Who we are is about where we live

Ruth Davis

The surprising joy of Ed Milliband’s party conference coinage of ‘one nation’ Labour is that it invokes and requires a number of concrete choices about how we govern ourselves. It is a genuine political intervention and requires a considered political response. Happily, these choices – about national identity, the politics of the common good and the value of work – also speak directly to a new politics of the environment that is founded in place, is democratic, and identifies decently paid work as central to tackling global threats to our collective security and well-being.

One nation Labour requires us to engage actively with the idea of nationhood. A rediscovered and more authentic patriotism already plays a central role in the new democratic politics of the left. However, contemporary discussion of this issue often neglects one element of national identity that is less assuming, but also more profound and less divisive, than the contested symbolism of flags, or the dubious merits of citizenship tests: that is, that nations have their roots in places.

A nation emerges where a people come together on a particular piece of land, to make use of that land’s special qualities, and to protect those qualities for the benefit of their children. Tales of identity, modern and ancient, are for this reason inextricably linked to place; and are represented as much by the absolute Sheffieldness of the Arctic Monkeys, as the Dorsetness of Hardy or theLakeDistrictnessof Wordsworth. Who we are is about where we live.

Place is central to identity; and hence, protecting the places we love from appropriation or short-sighted damage for private profit is at the heart of popular environmentalism. The iconic battle over the proposed privatisation of the nation’s woodlands illustrates the point perfectly.

But our sense of place is about more than just a conceptual or emotional sense of nationhood; it is also about a wider politics of the common good. This is because communities that care for the young and the old, and that have sufficient energy to shape local public life (including public services) exist where people are able to settle in one place long enough to create trusting relationships. These relationships with neighbours, teachers, doctors, shop-keepers, lollipop ladies and postmen are the community. They are what enable us to invest in making the place we live in together, better.

This means, of course, that communities are also central to how we care for our environment. It is communities with an investment in place who will battle to get cars out of their streets so their children can play safely, who will band together to clean up their local park, and will get to know, protect and love their local woodland, and the wildlife it supports.

For these reasons, both the Labour party and the environment movement should take a passionate interest in policies that allow people to work where they live, and to live in the places where they have family, friends, and local attachments. A living wage, an active industrial policy, a strategy for securing local capital for local businesses, and affordable housing are essential components of such a plan.

But focusing on the trinity of community, place and identity, might also enable us to come to terms with one of the other great wounds in British society: the bitter divide between our cities and our countryside.

It is a huge pity that the last Labour government’s record in office will be remembered by so many people in ruralEnglandfor the ban on fox-hunting. Regardless of rights or wrongs, having this particular fight was an unhappy way to begin a relationship, because it eroded trust, and provided a welcome distraction for those who benefit from an egregious social and environmental settlement in the countryside.  Worst of all, it left little political space for Labour to propose an alternative rural politics of the common good.

The problems of ruralBritainare deep-seated. Bankruptcy and suicide are common among small farmers. Wages for agricultural labourers are low, the use of illegal labour is rife, and many people cannot afford local housing. Alongside these social miseries, the rural environment has been steadily deteriorating. Agricultural pollution of water costs billions every year to clean up.  There has been an unprecedented decline in farmland wildlife. Soils are degraded. Pesticide use has decimated populations of the pollinating insects that sustain productivity.

A refreshed Labour party could start to address the state of rural Britain, by recognising that it was created by a system of monolithic European welfare payments (the common agricultural policy (CAP)), combined with the worst elements of laissez-faire market capitalism. The CAP does little to reward farmers for public goods, but instead hands out support payments based on historical production levels – including millions annually to the country’s wealthiest land-owners. Yet ironically, many smaller farmers still cannot command a viable price for their goods, and are squeezed between competition from cheap imports and the buying power of the supermarkets.

One nation Labour could immediately tackle these issues by limiting the subsidy available to any individual farmer, but also by linking a policy for a living wage with one for good, affordable food. A living wage for a farmer requires a decent price for food. A living wage for the rest of us means that we can afford to buy such food in our local shops and supermarkets. And to anyone with a clear-sighted view of our national interest, good food must be produced in ways that protect our critical national assets: including our water, air and land, and the natural (living) systems upon which we all depend.

A one nation Labour party worth its salt would take this battle intoEurope. And it is in how we conduct our relationships with countries beyond our borders that another potential bond exists between Ed Milliband’s Labour party and the environment movement.

A discussion of nationhood requires a specific view of how we should engage with the outside world to secure our national interests. Because whilst an active industrial (and indeed agricultural) policy, combined with a living wage, might help to create a more resilient economy at home, this will not be enough on its own to deal with the systemic risks posed by an unstable financial system, a dwindling global resource base and an increasingly unstable climate. These risks can only be addressed through regional and global co-operation. They require us to believe that we have something to give and gain inEurope, and that the United Nations, for example, is exactly that – a place where individual, sovereign nations unite to face common problems. The alternative – a kind of feral isolationism, combined with a refusal to countenance any regulation of global capital – is a travesty of the national interest, whether or not it comes with a union jack badge.

Countries with a confident sense of national identity and a common sense of purpose turn outwards, not inwards; believing that they can ride and shape whatever new circumstances the outside world brings along. And it is in this spirit that we need to approach the problem of climate change.

Scientists, security experts, business leaders, energy analysts, doctors and faith leaders are united in recognising that the pollution of our atmosphere represents a grave threat to our future. This is not a matter of guilt, cost and recrimination; it is an emergency to which we must respond with common purpose, to protect the common good. We must embrace the opportunity that building a new energy system gives us to renew our economy, and to build new trading partnerships with the developing world. We must re-imagine the challenge as one that requires work, in the very best sense of the word; the work of inventing, designing and building new technologies, here inBritain; and the work of co-operating internationally to create stable markets for those technologies, and common rules that foster useful trade.

For as long as I can remember, political parties have treated the environment as something to be managed, coming up with ‘green’ policies that could picked up or dropped according to expediency. And the environment movement in turn has spent its time lobbying, begging for a regulation here, a support measure there – rather than engaging with how to organise our economy and articulate our wider national interest.

A creative relationship with one nation Labour should mark an end to this era of managerialism and lobbying. If the environment movement wishes to renew its legitimacy, it must speak out when the Labour party is debating its support for a new industrial policy, a living wage and affordable food. And if the Labour party truly wishes to protect the common good of the nation, it must recognise that the very foundation of that common good is the place where we live, the land upon which we depend, and the climate that surrounds us all.

 

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This article was originally published in the 2012 Winter edition of the Fabian Review. For more details, and to read the full magazine, please click here.