Nature conservation: a liberal legacy

2015 was a strange year for me, as it was a strange year for the party; an odd, jarring mixture of losses and new hopes. In my case, one especially sad loss was that of my grandfather, Ted Smith, a pioneer of nature conservation across the UK, and especially in his native Lincolnshire – and also a Liberal and Liberal Democrat since the 1930s (one of the last few times I saw him, I helped him fill out his ballot for last year’s leadership election). He was a kind, quiet man, relentless in his pursuit of good causes; but others now have to lift that flag, and as such I thought this might be a time to reflect on how we think about conservation as a party.

We know that the natural world is under threat, perhaps more so than ever given the threat of climate change, and we have been the party most committed to strong science-led efforts to tackle that threat. The green agenda, however, must not be simply reduced to a question of climate alone. We owe it to future generations to conserve and protect Britain’s biodiversity, green spaces and habitats.
Liberal Democrats have to take the lead on the politics of nature conservation. Firstly, we must because nobody else will do so effectively. The Tory agenda for rural areas is one for corporations and landowners, protecting vast mismanaged estates and failing to provide effective solutions to rural issues. Labour’s agenda for rural areas is all too frequently non-existent. We can do better, and we must.

It is not our fight simply because it is left out of other parties’ thinking, however; the idea that the country’s natural resources should be preserved and shared is very much a liberal one. Nature conservation is not, and never should be, something to happen on the whim of the wealthy, nor will it be sustainable if imposed solely by central diktat. Conservation has to be a part of how we think about community – with nature reserves and biodiversity seen as collective local assets, precious and not measurable by any simple economic calculation. We must, as a party committed to taking the long term view, start with the principle that we cannot deprive future generations of our wild spaces; people’s freedom to enjoy and use them can so easily be lost forever.
Building grassroots support in rural areas is absolutely crucial for this, and the Liberal Democrats are the only party positioned to do so; we need to both support local and national conservation initiatives and build bridges to farmers to ensure that the land is managed effectively for both its human and wild inhabitants. Biodiversity is also an international problem – nature pays curiously little attention to arbitrary human border lines – and it needs an internationalist party to consider it fully and work on it across borders. Leaving the EU could be a catastrophe for Britain’s wildlife, given how much of our environmental regulation is now set at a European level.

If there was one major change in conservation that my grandfather helped set in motion, it was to make the vision of how it could be achieved inclusive. Conservation, done sustainably, is not the act of locking the public out of natural spaces; it is the act of creating and maintaining spaces where the public and scientists are able to engage with preserving and supporting a rich, diverse natural world. He left us a vision of an egalitarian, community-centred approach to the natural world that should resonate with us as liberals – let’s ensure we keep it alive.

* James Baillie is a member and activist from Breckland and a former chair of the Lib Dems' Radical Association. He is currently a doctoral student at the University of Vienna, where he works on digital studies of medieval Georgia. He blogs about politics at thoughtsofprogress.wordpress.com.

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3 Comments

  • Neil Sandison 5th Jan '16 - 11:06pm

    Couldn’t agree with you more James and can show many good examples both rural and urban where that has in fact been practiced .But start them young with out door classrooms and forest schools .I was taught rural science at my secondary school .I am a local tree champion and do everything I canto support my local wild life trust – e a pain and ask about biodiversity off setting in your local plan and where are the off road cycle routes in the proposed new housing developments .what provision is there for ecological corridors ect.

  • Tsar Nicholas 6th Jan '16 - 3:35am

    There was a gardening segment on an ITV daytime show Tuesday. The gardener said that all his plants had been flowering, many of them months early, and that all his winter vegetables (aside from those in the greenhouse) had died. Plenty of shoots but no actual edible food.

    If this is a reflection of what is happening more widely then we should all be gravely concerned. Nature and the environment have always been reagrded as being a bit of an add-on extra instead of being at the heart of things. Maybe if there is widespread food supply disruption because of out-of-control global warming, there will be a change of attitude. However, it may then be too late.

  • Great article, totally agree with you. Sometimes we allow the issue of climate change to squeeze out all other environmental issues (although climate change itself will have a massive impact on biomes and bio-diversity).

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