Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Why we need to celebrate spectacular wildlife

I've been attending some recent meetings on UK conservation policy and there has been a lot of talk about making conservation relevant to everyday life and bringing it home to people, particularly in schools. What they mean is that studying wildlife is not just about the big stuff, but about the little things in our back garden, the domestic, the seemingly mundane.

In one sense they are right - studying and appreciating wildlife is about much more than the Serengeti, and the small and hidden has as much value as the showy and grand. In a country as urbanised as this, so they say, we should be making things accessible to those with little natural experience. At the same time though this approach leaves me feeling dispirited. It has merits, but it must not lose site of the power and inspiration that we can get from spectacular wildlife.

The trouble is that people will get this anyway from TV. Endless shows about Africa and South America provide a diet of breathtaking natural spectacle. There is nothing wrong with this at all. The problem arises because almost none of this spectacle focuses close to home in Europe and even less in the British Isles.

Now there is no use pretending that we have as much spectacular wildlife left as some other places, but there are still awesome sights to be seen. Nobody who has seen basking sharks bathing in sun, come close to a gannet colony or watched an owl hunting on a wild open moor could dispute that. By focusing the study of British wildlife on the small scale and suburban, we help to create the impression that real wildlife is something that happens elsewhere. It is a foreign concern. Growing up in Ireland and Britain this was exactly the view I learned. I had no idea that whales swam in our waters, along with countless sea-birds and 40% of the European seal population. How many people in Britain know there are resident populations of Orcas off the coast, hunting seals in much the same way as they have seen in images of Patagonia? By creating the impression that there is little of value worth saving I think a lot of people switch off from local wildlife, and perhaps from wildlife completely. We still have a hell of a lot worth saving, and we have awful of restoration to do. Yes we can look at the small as well as the big, but we still need to inspire and to celebrate the great things that are worth fighting for. Let's do it.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

We need a federal UK, and positive reasons for the Union

The United Kingdom as it stands has become unsustainable. The tensions and imbalances unleashed by the half-formed devolution currently being employed are slowly pulling the country apart. In Scotland, the Nationalist SNP won a decisive victory in May and is planning to hold a referendum on independence in 2015. As things stand the nationalists will lose that vote, because most Scots currently want to remain part of the UK (roughly 30% favour independence, although more will vote SNP for Holyrood),1 but opinion could shift and the calls for ever more devolution could make a sustainable settlement hard to maintain.

At the same time, grumbling in England about their own lack of devolution is threatening to turn bad tempered, further fraying the fabric the Union. The fact that Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs can vote on purely English matters is patently unfair. So, while neither Scotland are England so far look likely to declare independence anytime soon,2 the long term direction is unstable.

Why does that matter? Well there are all sort of reasons I could give - the fact that Scotland would be bankrupt now thanks to the financial crisis were it not part of a larger union, the deeply uncertain future of the European Union and the fate of small countries in a world of giants (USA, India, China, Russia, Brazil), but actually my real reasons for supporting the existence of the United Kingdom are much more positive. Quite simply I think that the country is greater than the sum of its parts. It gains something by binding historic nations and units into something more encompassing and cohesive. Scotland and Wales gain by being part of a larger unit, giving them a voice on the world stage and a less parochial politics and society than they might otherwise have, while England gains by being taken out of itself, given a broader world view and made slightly less subservient to the needs of London and the South East.

All of us gain through the freedom of movement and more importantly, belonging, we can enjoy as part of the UK. I refuse to accept that any of us should be foreigners in any part of this island. I claim as much ownership over the hills of Devon as I do over the mountains of Mull. Cardiff is as much my homeland as Edinburgh.

Finally, and personally, there is something nice in being part of a country that is not purely based on historic ethnic boundaries. Born in England to Scottish parents and brought up in Ireland, Scotland and England I can feel 'British' far more easily than Scottish or English. My Chinese-Indian-Irish partner feels the same. She can assimilate into a broad 'British' identity far more easily than Scottish, Welsh, Cornish, English, Orcadian or whatever.

So what can those of us who support the union do? Well first of all we need to make the case for the Union and hope that the SNP's referendum fails, but more importantly we need to begin a radical reform. I am in favour of a Federal approach. The United Kingdom would have a Federal Parliament responsible for Foreign Affairs, Defence, dispensing federal funds etc.. while each of the nations would have a State or national government. In order to improve regional representation, these state governments could have further autonomous regions (this is common in many countries). For example Shetland could become and autonomous region of the state of Scotland in the UK, if they so wished. I would also encourage cities to have mayors and councils. At the same time I would also like to see the Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies given the offer of joining the federation and electing an MP or two, while not diminishing their current autonomy. While proud and independent, these people also feel strong ties to the UK and should be allowed to be part of the new federation, as equals. If they declined they could stay as they are.

Of course all these arrangements would require much greater fiscal autonomy than is currently offered to the devolved governments, although there would still be a federal fund for emergencies, bail-outs etc. Obviously there would be a lot of complications on the way, but I think if we did all that, we might have made a crucial first step to a prosperous, democratic and stable United Kingdom. Oh, and let's make it green as a priority while were at it!

1 Recent polls for Yougov, take after the SNP victory, put support for separation at 29%, with 58% opposed. Another for TNS showed 36% in favour, 45% opposed. While higher, TNS normally gets slightly higher results in favour of independence and this is in line with their normal fndings, probably due to the wording of the question. Opposition to independence remains fairly static.

2 While there does not appear to be any great shift in pro-independence feeling, supporters of the Union would be most unwise to be complacent. Alex Salmond is a highly capable and popular politician, has momentum and his personal popularity could be decisive in any referendum – particularly compared to the poor, negative character of many of his opponents!