it could be going for a meal, a drink, to a club, the cinema, the theatre, a concert, a festival. It’s lots of different things. Much of it happens indoors, especially during the cold rainy months (remember them?).

How can any of these things continue? We’ve just heard one of our local restaurants, one of the Carluccio’s chain, is not going to reopen. The food was good, not brilliant. The staff were friendly, the coffee could be great on a good day. It was a regular place for people to meet, chat, catch up with friends. It’s gone. The whole business went bust. That story is going to play out time and again over the coming months. Things can’t just be mothballed until such time as magically they reappear again. That isn’t how business works. It woujld only have happened if the Government had stepped in and agreed to pay for all business costs, 100% of them, for an indefinite period.

But what about leisure that was already happening outside, or could be moved outside? This is a prospect. With the current weather restaurants and pubs could become outside only. Add in some suitable covers and they could function when it’s raining, if it ever rains again. Anything that doesn’t involve physical contact could move outside. People are already discovering that outside can be a great place to be – look at how many people are out walking or cycling, or running now. Far far more than I have ever seen. But especially in cities it’s now clear that the outside space available is very unevenly distributed and many, especially in poor areas, do not have anything like enough.

I’m not going to start on connection to nature, because that’s a whole other topic which I will save for another time.

I’ve gone over 2000 words now so I will stop there and end with a couple of questions.

How do you see society changing in the next year or tw0?

How will coronavirus affect your life in the next year?

Posted in coronavirus | Tagged | 8 Comments

Guest Blog – Stop Graveney Marsh Solar Farm

As regular readers will know I take an interest in solar farms and their impact on wildlife.

With this in mind, I’m happy to host a guest blog today from Matthew Hatchwell of the Faversham Society. Matthew was Director of Conservation at the Zoological Society of London, and before that was head of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in Europe. Matthew writes about a massive proposed Solar Farm on the north Kent marshes.

 

On May 10, 2020, the Daily Telegraph published an article about the proposed Cleve Hill Solar Park (CHSP) just outside Faversham on the north Kent coast.  If it goes ahead, it would be the largest solar power station in the UK, covering 900 acres of farmland, containing nearly a million solar panels, and including a battery storage system five times larger than the current record-holder, in Australia.  Local residents, although supportive of solar energy in general, oppose the scheme for a number of reasons, including safety risks associated with the massive battery and the environmental impacts of building a solar power station on a site that lies below sea level in an area that is highly vulnerable to rising sea levels as a result of climate change.

According to the Daily Telegraph article last week,

“a spokeswoman for the developers, Hive Energy and Wirsol, said safety was ‘at the heart’ of the farm’s design and a battery safety management plan has been agreed with the Health and Safety Executive, as well as Kent Fire and Rescue Service.”

When asked to confirm the existence of such an agreement, KFRS replied that they had

“at no stage agreed to or signed off any plans relating to the project as suggested in the news article.”

Lithium ion batteries of the type proposed for Cleve Hill have caused fires, explosions and releases of toxic hydrogen fluoride gas in similar facilities in the US, South Korea and elsewhere that have led respected solar industry and financial investment commentators to caution against their use at other sites until safety questions are answered.

Impression of Solar Farm at Graveney © Jim Bennett used with permission.

Regarding its impacts on biodiversity, the Daily Telegraph article reported a claim by Hive Energy and Wirsol that:

“The solar park will deliver a 65% increase in biodiversity on the intensively farmed site.”

In fact, the comparison should not be between the CHSP scenario and intensive farming, which is notoriously bad for biodiversity, but with the alternative that was being planned by the Environment Agency for the site before the solar power station was proposed: reversion to salt marsh.  Salt marshes are the second most productive and valuable ecosystem in the world after coral reefs, providing a suite of benefits including not only wildlife habitat but also protection against coastal flooding, nutrients for marine organisms, carbon sequestration, erosion control, recreational opportunities, etc.  Data from other sites in the UK where agricultural land has been allowed to revert to salt marsh, in Essex, Kent and West Sussex, show that such an initiative at Cleve Hill would result in a dramatic increase in biodiversity compared to the current land use or any increase that might result from conversion to a solar power station.  The increase in biodiversity that is being promised by CHSP developers is far from guaranteed in any case, since there is no way of knowing exactly how bird and other species — including marsh harriers, Brent geese, water voles and many others — would react to the vast area of solar panels, the height of a double-decker bus, that they intend to install.

There is no doubt that the UK and every other country in the world should be moving away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy sources.  Solar technology should be obligatory for all new houses. The proposed Cleve Hill project demonstrates, however, that not every initiative would deliver on the promise of clean energy.  It makes no sense to locate such a project on land that lies below sea level and that was previously earmarked for reversion to salt marsh.  Join me in showing your opposition to this reckless project by signing the petition at http://chng.it/KkQYCfyh9T.  For further information, see https://favershamsociety.org/cleve-hill/.

Posted in guest blogs, Solar Farms | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Seven Years of a New Nature Blog

I’m celebrating the seventh anniversary of this blog today. Whoop!

I actually started writing a blog nearly ten years ago, back in October 2010 when I was at The Grasslands Trust (you can still find them here ). After I left TGT there was a break while I was at Buglife before I started writing properly in May 2013.

Either way it all feels a very long time ago. 2013. There was that Tory/Libdem coalition Government – remember them? UKIP was still a fringe political party before that historic 2014 Euro election victory. In 2013,  no-one was seriously talking about a Referendum to take us out of the EU. And who was thinking about pandemics? Well, quite a lot of people were, but that’s another story.

On a personal level, aside from being 7 years closer to being an old git, since I started writing I’ve lost my brother to cancer, and had a brush with death. But I also set up People Need Nature, which is coming up to five years old next week.

As a result of my blogging, I’ve had a foray into “professional” writing ie being paid to do it. As well as occasional articles for eg British Wildlife magazine,  I spent a couple of years writing for Lush Times. I guess that started in Summer 2016 and finished last Summer. For a couple of years I was writing a weekly column, which was quite a challenge. Lush then decided to walk away from Social Media which meant that it was impossible for anyone to find what I’d written. So that was the end of that. It was fun while it lasted.

As regular readers might have spotted I have strong opinions (at least on some things) and I enjoy writing so this is a good outlet for all that pent up energy.  I intend to carry on for the time being – after all, it’s not as though there’s nothing left to write about.

I am always happy to post guest blogs – indeed some of the most read blogs on here have been guest ones, so please feel free to get in touch (leave me a message in the comment box) if you would like to post one.

So thanks to everyone who reads these blogs and especially those that leave comments, either here or on social media (except the alt right trolls).

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 15 Comments

Reflections on VE Day 75

Lightnings and Vulcans

Avro Vulcan

Growing up under the only occasionally used flightpath to Buckingham Palace, every Queen’s Birthday, we would go up to The Green, just in time to see the flypast. I remember going with my dad, who had done his National Service in the RAF. He loved planes. I think my mum stayed at home, but she might have come a couple of times. My brother came too.

In the early days it would be Lightnings and Vulcans, perhaps even other v-bombers, I don’t remember. I remember the Vulcans and Lightnings because of the noise. A brutal sound of the air tearing apart. The rip of the Lightning and the roar of the Vulcan, a sound so loud it would make your lungs vibrate inside your ribcage. These were awesome machines. Sometimes it would be Concorde and the Red Arrows (flying Folland Gnats back then). Making a beautiful V in the sky. By the time I’d left home in the early 80s, the gnats had long gone as had the Vulcan and Lightnings. The Battle of Britain memorial flight first flew in 1973 apparently, which would fit pretty well with my memories of Spitfire Hurricane and Lancaster joining in with these flypasts, which in my memory seemed to grow with the years.

As well as the annual flypasts, we’d go to air shows, lots of air shows. the Shuttleworth collection was always a favourite, and once they got going, the International Air Tattoo, which moved around, but included Alconbury, one of the big US cold war airbases in East Anglia. I think it’s fair to say I was obsessed with military machines from a young age. My dad was really good at making and painting airfix models of aeroplanes, which he would hang from my bedroom ceiling with cotton thread. There were loads of them. I think there must have been between 10 and 20 including some large Bombers (including the infamous B29, which carried the atom bombs to Hiroshima and Nagasaki). It was unfortunate that they were a fantastic place for dust to gather which did my allergies no good, but I loved them.

Fully Immersive Second World War Experience

I also made kits of tanks and other armoured vehicles, many, many kits. I used to set them up on the floor and have mock battles. My childhood was steeped in images of war. War films were always on the TV, showing heroic actions of the British forces, dramatisations of true events, or pure fiction. Looking back, it seems like I grew up in fully immersive second world war experience, but I think it was just part of the culture, the making of a myth, how “we” won the war. Slowly, as I learnt more history, I realised that it wasn’t just “us”, well us and those latecomers the Yankees.. but the critical, actually dominant, role played by the Soviet Union. Being half Australian I also knew a bit about what had happened in the Pacific, including that I’d lost an uncle in the Pacific war.

I knew a fair bit about the Blitz as my dad had lived through the entire war in East London (aside from a very brief period of evacuation). I can just remember bomb sites from my early childhood (lots of corrugated iron fencing and Rosebay Willowherb), and driving around the docks (as my grandad had been a docker), or rather the large expanse of wasteland and crumbling ruins that was left. I kind of knew something momentous had happened, but I couldn’t really grasp what it was.

Much was left unspoken, or turned into a bit of a joke, like when my grandad went into the house to rescue their cat during a raid, and when a bomb landed nearby the shock wave knocked a wardrobe over onto him. He was trapped but was rescued unharmed, with the cat, the next morning. How we laughed. Later my dad would recount coming out of the shelter to find next door’s had received a direct hit, leaving body parts scattered across their garden and in trees. Looking at the bomb damage map for their part of east London, it’s a small miracle they survived. A parachute mine was lodged in a tree and didn’t go off. An oil bomb landed about 4 houses away. V1’s landed all over the place. And their street is now two streets with a little park between them, the site of a V2 impact crater.

I think it’s fair to say my dad was quite anti-German, and my grandparents certainly were. Playground games inevitably revolved around “we won the war” and the Germans getting their comeuppance. I did have a German friend at primary school whose mum had come over from East Germany (there must be a story there). I don’t remember him being bullied for being German, but perhaps he was. Then again it was a very multicultural primary school, so we all got along without a second thought.

We never went to Germany on holiday and it wasn’t until I went to Hamburg on a school exchange when I was 15 that I discovered that Germans were just like us. The family could not have been kinder or friendlier – and the 15 year olds in Hamburg seemed an awful lot more grown-up than in Britain. I remember my exchange friend (Arno)’s dad taking me to the factory where he worked (injection moulding since you ask) and while there was no explicit discussion of the war, or Germany’s partition, I came away knowing that the beautiful mediaeval town of Lubeck had been painstakingly rebuilt after its destruction. And we did take a peek at the border fence. No mention though of the Hamburg bombing in Operation Gomorrah, which killed perhaps 40,000 inhabitants.

I knew what VE day meant, but there was no celebration in any year I can recall. It was the day before my dad’s birthday. He was 12 the day after the war in Europe ended. That day he went with his mum up to the West End, with the crowds. I think they stood in The Mall with the hundreds of thousands of others, failing to hear what the King or Churchill were saying. But they were there. My grandad was working in the Bristol Docks after the London Docks had been bombed to dust. He wasn’t around. He wasn’t really around as a father to my father, for five years.

VE day just wasn’t a thing back then in the 70s and early 80s. There must have been quiet commemorations, church services and the like – and formal occasions when the allied country leaders came together to commemorate the dead. Veterans must have got together and talked about the old times, the close shaves, the comic incidents, and their lost comrades. What could be more natural? It wasn’t really until 1995 that a big do was put on. 50 years is a big anniversary for anything and I think it was felt that this would be the big one, after which veterans in particular would start to find it more difficult to take part. There was a public holiday for the 1995 VE day, shifting May day to the 8th. It’s interesting that there had previously been moves to get rid of the May day bank holiday by Tory Governments, because of its association with the Socialist International Workers Day. May Day only became a Bank Holiday in 1978.

I was always a bit uneasy about flag waving, and patriotic events. I think it’s probably come from my dad who was a republican. We used to go the proms but never the last night. We didn’t get involved in the Silver Jubilee street parties – then again our road was a major East London rat run – if anyone had tried to have a street party they would have been run over by a juggernaut within the first minute. Come university days I was generally anti-establishment, especially with Thatcher in power.

In 2010 my dad died after a long battle against cancer. It was a type of leukaemia which is associated with exposure to things like radiation or Benzene. I sometimes wonder whether his time in the Air Force, with all those big dirty jets, gave him a dose which later killed him. Nothing provable of course, but the rest of his life he worked in an office. The ten year anniversary approaches, and on Saturday we would have been celebrating his 87th birthday, which is a strange thought.

VE Day 75

Now VE day 75 is upon is. Back in the distant past of last June, on the very same day that Theresa May announced her resignation, the Govt announced that there would be a 3 day long weekend of commemoration and celebration for the 75th anniversary. It seems that the forces charity SSAFA was closely involved in organising the event – and SSAFA do get funding from the MoD and DHSC, though they are an independent charity, but I think it’s fair to say they are close to Government. As well as the formal commemoration events, the plan was to get everyone to take part, a national toast, picnics, street parties, bunting, singing along with Vera Lynn.

All of that has been scuppered by Covid-19, but people are now being encouraged to celebrate at home, or over the fence with their neighbours. All quite innocent really.

But there’s another story. All of the planned VE Day 75 celebrations focus on Britain the part Britain played, the Victory that Britain won in Europe. It’s all about the sacrifice that Britain made, as if no-one else was involved. This may be an entirely innocent oversight. Then again if it’s been organised by a British Services charity, perhaps it’s no surprise that the focus is solely on British veterans and their lost comrades.

I was pointed to a fascinating photo which shows flags being printed for the actual VE day. As well as Churchill’s face, the flags also included ones with American President FD Roosevelt, without whose support Britain would have foundered in 1940. Even more tellingly, were the flags showing Joseph Stalin’s face. In 1945 people celebrated VE day by waving flags with Stalin’s face on, in London.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Perhaps it’s not so surprising when you remember that just 2 months later, the British electorate overwhelming voted in the first, and only, socialist Government this country has ever had.

Will people this VE day remember that Britain was supplied with troops and materiel from the largest Empire the world has ever known. The supply of materiel and the military ban on fishing in the Bay of Bengal led to a famine which killed between 2 and 3 million people.  Troops came and fought, and died, for the Empire, from the Dominions and the colonies, just as they had in the First World War.

Will people celebrating this weekend recall the 26 million in the Soviet Union who perished in the war, or the 6 million Poles. Will they recall how resistance armies fought against Nazi and Fascist tyranny in Yugoslavia, Hungary, Greece, France, Norway and elsewhere. Even within Nazi Germany, people continued to resist in many small ways right through the war, like the White Rose students. Exiled Poles, Czechs, French and other Europeans fought alongside British troops throughout the war.

Maybe they will, perhaps they won’t.

The other thing that over the years has become increasingly stark to me is the very different experience people in Britain had during the war. Aside from the Channel Islands there was no occupation and all of the horrors that created – the food shortages, the deportations, the forced labour. Bombing by the allies was far worse than anything experienced in the Blitz, horrendous though that was for those who lived through it. And at the end of the war the upheavals, the displaced people, the retribution against collaborators, the starvation. And of course the new oppression in countries caught behind the Iron Curtain. It’s estimated that 60 million refugees were created by World War Two – and a million were still refugees in 1951. This is the background behind the creation of what would become the EU.

Things have changed

Things have changed over the last 10 years. Back in the 70s and 80s the far-right were a fringe. They extended into the Conservative Party via the Monday Club and the Federation of Conservative Students, but they were only ever a small minority, albeit influential. Now, with the rise of populism across the world (Trump and Modi, alongside Salvini, Le Pen, Farage) the far right is in ascendant again, in a way we have not seen since the 1930s. The far right loves the flag, loves the military victory, the hero, the strong man vanquishing foes. It’s a very black and white world. The Victors get to celebrate (forever), the losers die or are subjugated. There’s a danger with pageants, anniversaries, celebrations of military victories, that the far right slips in under cover. This is particularly true since Brexit, which was also so much about flag waving British (or English) exceptionalism, as the writer Otto English described here.

As we have dissociated ourselves from the project which was created to ensure war didn’t break out again in Europe (yes the EU and its antecedents) I worry that as a society we are drifting to the right, and that gives the far right more room for manoeuvre. Coronavirus and its aftermath – potentially an economic crash at least as bad as the 1929 crash (which ushered in the far-right in the 1930s) may be just the catalyst those in the far right need to gain influence. This needs watching closely.

Couple that with our Prime Minister who idolises Churchill. Johnson would love to have his own VE day moment. Perhaps he’ll announce VC day – Victory over Coronavirus, and after a celebratory weekend we can also put the horror behind us and get back to normal life. Although of course that didn’t happen in 1945, with rationing continuing until 1953; and post-war austerity for longer. Still, the National Health Service, mass housing for the homeless, and the welfare state were created.

The Military celebrate their Victories

I can understand why some, especially those in the forces or ex-forces, see that it is the right thing to do to celebrate military victories. Victory in Europe is the biggest one of them all. The military celebrates its victories and honours its dead, this is right and proper; it’s what helps create the identity of military units.

That does not apply to the rest of the population though, in my view; and it sets an uncomfortable, jarring, tone when so many are dying  – as a result of Government failings – of Coronavirus. Jingoistic expressions of national military might (even if they are past glories that have been mythologised) seem especially inappropriate, almost offensively so, when so many have died so needlessly.

As of today (5/5) Chris Giles of the FT estimates (a cautious estimate) that nearly 54,000 have died in the UK. This exceeds all UK wartime civilian casualties (almost all from air raids) in 1940, 1941, 1942 and 1943. The current monthly death toll exceeds the average monthly British death toll in the Second World war, from both civilian and military deaths. This is a vast loss of life by any measure.

So I won’t be celebrating VE day on Friday. I will remember my dad (who I still miss hugely) on his birthday; and see my mum (socially distanced) and be with the rest of my family. I will pay my own respects to the war dead and reflect on what is to come.

Vulcan photo  wikimedia attribution Konflikty.pl

Posted in coronavirus, far right, Fascism, VE day | Tagged , , , | 25 Comments

Coronavirus Diary; the Solace of Nature

When I went to let the chickens out first thing this morning, there it was, a familiar sound. No, it wasn’t yet another Blackcap pretending to be a Garden warbler. It was the drone. The hum, the incessant background noise. The sound of traffic on the bypass. Perhaps it was a shift in the wind direction, or humidity in the air after such a long dry period. But there it was. The spell was broken.

In truth it has been slowly building over the last week or two. I was trying to figure out who it was who was doing the driving. Second homers secretly heading down to Dorset via the back roads to dodge the police roadblocks set up at what would have been known as “County Gates” in the past. People heading back to work because they think the First Pandemic Wave has crested and everything goes back to normal now – or their boss has phoned them and told them to be at their desk/work station or risk losing their job. Who knows, but it’s a herd movement – in the sense that each individual has its own reasons for travelling, but collectively they contribute to one whole action – and that action brings the familiar background noise of the bypass to my ears. And they are perhaps over sensitive ears.

In the near month since I last wrote something on here, the world has changed. How have I spent the time? I furloughed from work at People Need Nature, and the freelance project which should have been completed weeks ago – well I have at least made a decent start on it. But finding the motivation has been like… searching for a coin in a bucket of treacle. With a pair of sugar tongs. In a blindfold.

Two things have come to dominate my waking thoughts – the dreadful (in the true sense of the word) unfolding drama of the catastrophic handling of the Pandemic by this Government. And my daily walks in nature, which got ever longer, ever more immersive, and with each day took on more of a desperation to find an escape, find solace, find a moment when everything falls away and I am in that moment, listening to that bird (yes it’s another Blackcap), letting the ultra blue of Bluebells saturate my retinas, the neurotransmitters wash through my nerves, wash away the feelings of helplessness, uselessness, panic.

I have found moments of intense experience this Spring in nature. Senses feel heightened, time moves at a different pace, time stops. Just for a second, or a minute if I’m really lucky. Not having that constant background drone of traffic (or airliners) makes such a difference. The birdsong at times feels ridiculously loud, as though the birds know the background noise is muted and sing more loudly, more exuberantly, revelling in the new sound space, filling it. On Maiden Castle I listened, rapt, to the jangling keys of Corn Buntings, a chorus of Skylarks from multiple directions, and then a Stonechat, well, chatting, in the background. I must have stood there for 10 minutes, probably grinning like a fool. Fortunately few other people were around.

Many, many people have died. Many more will live on with lifelong after effects – shot lungs, kidneys. Post Traumatic Stress. Weakened Immune systems.

Families destroyed by the pointless, unnecessary loss of loved ones.

The hundreds of people – Doctors,  Nurses, Therapists, Cleaners, Care workers and others, who willingly spent their lives caring for others, by working in the Health and Care services. Have given their lives, have lost their lives, have had their lives taken away from them, because the Government ignored the experts (we know how they feel about experts) and let the Pandemic Stockpile run down. Or told workers that an apron would suffice instead of a gown. Or counted each individual glove when making up figures about how many millions of PPE they had sent out.

We lost one of our GPs – no, he was taken away. He had been a great help when one of us was very ill. He had very recently retired, but I guess went back in to help. Another friend’s son caught the virus at Uni and ended up back home, then in hospital locally, on Oxygen. Back at home, he’s slowly recovering. Now I suspect everyone knows of someone who’s had it, or who has died.

Now we know the many many thousands of our parents and grandparents, who have died a painful and early death from Covid19 in care homes. By the latest reckoning, more people have died in care homes than in hospitals; and the virus continues to rage through these places, even as hospital deaths start to plateau – for now.

That’s not to forget all the people who have died, will die early, or have less healthy lives, because the NHS had no spare capacity and had to let other treatment, therapy, testing and prevention work go by the wayside to focus all effort on Coronavirus – as a result of a decade of vicious cuts to the Health and wider Care service. Another 18000 cancer patients could die in the next year as a result of the spin-off effects of Coronavirus. And that’s just cancer. Add in diabetes, heart disease and so on.

The sun has gone and the rain – welcome rain, rain the ground needs to soak up, has come. On  Monday I walked up to Poundbury – the Model Town Prince Charles has created as an urban extension to Dorchester. It was warm, sunny, lots of people were out – a group of daytime drinkers lolling on the grass, ignoring the social distancing rules. Nobody seemed bothered. A hundred metres away a queue for the Pharmacists, everyone diligently spaced 2m apart. Knowing the rain was coming, it almost (fancifully yes) felt like a day in September, the end of the Summer – in late April! I can remember Summers with fewer sunny days than we’ve had these last 5 weeks. Or perhaps that’s just me.

What does the future hold? I can’t think about that. Nobody knows. Next week is long enough away. I hope it doesn’t rain this afternoon, and I can get out for a walk, maybe see the Bluebells a couple more times before they fade.

I could really do with a haircut.

Posted in coronavirus, covid-19, Nature, solace of nature, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

Coronavirus Diary: Performing Lockdown.

News that farmers and other landowners were starting to erect home made notices telling visitors using public rights of way that they were closed due to coronavirus naturally led to a sense of righteous indignation rising inside me, and I put out a public request for examples that people had seen on their legitimate and legal daily exercise walks in the countryside. This elicited an amazing response – thanks to everyone who replied and all the photos. But it also caused me to stop and think about why I (and others) had had such a visceral response to these actions. Talking to environmental historian Matthew Kelly yesterday, got me thinking about all of the different roles people are slotting into – as Matthew said our “performative roles”; and how these roles coloured our perception of what the countryside is for, and how we should react to the Pandemic.

Foot and Mouth Memories

For farmers and landowners, especially in the remote uplands of England, Coronavirus has forced traumatic memories of the Foot and Mouth Disease Epidemic of 2001 to come back to the surface. It’s impossible for anyone who isn’t part of the farming community, especially those tight knit remote communities in places like the Lake District or Yorkshire Dales, to understand how traumatic the FMD epidemic was – I can only guess. Sheep flocks that had been built up through generations of breeding were slaughtered. Pyres of cattle burnt day and night. Imagine the smell, the sense that connects most directly to our emotions. Six million animals were slaughtered.

As part of the Government’s efforts to stop FMD, an extremely infectious disease which can survive outside animals on all sorts of surfaces (sound familiar?), the countryside was closed. At the time I was working as a freelance ecologist doing lots of wildlife surveys. I remember having to go through stringent biosecurity procedures before entering farms or even woods. There was whole set of kit in the back of the car to keep boots clean. I didn’t venture into the uplands.

Coronavirus is a very different disease from FMD, but its emotional impact has been similar  – and that emotional response has generated the fear not seen since nearly 20 years ago. I think this explains the home-made signs – or at least most of them. Others will use the epidemic as an opportunity to push their own hobby horses, or allow their own prejudices to come into play.

A few farmers have expressed to me their strong belief that all footpaths should be diverted out of farmyards, everywhere. Their argument is that you wouldn’t allow a footpath to pass through a factory, where fork lift trucks and other dangerous machinery operates. So therefore, on health and safety grounds, it’s wrong to allow footpaths to run through farmyards where teleforks and tractors are driving around. There’s a certain irony that on the whole farmers object to the notion that farming is akin to an industrial process – objecting to the phrase factory farming. Apart from when it is useful to draw that analogy, for the purposes of excluding the public.

Others have expressed concern for elderly, self-isolating, relatives, living in houses near or on farms, with footpaths running past their garden gates. And there is no doubt that walkers touching gates do present a risk of contagion. But how large a risk that is, and how easily it is avoided, have to be considered. We are all implored to wash our hands as soon as we return home, on the basis that any surface could be contaminated with the virus. I struggle to understand why this would not operate on a farm, as it would at the local supermarket.

Others have sought to rightly highlight the ever present problem of sheep worrying by out of control dogs, during the lockdown. But there are no more dogs than there were before (though some may be getting more walks than they are used to). So while one place – perhaps nearer to towns, will get more dog walkers, other places will suddenly be dog-free.

And then there are the landowners who just don’t like “the public” using their land. I was told about one particularly egregious example from Yorkshire, where tacks had been laid along a public bridleway causing the bike rider to suffer immediate punctures which could have led to a nasty accident.

Performative Exercise

There’s another side to this though, which is the way the Government message has been broadcast and interpreted. I won’t go into the rights and wrongs of overzealous policing, as that has already been covered elsewhere. What is more interesting is the way that exercise has been recognised as an essential aspect of this pandemic. We are not only allowed out to exercise (and this is at odds with the way other countries have defined their own lockdowns); but the very fact that it has become such a topic of discussion, means that people feel both instructed to exercise for their own good, but also encouraged to give themselves permission to exercise this small liberty, when so many other liberties have been removed.

So I think for some people they will go and exercise this liberty, walking on public Rights of Way – and the language there is very interesting isn’t it – exercising their rights to use a footpath; as a way of expressing – or indeed performing –  the fact that we still live in a democracy, albeit a restricted one. They may well feel they should go and walk a footpath they’ve never walked before, almost as a duty to uphold a vague notion of democratic rights. I think may be especially true for a certain section of the population – the healthy, wealthy, retired. Some might call them Boomers, but that’s often used in the pejorative, which is not what I am trying to convey. They are used to having free access to the countryside, to beauty spots, national parks, the coast. They have the money to spend supporting local economies, eating well, staying in nice B and Bs or hotels. Walking long distance footpaths. They are being constrained as never before.

Another irony is that these are a section of the population which did very well as a result of the partial dismantling of the state under Mrs Thatcher – and often look back on more statist times of the 60s and 70s with scorn. Yet they feel that same righteous indignation I mentioned earlier, at the prospect of having access rights, won thanks to statist policies of the 40s, being obstructed. Their desire, or even feelings of duty, to get out and perform that role as guardian of hard-won democratic rights, may feel very strong.

So it’s possible that for those of us cooped up at home, we may feel very strongly that we should be doing our hour of exercise a day, even if that was more than we had previously done. And for those who were already doing regular exercise, like joggers and runners, they may feel that their exercise now has official endorsement, and are now “exercising importantly” as someone put it. I have experienced this – the headphoned joggers powering past people well within the 2m limit. “Get out of my way I have important state-sanctioned exercise to perform.”

Never mind herd immunity, there are strong statist herd instincts being encouraged here.

Private v Public Rights

On one level, this is just another angle on the age-old tussle between private property rights, and the rights of the rest of the population to enjoy the land of the country that they live in. Interestingly in Wales, the Government has introduced laws which has allowed whole National Parks to shut down access, as a way of avoiding repeats of the events of the weekend before lockdown day, when thousands of people headed for the hills. It’s going to be vitally important that these restrictions are removed when the pandemic has passed. There are no signs that this is going to be imposed in England, at least not yet. Given that London is now becoming the epicentre of the pandemic in Europe, closing footpaths in remote parts of the country are unlikely to have any impact on that crisis.

On another level, each of us is, unwittingly perhaps, falling into our separate performative roles, whether it’s siege mentality, righteous indignation, or state-sanctioned exerciser. The Panic Buyer seems to have come and gone very rapidly. Are these roles helpful or not, are they having any effect on the spread of the disease, and are we even able to break out of them?

 

Posted in coronavirus, Foot and Mouth Disease, public rights of way | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Coronavirus diary: the Virus that did a no-deal Brexit on our food supply

It seems inconceivable that it was only a year ago (tomorrow) when the UK was due to crash out of the EU under a no deal Brexit. Thankfully that crisis was averted. Leading up to that momentous non-event, I wrote about what might happen to our food supply in the event that our smooth trading relationship with the EU broke down utterly. One year on, we find ourselves in a remarkably similar position – thanks to a Pangolin, or rather thanks to people wanting to eat Pangolins & turn them into medicine. Don’t blame the Pangolin.

Our food supply is part of a small number of “essential” things on which life depends. Food, water, housing (and the means to heat it when it’s cold). That’s it. Anything else we might like to think are essentials – well, we are just kidding ourselves. That includes mobile phone signal, the internet, even twitter. It wouldn’t be much of a life, but those are the things which ensure we remain alive.

While we have a plentiful supply of water (far too much in some places after the record breaking rainfall of the winter) and increasingly our electricity supply is provided by reneweable energy sources, we are still dependent on fossil fuel gas to heat our homes. Some of that comes from the North Sea still but much is pumped to the UK from Norway or, indirectly, Russia. The supply lines remain intact and there’s no reason to think that will change for the foreseeable future. There is no shortage of housing either – its just that like so many other resources, it’s allocated very unequally. The Govt, after long doing nothing to prevent a mushrooming in the numbers of homeless people on our streets, has now decided that the homeless must be housed, as a matter of urgency. It’s given the task to Local Authorities, who are supposed to have, by now, found emergency accommodation, in hotels emptied by the Pandemic. That the Government forced those same hotels to place their staff on furlough, before deciding that they were needed, after all, is just another example of the Government lurching from one reactive response to another. That is in the nature of crises though.

Which brings us to food. Previously, in the pre-coronavirus (PCV if you like) world, lots of people eat out, bought take-aways, bought ready-meals and cooked. Many relied on foodbanks. Not because of a  shortage of food, but because of poverty. Food was plentiful. Supermarket shelves groaned under the weight of it. Want to buy an apple? Here, look at 15 different varieties from all over the world.

UK farm produce went to supply factories producing ready meals, to supermarkets (though only a few apples were UK grown), but it also went into the foodservice sector. Foodservice is, or rather was, a massive sector using UK farm produce and imports. I’ve been trying to find figures for how much UK farm produce ended up in meals provided by everyone from MacDonalds to the Roux Brothers. It’s tricky. For dairy, AHDB estimated that foodservice took 8M litres of fresh milk a week, 8% of total UK production. conversely, of course, domestic demand for fresh milk has soared, placing additional pressures on suppliers and the supply chain. Large dairy business Mueller, which recently laid off staff, is now desperately trying to recruit 300.

The beef in beefburgers, the potatoes for chips in fish and chips, the Lamb going into Indian restaurants, all of these supply lines have stopped, practically overnight. Some of this will be redirected into the delivery trade (deliveroo etc), but PCV 80% of the foodservice  sector was eating out. You just can’t redirect that much food into hom e delivery.

 

 

 

For some food products then, there’s a big surplus being built up, because people are not eating out any more, but the supply chain is yet to be reconfigured to convert that produce into a form in which it can be transported and packaged for supermarkets. This is happening now, but under pressure from a number of sources. The main one being lack of workforce. We’re already hearing about shortfalls in the workforce because of sickness and self-isolation. This applies across the entire supply chain, from farm workers, pickers and packers, delivery drivers and shop workers. That our food industry was already so dependent on overseas workers (both EU and non-EU) (again remember Brexit?), who are now stuck unable to travel due to coronavirus lockdowns, has only further exacerbated an existing crisis.

So for some domestically produced food there’s a surplus and a blockage in the supply chain. As a result Lamb prices have collapsed, because people are not eating out, and exports being disrupted. Under a no deal Brexit, it was predicted lamb prices would drop 30%. Coronavirus has seen them drop 36%. For the lamb industry, Coronavirus is no-deal Brexit by another route. I’m going to make a prediction here. People are not going to start buying up the surplus of lamb to cook at home. It isn’t going to happen, even if there was a big campaign to get people to buy and eat lamb ( because there have been many over the years). Even if lamb was being given away free with every pint of milk, it probably wouldn’t make much difference. I think the nation has fallen out of love with lamb.

Anyway we aren’t going to run short of meat. We’re more than self-sufficient in beef, lamb, chicken, pork. We may have to change our habits and start eating chicken brown meat, instead of demanding that we must have white. Again, all of this was predicted in the context of a no deal Brexit. It’s almost uncanny, as though Coronavirus has come along and said

“you know all those predictions about a no deal Brexit screwing up your food supply chain? Well predict no more. I’m here to show you how it plays out.”

But, as well all know (or almost all of us anyway) meat is not an essential part of our diet. We do have to eat fruit and vegetables though. And this is where it gets really tricky, because we import around 75% of our fruit and veg. Much of that comes from Spain, the Netherlands and Italy. So while we will have potatoes for a while (they were lifted last Autumn), we rely on imports for things like tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, lettuce, courgettes and cucumbers. Tinned tomatoes from Italy.

And again, as if Coronavirus was some spectre of no-deal Brexit, the two countries hit hardest by the virus in the EU, are Spain and Italy. Exports of fruit and veg from Spain rely on workers being supplied to the vast acreages of horticulture in southern Spain. workers driven to farms in minibuses. Shared minibuses, full of Moroccan workers. Morocco is now also suffering a large CV outbreak. Morocco has closed its border with Spain.

This is happening across Europe. Seasonal workers, which are the backbone of the food supply system, are unable to travel, or unable to work through sickness and self-isolation.

Food policy experts Tim Lang and Erik Millstone have already called for food rationing to be introduced, not by the supermarkets, but by the Government. They are usually right, and they are right this time. Rationing needs to be combined with a voucher system that ensures those in greatest need (and the poorest) have access to the most nutritious food, regardless of income.

Rationing is needed for three reasons – firstly because the food bank system providing food to those who cannot afford it, has been overwhelmed and the Government must step in to stop people going hungry. This has been exacerbated by schools closing, preventing free school meals from relieving some of the hunger pressure.

Secondly because the supply chain problems I have described are rapidly coming down the line towards us and essential supplies of fruit and veg are going to dwindle.

Thirdly, perhaps most importantly, is because everyone has to have as healthy a diet as possible and we need to ensure that food is distributed fairly and equitably. A healthy diet means a healthy immune system, which helps people to cope with illness, like novel viruses. Fruit and veg provide our bodies with the vitamins, minerals and micro nutrients which keep our immune system functioning properly. Oily fish is also essential for the same reasons. At the moment, food is not flowing to where it’s needed; it’s still flowng according to who has most access to the system and that’s partly down to income. While the Government has gone some way towards guaranteeing people’s incomes after the income they previously derived from work has disappeared (almost overnight), there are still huge holes and delays in the system.

A rationing and voucher system would ensure that everyone was able to get the food they need, without having to worry about whether they could afford it.

What else can we do, as individuals? Those of us lucky enough to be in a position to do so, need to crack on and grow as much food as we can, as this will reduce pressure on the system. And, until rationing comes in, everyone else needs to make sure they don’t throw away any food that can be eaten, which means only buying food that’s definitely going to be eaten.

 

 

Posted in Brexit, coronavirus, Food, food security | Tagged , , , | 15 Comments

Coronavirus diary: Libertarians, Pandemics and Populism

I had a bit of a cough yesterday. My wife and younger daughter had been ill the previous week with a typical winter bug. Was I fighting it off, or was it the beginnings of the dreaded coronavirus-19? Many thoughts flashed through my anxiety-ridden mind. Could I go and see my 89 year old mum, isolating to avoid catching it from anyone. In the end the cough didn’t become persistent, I felt better by the afternoon. Panic over. Perhaps the cough appeared as a result of Corona-anxiety, I don’t know. I feel fine this morning.

Many other people also felt fine – partly I suspect because the weather was so beautiful. How ironic, after the relentless rain of the eternal Autumn (Winter never appeared here in Dorset), that in the week we were implored not to go out, the weather should finally turn sunny and dry. And off they went, crowding the coastal resorts, crowding the Lake District, the Peak District, and every other National Park I expect. The National Trust, having bravely opened its parks and gardens to the public for free, to encourage them to go outdoors and enjoy the Spring, now found themselves having to shut up shop, because so many had taken up their kind offer. Scenes of crowded parks litter Social Media, generating a tidal wave of criticism, of these selfish people spreading the virus.

What is going on? I think it’s partly of the Government’s own doing.  The Government, now being run by the likes of Dominic Cummings and his mates from the Vote Leave campaign, who are in turn drawn from a small cabal of activists on the libertarian right – all of whom work for a small group of “think tanks” mostly based in Tufton Street, Westminster. These are the people who have spent the last twenty years quietly plugging away at a narrative, a narrative which finally came to fruition in the Brexit campaign.

The narrative is simple – Government is bad. The state is bad, it is by its very nature oppressive. It inevitably gets in the way of the Natural Order of things. The Natural Order is that everyone is an individual and that individual liberty is more important than anything else. And that the natural collective of individual liberty is enshrined in the Market. Public Spending is bad because it’s Taxpayers Money, being stolen from them by the state. Public services are therefore bad and need to be privatised. The private sector is part of the Natural Order of things and will always do a better job than the public sector. Rich people are rich because they worked harder or deserve to be rich. The poor are either lazy or stupid. Interestingly this point is one of the intersectional points between the Libertarian (or Hard) Right and the Authoritarian or Far Right. The Eugenic theories espoused by the likes of Toby Young and Dominic Cummings seek to provide a pseudo-scientific justification for the argument that “the poor are genetically inferior, which is why they will always be poor.”

Everything that gets in the way of the Natural Order must be swept away. This includes Regulation, the Civil Service, The BBC, and anyone who seeks to challenge the narrative of the Natural Order. Money should also have its own liberty, and be free to flow wherever it can. If that means it all ends up in the pockets of multi-billionaires, massive transglobal corporations and offshore tax havens, that is part of the Natural Order.

Naturally multi-billionaires, massive transglobal corporations and offshore tax havens are the places where money also flows from, into the coffers of those Think Tanks in Tufton Street – the Taxpayers Alliance, Policy Exchange, The Institute of Economic Affairs, The Adam Smith Institute, the Centre for Policy Studies, etc etc.

Think back over the past 20 years and there have been some very significant victories by the Libertarian Right –

they saw off plans for the UK to join the Euro.

They put a massive hole in the public’s perception of trust in (Westminster) politicians with the expenses scandal.

They cemented the idea that public spending was bad in the media. It’s a basic Libertarian tenet, but it was dressed up as Austerity in the wake of the 2008 financial crash.

They saw off electoral reform in the no 2 AV campaign.

They poisoned the mind of the public against the EU resulting in the Brexit win. In doing so they simultaneously exploited the rise of populism across Europe (and more widely) and the opportunities to be gained from weaponising social media as a propaganda tool.

Having created this narrative so successfully, Cummings and his Tufton Street mates seized power in 2019. Let’s face it, with Jeremy Corbyn and his own little cabal running the Labour Party into the ground, and with a pliant media to pump out their slogans, it was, in hindsight, an easy win. The ground was prepared to transform Britain – or perhaps Greater England, as Northern Ireland would need to be sacrificed to have any decent sort of trade deal with both the US and the EU, while Scotland would only become ever more restive – into their dream: the small state, everything privatised, dream. With the clown Johnson as their front man/patsy, the stage was set.

Then came the Coronavirus, like Banquo at Macbeth’s feast. Or Thanos, if you prefer a modern analogy. The natural response from the Natural Order boys (and they are almost all boys), was “it’s all part of the natural order, we must let the virus spread through the population so the healthy will survive and everyone will have herd immunity.” That’s straightforward Social Darwinism, the survival of the richest, who can disappear off to their second homes  in the Caribbean or sail out to safe places in their superyachts. Once it became clear that not only would half a million people die in very short order of CV-19, but many others would also die because the NHS had collapsed under the strain, panic set in. The awful truth dawned – The Government would have to Do Something.

Consider what the exquisite messaging that had been deployed by Cummings & His Mates:

Don’t Trust Politicians. They are all self-serving liars.

Take Back Control

Give the People The  Power to Decide for Themselves.

The People’s Parliament.

The People’s Budget.

you get the idea. The Libertarians aren’t interested in populism other than as a mean to their ends, which is dismantling state and public power.

Now, the Government was going to have to take control, to start telling people what to do. The messages are simple – wash your hands and keep 2m away from other people. But the messages coming from Johnson and the Government have been disastrous. Firstly they prefer to persuade, the Nudge Unit, another bit of fake science, was tasked with producing messages to persuade, and came up with the Herd Immunity line. Secondly they gave the job to inveterate liar Johnson.

Not surprisingly the messages have failed to get through. Instead we’ve lurched through a series of mishaps and delays, before finally closing pubs and other public gathering places, finally closing schools. Weeks have been wasted.

Instead of a wall to wall public information campaign we have dribs and drabs, a daily press conference with  Johnson at the helm, automatically negating any credibility it might have.

But the biggest problem is that, having told the public for years to mistrust politicians, take back control and decide things for themselves, that is exactly what a significant chunk of the public are doing. Can they really be blamed? This, coupled with a traditional “I’m alright Jack” British exceptionalism, will prove, is proving fatal.

Given that in order to be effective, a large section of the public need to act on the key messages (hand washing and social distancing), two paths now offer themselves.

The “Herd Immunity” path is still there. Without a massive behavioural change from the public, the virus will spread, exponentially. The NHS will fall over. Half a million and more will die in a very short time. Mass Graves. Essential workers not at their stations. The fabric of society will be threatened, as food and energy supplies come under pressure. The Army will be on the streets.

The other path is scarier for the Libertarians. It’s a strong state, verging on the authoritarian, as has already happened in France, Spain and Italy. Permission is needed to venture outside your home. Gatherings are banned. Perhaps even the state takes over the media to pump out the necessary messages. The state has already taken over paying people’s wages, or at least made several large steps in that direction. Next will be essential services being brought into state ownership, including the food supply. This is, after all, what happened in the last great national crisis, World War Two.

Which would you prefer?

 

 

 

 

Posted in coronavirus, Dominic Cummings, populism | Tagged , , , , | 11 Comments