Most of my writing has been tied up in recent weeks with putting together early drafts of my Lakes Project. But with a little bit of free time, I have been reflecting on the sale of Blencathra and the recent cabinet reshuffles.
No environmentally minded soul can be sad to see the back of Owen Paterson from DEFRA and cheers resounded in staff rooms across the country as Michael Gove was neatly slid away from the education department. The key thing that seems to tie these two fallen heros together was an overwhelming arrogance which made them believe that their role was not to listen, facilitate and guide, but instead to drive through their own, pre-decided agenda at all cost and not minding who they upset or disengaged in the process.
I follow education policy less closely but Gove’s seemingly contradictory dreams of independent, free thinking schools, whilst simultaneously enforcing his own prejudice about what should and shouldn’t be taught, was driven in the face of increasing teacher opposition and disenfranchisement. Whatever you think of his agenda, surely it must be a role of any Education Secretary to build strong relationships with teachers as, even if you believe it to be their role to drive change and challenge the status quo, any attempts to do so which lose the support of teachers and damage their morale in the way Gove did are surely doomed to failure.
This argument applies more strongly still to Owen Paterson. Even the name of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs tells you that you are dealing with an area of complex compromise, challenging tradeoffs and unlikely bed-fellows. It is a department which, to succeed in any agenda, needs to build consensus, to seek win-wins between food security and wildlife, between climate change, the development of rural areas and the protection of traditional ways of life. Therefore to have an environment secretary so clearly set against a green agenda can only be doomed to failure. Paterson’s approach to the science of the badger cull and the science of climate change had already told us that this was an ‘Environment’ minister firmly set against the main stream of the modern environmental movement. If there was any doubt about that through his time in office, his immediate actions on losing his job at DEFRA have nailed that coffin. Clearly I have some bias against Paterson’s points of view, I do believe that climate change and broader environmental issues represent the biggest challenge facing modern governments. I would like to see a reforming, inspirational Environment Secretary who takes on these challenges rather than hiding their head in climate scepticism. However, I accept that anyone taking up this post will come with their own ideas, beliefs and agendas. But what I do demand, is an Environment Secretary open to arguments from all sides of the debate, led by genuine engagements in evidence and with the ability to build consensus and find compromise, an approach which could not be more opposite from Paterson’s.
However, overall, I don’t think it is either Paterson, or Gove who come out worst from the recent reshuffle. For me the real villain of the piece is David Cameron. Cameron has been praised in certain quarters for his ruthless drive and political nous in removing these divisive figures prior to the upcoming election. However, it’s precisely that ‘political nous’ that I object to most. Can we really believe that Cameron appointed these men blind to their approaches or the agendas they were set to implement. Can we really accept a Prime Minister who talks on the one hand of being the Greenest Government ever and yet appoints a climate skeptic Environment Secretary who sees it as his role to fight the green blob? Even if we can believe that Cameron didn’t know what he was letting himself in for, it should have become apparent to him through Paterson’s handling of the badger cull and his increasingly climate change skeptic approach to events like the floods. Did Cameron, seeing this, act to change the direction of DEFRA, no. Instead he waits until the dying sessions of parliament to shuffle his pack, not out of genuine desire to change the agenda but in a cynical political reshuffle focused entirely on optics and away from substance.
Over the same period a, perhaps at times rag-tag, group of people came together to try to buy a mountain. The Friends of Blencathra have been criticised at times throughout this process for being politically naive, for being unclear, and unsure of what they were trying to achieve and how they would do it. I am sure that even they would agree that at times, exactly why they felt that Blencathra should be bought by the people was not entirely clear. It certainly may not have been clear if there was any genuine danger to the mountain and how buying would provide any greater protection than that already laid down in statute. However, they were driven by a heart-felt belief that this was a people’s space, and be it practical, philosophical or psychological, there was something powerful about people coming together to express their love of the place, and their desire for it to be protected. So they commited to the idea, they learnt as they went, they solicited a huge public response and financial backing and they did something. In a way, you could say the same of Gove and Paterson. Much as I dislike many of their views, and their inability to bring people towards consensus and co-operation, they at least were driven by a vision. If this, or the efforts of the Friends of Blencathra is naivity, I would take it over the callous, political astuteness of Cameron’s reshuffle any day.