Dame Fiona Reynolds, former Director-General of the National Trust gave a talk recently at the University of Bath, in which she delivered an impassioned rallying cry – echoing the title of her recent book – to join a new ‘fight for beauty’ in Britain.
Though I couldn’t help but feel that she was preaching to the converted (a generous, but familiar crowd of former National Trust colleagues, old campaign partners, and academics had assembled, mostly in tweed or technical outdoor wear, in one of the university’s cramped lecture theatres), her call to action will strike a chord with those who see the cold shadow of the market creeping into the last corners of the landscape we love.
As Dame Fiona points out, William Wordsworth had the same fear for his beloved lakes, when, confronted with the Kendal to Windermere Railway, he penned:
“Is then no nook of English ground secure / From rash assault?”
It called to mind our impending exit from the European Union, and the threat of even more power (more sovereignty, funnily enough) over our natural resources – and the beautiful and valued places in which they are invariably found – being ceded to multinational corporations as part of transnational trade arrangements.
While Reynolds was right to highlight the opportunities for legal reform, particularly in relation to agricultural policy, that might be seized upon following Brexit, I couldn’t help but wonder how my leaver friends would react to her portrayal of the historic battles for this green and pleasant land and wonder, what have we done?
She spoke of the poet soldiers of the Great War, who simultaneously evoked the terror of the trenches and the beauty of the land they had signed up to defend, and who were to be betrayed by promises of “A Land Fit for Heroes”. The inter-war period turned out to be even more catastrophic for the British landscape and social welfare than the industrial upheavals of the Victorian age, with unregulated development filling the vacuum left by a broke British government.
Following the Second World War, however, Winston Churchill’s Wartime Reconstruction Committee was determined not to see the same mistakes repeated. Churchill led the fight to protect the beauty of the British countryside, laying the foundations for the designation of green belt land, the provision of urban green space, areas of outstanding natural beauty, and the first national parks.
But, Reynolds laments, despite some victories (the protection of our coastlines by the National Trust, David Cameron’s U-turn on the selling off of the English public forests), it has largely been downhill since then. Churchill’s promises, those made to the returning heroes of the world wars, the legacies of John Ruskin, Octavia Hill, Churchill and the rest, all lost to the ‘economism’ of the neoliberal age, in which everything has a market value.
The co-opting of the planning process by corporate interests is, for Reynolds, one of the primary causes of this decline. And this threat is surely heightened today, as politicians begin the process of transposing EU law into the post-Brexit UK legislature.
With President Trump and [an increasingly disappointing] Prime Minister Trudeau peering across the Atlantic, the considerable consolation of having sidestepped TTIP could be lost if our leaders concede to corporate demands for an equivalent of the Investor State Dispute Settlements which are already allowing multinational firms to sue governments for loss of profits caused by policy.
Such pressures must not be allowed to dilute our hard-won environmental protections further.
The new fight for beauty, then, must be allied to the fight for community, social equity, and democracy; and requires a level of vigilance that matches the scale of the task facing the UK government in the coming years. As they shape the relations between the people and this island for decades to come, they must be made accountable by an effective opposition, and strong activism.
At the grass roots, Fiona Reynolds’ contribution to a losing cause has been significant. Moreover, the achievements of organisations like the National Trust in reconnecting people (and specifically young people) to the English landscape are wonderful examples of how value beyond the market can and must be generated.
However, Dame Fiona’s call to arms must extend beyond the cosy confines of the National Trust set and the rural middle classes, to reach those so ignored by society and politics that they took their revenge on 23rd June 2016. Together we must understand what is at stake in this post-Brexit world and how we must hold the government to account.