Please David Attenborough: For Nature’s Sake, No Planet Earth III

BBC production genius, big budgets and the gentle charisma of David Attenborough were combined to take the BBCs hallmark nature spectaculars to new heights in Planet Earth II. It is more awe inspiring, more immersive, more cinematic than ever before.  Yet for nature’s sake there should be no Planet Earth III on the same model.

Planet Earth II goes too far in supplying high-dose nature therapy at the sofa, without showing how nature needs help, how it can be helped, or helping viewers to help.  Given his age, the BBC may fear Planet Earth III may be unimaginable without David Attenborough’s magic touch but the rest of the cast may soon anyway be unavailable: the natural world celebrated in these BBC statement movies is simply vanishing.  The BBC could go on doing ‘more with less’ but Planet Earth III on the same basis would be a descent into virtual reality.slide3Most of the world’s wildlife has disappeared over the time the BBC has been making natural history films.  It is time to rethink the model.

The Success of Planet Earth II

When the BBC’s Planet Earth II aired in Britain before Christmas, it immediately became the UK’s most-watched natural history programme for 15 years.  It is being sold around the world, and a few days after it went online at Tencent in China, the first two episodes had been downloaded 61 million times.

The millions of viewers who watch TV nature mega-series such Planet Earth II presented by David Attenborough, probably assume they must help save nature.  Such popular programmes are certainly a vote for ‘liking wildlife’, and make presenters famous.  An academic study described them as Natures’ Saviours: Celebrity Conservationists in the Television Age.   Yet when conservation professionals and media analysts have tried to discern some sort of media-cause and conservation-effect, the answer has never been very clear.  The issue has long been debated within the nature and media circles.  That debate has now been reinvigorated by strong criticism of Planet Earth II by a fellow BBC Producer.

BBC Executives were reportedly ‘thrilled by the huge audiences watching the programme’, especially as ‘more than 2 million of the 12 million total weekly UK audience are in the prized 16-34 age range, meaning the programme has attracted more young adult viewers than The X Factor’.

On New Year’s Day

I imagine they were less than thrilled on New Years Day 2017 when Martin Hughes-Games, presenter of BBC programmes such as Springwatch, took aim at the new nature mega-series in  The Guardian with  ‘The BBC’s Planet Earth II did not help the natural world’.slide1

Hughes-Games, wrote:

I fear this series, and others like it, have become a disaster for the world’s wildlife. These programmes are pure entertainment, brilliantly executed but ultimately a significant contributor to the planet-wide extinction of wildlife we’re presiding over.

The justification, say the programme makers, is that if people (the audience) become interested in the natural world they will start to care about the natural world, and will be more likely to want to get involved in trying to conserve it. Unfortunately the scientific evidence shows this is nonsense.

For instance, the World Wide Fund for Nature and Zoological Society of London’s authoritative 2016 Living Planet Report has concluded that between 1970 and 2012 there was a 58% decline of vertebrate population abundance worldwide. This encompasses the period in which Attenborough’s outstanding natural history series have been broadcast (starting with Life on Earth in 1979). The prime factor in this destruction is humankind’s insatiable need for space – destroying and degrading habitat at an appalling rate – coupled with species over-exploitation, pollution, invasive species, climate change and rampant poaching.

Yet these programmes are still made as if this worldwide mass extinction is simply not happening. The producers continue to go to the rapidly shrinking parks and reserves to make their films – creating a beautiful, beguiling fantasy world, a utopia where tigers still roam free and untroubled, where the natural world exists as if man had never been.

By fostering this lie they are lulling the huge worldwide audience into a false sense of security

Opinion amongst Guardian readers was divided:   many agreed with Martin Hugh-Games but some Attenborough devotees were outraged at such sacrilege.  Over 1000 comments were posted within a few days, and letters followed.   ‘ryanallan2010 ‘ declared the Planet Earth II ‘perhaps the finest TV show ever made. Perfection hosted by God himself’, while ‘BookwormFoundInBrick’  denounced Hughes-Games as ‘a mediocrity desperately seeking attention’.

Several media friends of mine agreed with the argument but said ‘Attenborough was the wrong target’.  No doubt they were thinking about how programming decisions get made.   When I sampled opinion amongst long-standing environmentalists, I found almost universal agreement: Hughes-Games essentially has it right.  Few doubt that the overall effect of decades of nature broadcasting on conservation has been positive but their view is that the nature spectaculars are now more of a hindrance than a help.  Reluctantly,  I have to agree.


Conservation groups will not want to get into a public slanging match with wildlife film makers but with so much nature sliding so fast into oblivion, the time has come for a rethink about top-end nature TV.   At the end of this blog I offer a few ideas on what could be done but first,  I try to consider how we got into this position and some of the factors which may need to be reconciled if something it to change.

When I Wanted to ‘Be David Attenborough’

Back in the 1960s I was tasked with a Junior School essay on “what I want to do when I grow up”.  I wrote that I’d either like to be David Attenborough, or a helicopter pilot: I couldn’t decide which.  I didn’t manage either but David Attenborough’s  Zoo Quest books had made a great impression, and I saw some footage from his early tv series of the same name.  Here was a grown-up who seemed to have found a way to spend all his time going out into an amazing world of nature to collect animals for zoos, and showing other people how interesting they were.

But as I grew up it was not Attenborough who made me a conservationist and ultimately a campaigner.  My role models were those who seemed to share my love of birds but who inspired me because they did something about threats to nature.

Foremost was Peter Scott,  whose 1967 autobiography I read, The Eye of the Wind.   Scott was also a film-maker (he made the first BBC natural history series, later called Look) but in addition had helped start the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).  Scott famously designed WWF’s giant panda logo, not just to thrill people about pandas but because it would reproduce well in black and white, as he and environmentalists like Max Nicholson felt it would help them raise funds to actually protect nature.


Scott had also started what is now the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) back in 1946, and through his paintings, writing and creation of visitor experiences was a relentless promoter of public awareness about conservation.  In 1969 for instance WWT lobbied successfully against construction of a dam at the main breeding ground of pink-footed geese at Thjorsarver in Iceland.  Descendants of those geese now spend the winter where I live, and around midwinter, thousands fly over my house every night and morning.

David Attenborough brought wildlife into millions of homes through tv but while a conservationist since boyhood, for the most part he was never a conservation practitioner.  Nor were most of his films about conservation but about nature.  While the likes of Scott and Nicholson and even a succession of Princes such as HRH The Prince Phillip immersed themselves in committees and organisations and ‘issues’, David Attenborough’s career developed mainly in TV world.  He became Controller of BBC 2 from 1965 to 1969, where and amongst other things, he commissioned Monty Python.

Attenborough became Britain’s dominant media-celebrator of wildlife through his series The World About Us from 1967 – 87, and  Wildlife on One, from 1977 to 2005.   By then he had become internationally known, inspired numerous imitators and is widely credited for establishing an entire new genre of tv.   He narrated and presented many other series such as Life on Earth (1979), Living Planet (1984), and in 2006 Planet Earth, which within a year, had been sold to over 130 countries made him into a global BBC brand.

Over those decades I became an amateur naturalist, trained and researched as an ecologist, helped start the London Wildlife Trust, worked as a campaigner for Friends of the Earth and WWF International, started a media charity to enable the media industry to help NGOs communicate better (Media Natura, now extinct), and worked for Greenpeace and have worked on many conservation campaigns since.  So while I’ve never worked for the BBC or been a film-maker I am something of a witness to the question of how much high profile nature TV has helped conservation.

All that time, while Attenborough remained a reference point for people trying to understand what we did: “oh you mean like David Attenborough” or “did you see … ?” or “I guess you must know Attenborough”, the man himself rarely featured in anything we did.  Sometimes this was not for want of us trying to involve him.  The polite answer which often came back was along the lines that he felt himself to be ‘just a film-maker’.

Similarly, the BBC often proved less helpful, for example in providing footage for campaign or ‘awareness’ projects, than companies like Anglia TV, where Aubrey Buxton’s Survival (1961-2001) made rather more programmes with an overtly conservationist content (eg about gorillas, Antarctica).

So when I worked for WWF Intl and similar groups struggling to protect ‘biodiversity’, I remember railing,  like Martin Hughes-Games,  against the unintended consequences of wildlife-spectacle tv, of which Attenborough’s series were pre-eminent.  I met many people disappointed when their experience of visiting a nature reserve did not live up to the intense cornucopia of wildlife presented on TV but a greater frustration was that the big audiences were shown fantastic wildlife living in forests which seemed to go on forever but which off-screen, were fast vanishing.   Now, unless conservation action is dramatically stepped up, the problem is vastly more acute: we are in the end game for nature.

Why It’s Big Business

Natural history programme making has become a big business because it gets ratings.   The relative ease with which films made in the ‘classic’ all-nature format can transfer across languages and cultures, has helped create a global market.   Plus if we are shown only nature, with no signs of human activity, the programmes have a longer shelf-life, and viewer research tends to show that immersive, amazement-generating spectacle is what entertains and retains the biggest audiences.

The BBC has made itself a global leader in ‘blue chip’ nature tv, although as Morgan Richards has pointed out, the formula of spectacular nature in  “primeval wilderness” can be traced back to Disney’s True-Life Adventure films (1948-1960), which also ‘set the precedent for wildlife documentary’s persistent marginalisation of environmental issues’.  Today Disney is looking again at the market, one which only organisations with big budgets can play in because of the time, travel, research and development, technology and marketing involved in making such wildlife epics.


By Source, Fair use,

Planet Earth I cost £8m to film and made £20m for the sales arm, BBC Enterprises.  Planet Earth II, no doubt cost much more and may make even more.  It was filmed in UHD and HDR formats (a first), made use of new 4K cameras, and involved filming for over 2000 days, more than 100 trips by six producers to 40 countries, and ‘features countless sequences that could not have been achieved without new, ultra-lightweight cameras and drones’.

Planet Earth II has a score by Hollywood composer Hans Zimmer (personally I thought it was great), stunning Hollywood style cinematography (the desert scenes recalled and bettered David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia I thought) and was hyped in advance just like Hollywood movie.

The ‘package’ of such programmes may say little or nothing about conservation or how to help but the film-makers are now routinely making themselves the story,  with features about how challenging and exciting it was to make, and the new technology.  In 2012 The Natural History TV Report enthused:

The blue chip still exists, and has pushed its production values further and further into the stratosphere with every new landmark show, making sure it’s at the forefront of each advance in production technology from HD, to 3D to 4K and from time lapse to slo-mo to low light

As in other globally competitive sectors from cars to pharmaceuticals and consumer IT, market success now depends on going-to-scale.  Financing big-ticket productions, known in the BBC as ‘landmark series, has led the Corporation into co-productions with competitors.  BBC’s Frozen Planet and Blue Planet were made with Discovery Channel.  Planet Earth I was made with Discovery and NHK, and Planet Earth II was made by three parts of the BBC including its new non-public service entity BBC Studios, plus ZDF, Tencent, and France Televisions.

Nature is the BBC’s second largest investment genre.  Sales from BBC Worldwide a commercial part of the BBC, returned £222.2m to the coffers in 2015/6.  This helps the Corporation fend off demands from Conservative politicians to abolish the licence fee, a constant worry of BBC managers and the governing BBC Trust.

BBC strategy is to achieve three things:  ‘to increase focus on premium, world?class content; to grow global brands; and to effect a gradual transformation to digital products and services’.  The logic of high-end nature mega productions is framed by this context, which means any change to the winning formula faces many more obstacles than simply persuading David Attenborough himself.  After the series was previewed to the media, Esther Addley wrote in The Guardian:

It is a measure of how important Planet Earth II is to the sometimes embattled BBC that at a packed screening in London this month for national and international press, the warm-up man was Tony Hall, the broadcaster’s director general.

For all those reasons, the Corporation is probably hoping that the debate sparked by Martin Hughes-Games will go away but the conservation community should not let that happen.

‘Almost Like A Drug’

Martin Hughes-Games has expressed similar concerns before.  In October 2015 before the start of the programme Autumnwatch, he said big wildlife shows had created “a form of entertainment, a utopian world that bears no resemblance to the reality”.

 “I’ve been doing this for 35 years and we always used to say what Sir David [Attenborough] used to say, which was that by making people aware of wildlife and conservation issues – that’s the first step – they will get involved,” he said. “That’s been the plan but clearly that has not worked; we have failed.”


Presenters of BBC Autumnwatch: Martin Hughes-Games (left), Michaela Strachan and Chris Packham.  photo Jo Charlesworth/BBC NHU

In May 2016 when Springwatch was back, Games said:

“I fear those beautiful seductive programmes are not balanced by a clearer idea of what is going on and the loss of habitat … It’s almost like a drug. We love it and we come back and we lose ourselves in the beauty of these places, not realising that the habitats they are being filmed in are getting tinier and tinier. We don’t reflect that.”

This year Hughes-Game’s argument was reported and sharpened in an article by a Guardian journalist , and framed in terms of rivalry: ‘Planet Earth II ‘a disaster for world’s wildlife’ says rival nature producer’,  It was then widely re-reported in other media.

As long ago as the 1980s, the BBC Natural History Unit was under similar public criticism for the way its compelling output portrayed nature without much reference to threats to nature.  For example from The Listener in 1983:

“Paradoxically, wildlife on TV may be piling up new problems for the conservationist lobby rather than helping it. After all if we see countless host of creatures, crammed into one Technicolor half hour through the unseen wonders of TV technology and editing, then they can’t be that endangered can they?” (Listener, 3.11.83 quoted by Gail Davis).

In 1987,  ‘environmental issues’ were climbing high on the social agenda and the then Head of the Natural History Unit John Sparks made the case for the BBC’s approach in ‘Broadcasting and the Conservation Challenge’, in Ecos, a magazine mainly read by conservation professionals.   Sparks  acknowledged that: ‘for many years the BBC concentrated mostly – but not exclusively – on an Arcadian wild world interpreted with in a framework of sciences’ and he sometimes got letters complaining about the lack of reference to destruction of nature in the BBC’s output.  But surveys, he argued,  showed tv nature programming did lead some people towards more engagement with nature.  and figures suggested nearly a million people might have been made more available to join conservation projects as a result [read John Sparks full article here].

Moreover his part of the BBC was indeed trying to cover environmental issues. ‘The Natural World looked at the nuclear winter and the fate of the world’s topsoil and sweet water’, while three documentaries had ‘celebrated the recent Bruntland Report under the series title of ‘Only One Earth’’.     ‘Celebrated’ is probably not a term the BBC would use now.  Subsequent decades of attack by climate sceptics have left it scared to appear pro-environmental.

Sparks also explained ‘In 1983 I devised ‘Nature’, which for four years was the only series on BBC Television dedicated to issues affecting the natural world, and which received an audience of between 2.5 – 4.5 million’.  This was an environmental news/ current affairs magazine programme, which ran for over 400 episodes but according to Gail Davis, Nature was not seen as a success in the BBC Natural History Unit.  It compared unfavourably with ratings of the high-tech new offering of Supersense which used innovative ways of filming (and trained ‘wild’ animals) to wow viewers, and attracted audiences of over 10m.  One of her pseudonymous interviewees said:

“Nature I thought of, but then I thought that it hasn’t really done anything. It should have done something but it hasn’t. I don’t think that it has really had an effect. […] I suppose the only thing that I can say about it, is it probably did a disservice in that people are terrified of now touching the environmental subjects within the Unit, because they know that they are going to get low viewing figures. Whether that is the fault of Nature, or whether the fault of changing climates, I don’t know. I’d like to say it had had an effect. It was the only conservation programme that we put out” (Jenny, interview 21.7.95).


Tony Soper presenting BBC’s Nature magazine programme. from:

Nature was eventually taken away from the nature film makers and finally closed in 1994.  In Davis’s words:  ‘rather than a milestone in the development of the Unit, several people suggested it was a millstone’.

Gail Davis referenced Andrew Neal, who became head of the Unit in 1989:

” It was a devastating blow. People in the Unit believe passionately that they should be making environmental programmes because they’re out there every day seeing what’s happening to the wildlife and to the planet” (quoted in Venue, 23.10.92).

The bruising folk-memory of the Nature ‘failure’ may be one reason why the Natural History Unit fell back on Attenborough’s traditional recipe of safe celebration of nature through marvellous pictures with only oblique, almost whispered moral generalities about our responsibility to look after it.  In 1984 David Attenborough summed up his and probably thus the default BBC rationale like this:

My job as a natural history filmmaker is to convey the reality of the environment so that people will recognise its intrinsic value, its interest, its intrinsic merit and feel some responsibility for it. After that has been done, then the various pressure groups can get at them through their own channels and ask them to send a donation to, let us say, the World Wildlife Fund

At any event for the most part major BBC nature programmes, have made only tangential reference,  and then mainly verbal rather than visual reference, to the threats to and destruction of nature, and mainly steered away from engagement with conservation projects or organisations.  It’s the pictures that count on TV.  In 1997 Gail Davis wrote:

The style of blue-chip natural history films was explained to me by John Sparks, series producer of the Natural World when I interviewed him in 1995.  John Sparks is reputed to have coined the phrase, “blue-chip”: “It just means basically that kind of film, you know, which has got no people in it.  Lovely, natural history.  Nature in the raw. Beautifully filmed. High production values, good editing, good photography that sucks you into a place” (John Sparks, interview 13.6.95)

An “Ooh”, “Ah”, “Yuck” or “Click”  Film ?

In 1989, conservation-minded film-maker Stephen Mills authored another article in Ecos ‘The Entertainment Imperative: Wildlife Films and Conservation’ (here) subtitled ‘Why wildlife films don’t always please conservationists’.   BBC commissioners he said, used this ‘unwritten convention’ to categorize programme ideas:

‘An “ooh” film is about pandas or koala bears, and it shows how they spend their whole lives cuddling their young without the interference of social workers.  An “aah” film makes you gasp with wonder.  It describes how the peculiar fly orchid is pollinated by just one species of insect – and shows you the process from inside the flower. The “yuck” film shows in sticky detail the slimy sex-life of the large yellow slug Limax pseudoflavus, and it lasts for half an hour. The “click” film is the slimy sex-life of Limax pseudoflavus part 2, including a treatise on the need to conserve the species in Stow-on the-Wold: the click is everyone turning off their televisions’.

A Mission To Amaze

Few people, observed Mills, watched natural history tv ‘to exercise their brains’. ‘At least 80 percent said they watched simply “for the photography”.    TV natural history, noted Mills ‘enhances reality … it shows you things you really wouldn’t see’.

‘Every year the amazement factor is jacked up a notch or two.  A kingfisher diving into the river is no longer good enough.  Now you must deliver it hurtling into the champagne ice bucket at a Buckingham Palace Garden Party.’ 

This increased costs which raised the stakes in terms of required ratings.  The BBC was embarking on its mission to amaze, impress and stupefy natural history audiences.

TV natural history was progressively pulled away from real life nature.  By accident rather than design, audiences were primed to consume nature through screens.  The small screens of 1980s tv sets meant close-ups were important.  Viewers expected them and real outdoor nature very rarely offered the same experience.

At one nature reserve the RSPB had ‘opened up the nest of a great-spotted woodpecker, putting glass in front so people could watch from a hide as the birds went in and out of the tree’.  But the RPSB also set up a video camera to relay live pictures into the hide. ‘Visitors settled themselves in front of the TV monitor – and ignored the real-life events that were happening a few feet further away behind the glass’.  I have seen the same thing happen elsewhere.

A Moral Bind

In 1997 Mills, who contributed films such as Tiger Crisis to the BBC, published a far more despondent article in the Times Literary SupplementPocket Tigers: The sad unseen reality behind the wildlife film.   ‘Pockets’ referred to pockets of surviving tiger habitat.  He described capturing footage of a beautiful and terrifying encounter with a tiger which ended as it left the track he was on and disappeared into the forest.  What the film did not show was that:

‘when the tiger left the track, it was because he did not wish to cross the railway line that chops in half this particular relic of forest, and that he turned away to avoid the raucous tinny radios stabbling out from the village up the line’.

For a journalist, the answer might be to report the reality but what are nature film makers ?  Documentary makers (and if so of what type ?), entertainers, advocates, or something else ?

‘All over the world’ said Mills:

‘we frame our pictures as carefully as the directors of costume dramas, to exclude telegraph poles and electricity pylons, cars, roads and people.  No such inappropriate vestige of reality may impinge on the period piece fantasy of the natural world we wish to purvey’.

The wildlife film-maker, wrote Mills, is ‘in a moral bind.  Put simply, he makes his living out of nature; nature is disappearing.  If he says too much about that he loses his audience.  If he does not, he loses his subject.’  Mills ended:

‘The loss of wilderness is a truth so sad, so overwhelming that to reflect reality, it would be the subject of every wildlife film.  That, of course, would neither be entertaining nor ultimately dramatic.  So it seems that as film makers we are doomed either to fail our audience or fail our cause’.

Helping Viewers Feel Better

In 2016 David Attenborough himself described such ‘blue chip’ wildlife programmes as a ‘form of therapy’ for viewers craving a respite from their concerns about the future of the planet.  Where once the rationale was to prime the audience  do good by supporting conservation, now it has morphed into making the audience feel good.    He pointed out that when in 2001 his programme Blue Planet first aired on the day after 9/11, it dramatically exceeded expected ratings as it was broadcast at a moment when “as a nation we craved refuge from the horror and uncertainty”.  The motivation, he argues is that audiences are ‘reconnecting with a planet whose beauty is unblemished’.   How this helps conservation is harder to see.

This new rationale is maybe the natural end state for the TV nature blockbuster.  It accepts that blue-chip nature programmes are not just escapism but more like an anaesthetic which leaves the audience ‘stunned’, and no longer having to worry about what is happening to nature.

Ironically, over the years in which the Attenborough team brought nature spectaculars to their current potency, a growing body of evidence has shown that exposure to nature is indeed ‘good for’ people, psychologically and physiologically.  Author Richard Mabey wrote about how it helped him fight depression in Nature Cure.  Richard Louv has led a popular movement to recognize nature deficit disorder and ‘Vitamin N’, the importance of first-hand experience of nature in child development.  Doctors such as William Bird who has worked with the RSPB and Natural England and the NHS, have demonstrated how just being in or seeing ‘greenery’ and even more so ‘becoming lost’ in nature, reduces stress and improves health.

All that is a reason to ‘prescribe nature’ and design buildings, places and lifestyles to include it but unless it is converted into real-world experiences, it helps people not nature.   Moreover,  the research that Louv and others are acting upon shows that physical real-life immersion in nature, and being able to read and recognize, relate to and understand it (ecoliteracy if you like or in old fashioned terms, actual natural history), is necessary for it to have a profound and lasting effect on young people so they grow up ‘hard wired’ to love it and want to protect it.  That makes engaging with real nature more like Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, something which empowers people rather than a liquid cosh of synthetic nature-fentanyl to temporarily suppress anxiety.

Campaigners, marketers, advertisers, fundraisers and motivational trainers also know that first sedating your audience is not a great way to get them to contemplate action.  If natural history TV programming is to lead to action that makes a difference, the visual content needs to be designed accordingly, and that could be done.

There is a market for TV-nature as therapy.  As E O Wilson pointed out, all human beings start out ‘biophilic’.  We need nature.  After watching James Cameron’s  Avatar with its utopian planet Pandora, some movie-goers got withdrawal symptoms and were depressed because they could not live in tune with nature along with the fictional Na’vi.  If real nature continues to vanish, this could be the future of BBC Natural History programming.

Some nature film producers already complain about the sums they are charged for filming in National Parks and Nature Reserves in developing countries, even though that can obviously help conservation (a point the BBC could make a virtue of by explaining it).   Maybe the BBC, Disney and the like will end up running their own parks to film in ?  Or possibly just resort to CGI and reworking old material.

Webby Awards for instance, reports The Story of Life app, which:

‘released on iOS and Android on November 17, 2016, contains more than 1,000 of the greatest moments in television history, from more than 40 landmark natural history programmes. The culmination of over a year’s hard work by BBC Earth and our co-producer AKQA, it is offered to audiences globally as a gift from the BBC and Sir David. It can be downloaded from Apple and Google Play’.

Was There An Alternative ?

In the 1980s and 1990s it seems to have become conventional BBC wisdom that the ‘blue-chip’ model of natural history film-making could not be combined with environmentalism.  Yet others did so, for instance Michael Rosenberg who produced the influential Channel 4 series Fragile Earth which ran from 1983 – 1992 and received many awards.


Phil Agland’s rainforest filming platform in Korup. from:

The British Film Institute guide to British film history says: ‘its simple and direct philosophy was to show a world that was intricate and beautiful but easy to destroy’, adding  ‘the programme awakened our wonder at the continuous creativity of our fragile planet, while forcing us to confront the implications of the extermination of species on a scale equivalent to a genocide of nature’.

An anonymized BBC Natural History Unit member told researcher Gail Davis in 1995 that Fragile Earth “was a huge landmark … those films were brilliantly produced”.   When he died in 2015, a newspaper obituary recalled that the reason Rosenberg moved to Channel 4 was because he was ‘frustrated with the BBC’s rather negative attitude towards environmental stories’.

Fragile Earth films by Phil Agland and other directors helped directly inspire conservation projects such as for the Korup Rainforest.    Today Agland is still using film storytelling to help conservation, for example with the project by WWT and other groups to save the iconic Spoon-Billed Sandpiper from extinction.

Why the BBC mostly remained at arms length from conservation is something of a mystery.  Gail Davis found Natural History Unit staff blaming the commissioners and the commissioners blaming a lack of ideas from the staff.   Alastair Fothergill, Unit Head at the time, suggested an institutional problem: a lack of clarity ‘about how environmental problems should be covered’ in the BBC as a whole.

Davis also spoke to long-term BBC producer Richard Brock who agreed “the Unit does not do enough on conservation … we are doing what I call escapist natural history”.  Brock also left the BBC.  In 1995 he quit to set up Living Planet Productions and pursue a project Winners and Losers, tracing the fate of species recorded in the 1950s in 60 (now 70) new films.  Remarkably, Brock has used his own BBC pension to fund the project, which can now be found on Vimeo and Youtube.  Rather than made for TV, his films are made to be shown for free in the communities where wildlife is directly threatened, and where it may be saved.  See also, which includes good wishes from his old colleague David Attenborough.

The BBC itself has experimented.  It has had moments when it even ‘nature’ programmes tackled environment head on, such as David Attenborough’s The State of the Planet (2000),  ‘a smaller three-part series … the first wildlife documentary to deal comprehensively with environmental issues on a global scale’ (Morgan Richards, ‘Greening Wildlife Documentary’).


David Attenborough does environmental impacts in 2000 on State of the Planet.  from:

On the 50th anniversary of the Natural History Unit in 2007 it broadcast Saving Planet Earth, comprising nine celebrity-presented documentaries on conservation struggles to save animals.  At the same time it launched its own charity, ‘the BBC Wildlife Fund’ and raised £1m with a BBC telethon fronted by Alan Titchmarsh.   A second live telethon Wild Night In followed in in 2010 presented by Kate Humble, Chris Packham and Martin Hughes-Games featuring conservation projects which had benefited from the support of the BBC Wildlife Fund, raising another £1 million.

In the UK the BBC can also point to the achievements of the Springwatch stable of programmes fronted by the same team.  There is not enough space to discuss them in detail here but they have done a lot to engage audiences with real-world nature, and get big audiences.  Similarly, working with Natural England from 2005 – 2010 it backed Breathing Places, a mix of programming and outdoor nature activities, which aimed to move TV nature audiences out of the ‘BBC bubble’ and into real world projects.

The BBC Dilemma

Having embarked on its present strategy the BBC faces unresolved quandaries and dilemmas.  It has been consistent in developing it’s natural history output but inconsistent both in its approach to whether nature films make any connection to conservation, and in its coverage of the environment across the BBC (which has of course included a host of other coverage such as on Horizon).

This may reflect divergent views within the BBC,  which by media standards it is a vast enterprise.    At one end there are ardent conservationists such as Springwatch presenter Chris Packham, who has been attacked by the shooting lobby for opposing persecution of protected birds of prey.  At the other are overtly sceptical or hostile executives like Peter Barron, editor of Newsnight  in 2007.  During one of the BBC’s periodic bouts of angst about climate change coverage,  he blogged:  ‘is it our job to encourage people to be greener? I don’t think so’ and ‘I don’t think it’s the BBC’s job to try to save the planet’.

As a whole though, the BBC has erred away from advocating for conservation.

All broadcasters are sensitive to public mood and interests, and environmental coverage has flowered at times when environment was a ‘rising issue’ and ‘hit the headlines’ because of activism and  political attention (for example when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher declared herself a ‘friend of the earth’ in 1989, and when David Cameron’s team adopted greenery as part of a project ‘detoxify’ the Tory brand in 2006).   One difference between the BBC and commercial broadcasters is that it has a complex but much closer and often fraught relationship with government.  Consequently it is much more sensitive to the mood swings of those in power.  Ultimately the BBC depends upon retaining political support for its survival.

It seems to me that the BBC’s rule of thumb in this area can be approximated to this:  nature coverage is always ok and harmless (green light); connecting nature to conservation and any working relationship with NGOs is to be treated with caution (amber light); and environmentalism is potentially dangerous and best left treated as a contestable two-sided political controversy  (red light).   That enables deft repositioning anywhere along the spectrum from overt green advocacy, to studied neutrality to outright ‘scepticism’,  in order to align with the political mood of the times.

I do not know what the current thinking is inside the BBC.  A 2013 analysis by IBT (International Broadcasting Trust) heard from Matt Walker, editor of the BBC’s online Nature site ‘that those dealing with natural history’  were ‘having a discussion internally about what role the BBC should play – are they neutral observers or should the BBC act as a vocal supporter of nature?’  “From a public service point of view”, he said, “the BBC is naturally supportive of the natural world and therefore not agnostic about habitat loss”.  Fine enough although it doesn’t seem to have led to any noticeable change if the latest iteration of its halo-brand, Planet Earth II, is anything to go by.

In November 2016 the new head of the BBC’s Natural History Unit, Julian Hector, said of Planet Earth II:

 “Audiences love Sir David’s authenticity and the craft of the programme-makers that give us a window on the motivations of the animals. When so much is going on in the human world, that the natural world has an agenda all of its own, regardless, gives us a place to escape.”

The problem which conservationists are increasingly left with, is that nature no longer has a place to escape to.

What Can Be Done ?

Peter Barron is right.  Legally, it’s not the BBC’s ‘job’ to save the planet. Nor is it Unilever’s job nor Marks and Spencer, or Sky TV (gone carbon neutral for ten years) or a host of other corporates who are anyway doing something about it.  So to be credible, I think the BBC can forget that argument.

Martin Hughes-Games proposes a ‘conservation tax’ to fund 20% of ‘natural history’ commissions ‘across all channels’ as conservation oriented tv showing ‘the reality of what’s happening to wildlife worldwide’, including through drama and other formats.

It’s a reasonable option.  At least it should start a conversation. The first step is for the BBC to recognize that there is a problem, and the second to talk to people about it from outside the BBC.

John Muir – Hero


John Muir (right) and Teddy Roosevelt, namer of the Teddy Bear, at Yosemite.  From

My own first suggestion for a drama – preferably at a Hollywood epic level of course – would be one about the long-dead and therefore suitable environmental hero, John Muir.  This Victorian Scotsman is the mainly unsung super-star of conservation.  After his family emigrated to the United States he inspired the ‘wilderness’ movement, walked across America, was the first to prove that glaciers moved, saved Yosemite redwoods,  persuaded President Roosevelt to establish a network of protected areas and founded the Sierra Club, which in turn led to Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace.  The conservation movement lacks heroes known for their real achievements and Muir’s life story is a “couldn’t make it up” trail of extraordinary adventures.

Congruence – Walk the Talk – ‘No Planet Earth III’, not yet

Second, the BBC could help itself, and help conservation, by applying a few communications fundamentals.  For one thing, if it does actually want viewers to get any sort of conservation message, it needs to display what psychologists call ‘congruence’.  This means that for someone or some organisation to be convincing, for us to believe they really believe a thing is important, they need to look like they believe it, sound like they believe it, and act accordingly.

The single biggest thing the BBC could now do for conservation would be if it were to announce that the corporation is no longer making ‘blue chip’ nature spectaculars because it is concerned that they mislead people about the real state of the planet.  If David Attenborough announced there would be no Planet Earth III until the tide was turned on destruction of the environments it showed, that would send an unequivocal signal and provoke a global social and political conversation.

Of course that is too radical for BBC management and so unlikely unless Attenborough himself suggested it.

Here’s How To Help

At the very minimum, the BBC could at least make a visible, noticeable effort to help conservation while still ploughing its existing furrow.    In the crudest iteration, it could add a simple screen or section at the end of all its more popular (‘blue chip’) broadcasts which don’t show the reality of threats faced by wildlife, explaining what they are, and signposting viewers to help real conservation projects.  “The wildlife you have seen in this film lives precariously in a few small pocket of habitat and is vanishing. You can help put this right by …”

The BBC should also recognize that Attenborough’s mental model of passing on viewers to conservation groups who will ‘use their own channels’ to recruit them has two key failings.  First, unless the content of the programme or an accompanying ‘message’ makes the audience feel it is somehow responsible, there will be no ‘it’s about me’ alignment and no result.  Second, even if ‘inspiration’ is to flow into action, the ‘channels’ of even the best resourced NGOs, are tiny: a water pistol compared to the Niagara Falls of the BBC blockbusters.  So it behoves the BBC to actively refer connect its interested viewers to conservation projects as other broadcasters have done before.  Digital media such as SMS, Twitter and Facebook now make this easy.


Likewise, it could also re-run it’s conservation fundraising telethon but with more resource.  The BBC Wildlife Fund  raised almost £3m and closed in 2012.  Not to be sneezed at but tiny compared with Comic Relief started by BBC’s Richard Curtis and Lenny Henry, which at the end of the 2015 had raised over £1 billion over 30-years.  In 2016 alone it raised £100m for charities such as  Barnardo’s, Cancer Research UK and Oxfam,  and viewers were thanked by BBC Director General Tony Hall.

Scandal – Not Doom and Gloom – The Optimism of Rewilding

For another, it could consider the difference between scandal and tragedy.  Film makers have long known that ‘all doom and gloom’ is a turn-off: healthy people stay sane by not making themselves unhappy.  But simply adding a sotto voce, whimsical fragment of regret at the end of a wildlife spectacular, is no solution.

Planet Earth II Series producer, Tom Hugh-Jones said, “David does a very poignant wrap-up to explain that for most animals, what we are doing to the planet is a bit of a tragedy.”

A bit of a tragedy !  That is perhaps an understatement for the thousands of animal species facing near-term oblivion but whereas a tragedy is demotivational, as nothing can be done about it (a problem with no solution), once something can be done, tragedy becomes a scandal (a problem with a solution that is not yet implemented).

It is this which the BBC could attach to the bad-news that awesome, splendid and magical nature is vanishing.  The solution could frame an entire story, a programme or series.  Campaign groups do this all the time: having a solution which is not being put into practice gives you the psychological licence to talk more about the problem until it is but it means being connected to real life.

The most obvious candidate is ‘rewilding’: reconnecting those ‘pockets’ which leave wildlife fatally isolated.  Ecological guru E O Wilson has called for half the planet to be put aside to allow nature to survive.

The BBC has of course mentioned rewilding but often as a ‘controversy’.  Instead it needs to get behind it.  Rewilding captures the popular imagination because it is positive, optimistic and part of the nature solution.  Perhaps Springwatch should next be based at Knepp, the amazing rewilding project in Sussex with its charismatic owner Charlie Burrell.


An English river being rewilded at Knepp

But rewilding is going on across the world, and could easily form a series of international scope.  It is full of people and nature stories with scope for the high empathy encounters which David Attenborough has done so well, as with gorillas or the memorable encounter with a blind baby black rhino in episode 6 of Africa.

Key Target Audiences

Third, rather than just thinking about ‘smuggling in’ conservation to genre formats (comedy, sport, drama etc), the BBC could get to grips with audience psychology.

The aspirational Prospectors for example, under-served by the formats of nature programming, as opposed to lifestyle, sport or game show formats and achievement dramas such as The Apprentice.  The fact that most ‘green’ groups are dominated by Pioneers is one major obstacle to effective conservation.

To engage Prospectors (about 30% of the population and over-represented amongst people working full time in organisations) you need to enable them to look good and feel good: for example to get ‘good at’ nature.  The BBC can do this.  Comic Relief does it be enabling people to become locally famous for 15 minutes.  Producing the best nature garden with the most wildlife, or getting to be the best at navigating the landscape by knowing nature could be their sort of programmes, and have a huge positive impact.


Fourth, at least in my view, when it comes to a ‘back catalogue’ the BBC should remember its roots and connect its viewers and listeners with nature’s unvarnished, authentic reality.  I hear that some in the BBC perceive this as incorrigibly antediluvian but I think younger and older audiences would appreciate it.  For example Lord Reith chose a live broadcast of a signing nightingale for the first BBC Outside Broadcast.  When I and thousands of others, pressed the BBC to restart such broadcasts, Lord Hall pointed to programmes such as on Tweet of the Day but these are of recorded and therefore probably long-dead nightingales.  This is the road to the ‘media museum’ (wildlife salient in our lives but only virtually) which I argue is a growing cause of extinctions.    If on the other hand, the BBC helped encourage its audience to demand real live nature, it would be a force against extinction.

Nightingale tweet

A Debt to Repay

We can all suffer from group-think and almost every human being is adept at rationalising what they do, in order to avoid the discomfort of cognitive dissonance but it seems to me that the BBC has allowed itself to indulge in both, in a way which is unhealthy and unethical.    When it redefines the purpose of natural history films as therapeutic escapism – which there is a market for –  it offers audiences a second-best substitute for conservation, and buries the question of whether it has any responsibility to actually help nature, whether for moral or ethical reasons, as a matter of social or corporate responsibility, or from any residual public service duty.

David Attenborough is not the issue, nor is his commitment to nature.  He does a lot of direct good works supporting conservation initiatives, such as for Wildlife Trusts.  He has spoken out on climate change and a host of other issues.

The BBC ‘pays no rent’ for nature: it has a debt to repay, and could yet really help ‘save the planet’.

Chris Rose, January 2017

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Trump Is Not A Demon


photo: D-Vare under Creative Commons licence

With Trump to be in the Whitehouse, many ‘progressives’ are truly horrified at the possible consequences.  But if campaigns are to work effectively, campaigners need to guard against an ‘ethical panic’, especially among supporters mesmerized by dwelling on how Trump seems to personify their ‘sum of fears’.   This could rob them of their crucial sense of self-agency and blind them to the many factors which may slow and restrict the reality of Trump’s project once he is actually in the Whitehouse.

A longer article Campaigning With Trump In The Whitehouse expands on this theme.  It warns:

‘If campaigners treat the nightmare of what Trump could be as if it is real, they will be granting Trump influence beyond his power’.

It urges campaigners not ‘to talk up Trump in terms of power but to talk him down, by seeing him for what he is, and by clearly exploring the real situation he will face once in office’.


An Incubus demon – The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli image public domain.  Incubi were regarded as real in law in the Middle Ages but are now regarded as an effect of sleep paralysis.

‘Trump is not a demon’ it argues, ‘he’s just a man, flawed and limited, who by accident as much as design, has ended up, probably ill-prepared and ill-equipped in the Whitehouse: a malign version of Chance the gardener, in Hal Ashby’s film Being There.’

During the campaign we had ‘Trump the Movie’ but once he heads a government, Trump will face challenges in balancing the demands and conflicting interests of business, the Republicans in Congress, the expectations of his voters, relations with other countries, his inconsistent and sometimes incoherent economic agenda, and the markets.

The Trump Whitehouse script will be written more by external events and forces outside his control, challenging his self-myth of omnipotence and showing a very different reality to the way he promised to ‘make America great’ once again.  Campaigning With Trump In The Whitehouse suggests that we have probably already reached ‘Peak Lacquer’ and the gloss will soon start to come off the stack of promises Trump made to the electorate.

Indeed this is already happening in his relations with China, as Trump’s financial borrowing plans for his ‘infrastructure’ package effectively push up the dollar relative to the Yuan.  Likewise, although he has populated his administration picks with climate sceptics and promised to bring back coal, the markets suggest they have arrived too late to stop the shift to renewables and storage, which are now starting to out compete both coal and gas.

As with the Brexiteers, Trump promised to turn back the clock to a world that in many ways no longer exists, and simple but grand claims (such as the power of his ‘deal-making’) which may not stand the test of real politics.

A Trump Presidency will almost certainly be bizarre and it may be catastrophic – let’s hope not – but it could also turn out to be a lot more ordinary than his election campaign promised.


photo: Notions Capital (Flickr/CC 2.0)

And as some psychologists have suggested, Trump’s own psyche (eg an overwhelming desire to be seen as a winner and a blithe disregard for truth)  may also even lead him to do surprising things, such as abandoning pledges and changing tack.  This, and the exigencies and vicissitudes of simply being in office, may open up opportunities for campaigning which are currently hard to imagine, especially if you take Trump The Movie and make it your mental reality.

Download Campaigning With Trump In The Whitehouse here

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Was Opposition to TTIP Anti-Americanism After All ?

Was EU civil society’s opposition to TTIP mainly motivated by anti-Americanism ?  We should know the answer to that question by how NGOs and other critics of TTIP react to CEUCIA, the forthcoming investment agreement with China, argues Richard Elsner


Guest blog by Richard Elsner


As just about everyone already knows, President-elect Donald Trump announced last Monday that his administration will withdraw the USA from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (or TPP), the trade agreement which the USA and 13 other Asian and American nations have agreed to.  TPP was the key economic component of the Obama administration’s declared “pivot to Asia”, but was seen by a few sceptics (like the author of this blog) as a wrong-headed attempt to commercially isolate China. TPP was needed, so said the Obama administration, to prevent China from “writing the rules” of trade.  Lest anyone forget, China is the world’s largest exporter, has the world’s largest economy (in purchasing power terms) and owns some 2/3rds of US debt.  Isolate China?  Trump has had the good sense at least to shy away from such self-defeating policies.

A ‘Rush for the Door’

What some people may not yet be aware of is that Trump’s statement early last week was followed by a mad “rush for the door” (TPP’s, that is) by no fewer than five of countries in the TPP ‘camp’ (namely Chile, Peru, Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines).   Where were they rushing to, then?  They were headed straight for the front door of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (or RCEP), a rival trade organisation set up by China in 2012, as an alternative and counter to TPP, from which it had been intentionally excluded by the USA.  The RCEP consists of the ten member states of ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) plus the six states with which ASEAN has existing trade agreements (which includes the two Asian economic giants of China and India).

Former Australian Trade Minister Craig Emerson reportedly said last week: “The symbolism is clear: The US has abandoned Asia, the ‘pivot to Asia’ is dead, and China’s influence over the region’s trading is secured”.  So, in wake of Trump’s assumption of the Presidency in January, it can be assumed that China will swiftly achieve the institutional and global political heft that Gideon Rachman foresaw in his insightful book “Easternisation” (2016, Bodley Head).  Rachman forecast that such a shift would gradually flow from the economic power which China has accumulated over the past 30 years or so, only now it could happen quite suddenly.

Goodbye TTIP, Hello CEUCIA ?

If Trump remains true to his word that his administration will only enter into bilateral trade agreements in the future, then the Trans Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (or TTIP) would appear to be off the table.   TTIP has been under negotiation between the USA and the EU since early 2013.  Opposing it became something of a cause célèbre for European civil society, which successfully mobilised over half of the public opinion in several European countries (most notably Germany and Austria)against it.  This opposition was fuelled most strongly by widely-shared concerns about the inclusion in TTIP of arbitration tribunals called the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) or the Investment Court System (ICS) through which individual companies can sue countries for alleged discriminatory practices (eg arising from new regulations passed by Parliaments).

Now that a deal with the USA is almost definitely off, the EU will doubtless task its trade negotiating teams to try to finalise the investment deal it has been negotiating with China since early 2014, known as the Comprehensive European Union China Investment Agreement (or CEUCIA)[i].  Few NGOs, journalists or politicians in Europe seem to have even heard of this agreement. While, according to Eurostat data[ii], only 2.6 % of the total 2012 flow of foreign direct investment (FDI) into Europe came from China, it is growing fast: According to the Rhodium group, “by the end of 3Q 2016, China’s outbound Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) was up by 54% year-on-year…Driven by the $4.8billion acquisition of German robotics maker KUKA, the combined value of Chinese FDI transactions jumped to $7.5 billion in Q3 2016, up from just $3.8 in 2Q…it is very likely that Chinese investment in the EU will surpass the $20 billion mark again in 2016”

Details Classified

When it announced the start of negotiations with China, the European Commission stated that the main aims of this agreement would be to protect investments made by either Chinese or European investors, and to guarantee the legal  ‘certainty’ of investment (the rights of foreign investors relative to national ones).


The mandate given to the European Commission’s negotiators remains classified[iii], so we cannot know precisely what mechanisms the Commission is seeking to introduce into the agreement with China to protect investors from both sides.  However, we know from the Commission’s statements regarding TTIP that it continues to favour ISDS mechanisms (re-framed as ICS, following civil society protests) over national judicial systems, and so it is fair to assume that the Commission’s negotiators will argue strongly for their inclusion in CEUCIA.

China will support their arguments, as it also supports ISDS.  Since joining the World Trade Organisation in 2001, it has complained against other states on 13 occasions, mostly against the USA, using the WTO arbitration procedure[iv].  Chinese investors have also made regular use of the World Bank’s arbitration court system (known as ICSID)[v] to take states to task and to seek compensation.  In its negotiations with Australia leading up to their 2015 trade agreement, China prevailed despite Australian reservations to have an ISDS protection mechanism included[vi].   Rather than operating from different rules, as the Obama administration has alleged, it looks like China has been working from very similar ones for over a decade!


If the EU and China include ISDS/ICS in a future investment agreement between them, how will the following questions get answered?

  1. Will European civil society oppose it? If so, with what vigour?
  2. If not, why not? Proponents of TTIP claimed in recent times that opponents to TTIP were primarily motivated by anti-Americanism.  European civil society spokespeople repeatedly and robustly denied this claim, stating that TTIP (and especially its ISDS) was a threat to democracy.
  3. If civil society does not oppose the inclusion of ISDS in the deal with China, would this not hint that maybe the above claim had some validity?
  4. Does this mean that European civil society sees ISDS/IDS as less objectionable if petitioners are Chinese companies rather than US ones? Should European tax-payers therefore feel happier filling the coffers of Chinese as opposed to US investors?

This sceptic would struggle to see the logic of it.

Richard Elsner 27.11.16








Richard’s dog remains sceptical on this, as in many other matters.

Richard Elsner 27.11.16

Richard Elsner lives in Germany.  He has been an activist on trade matters for a number of years.  The views expressed in the blog are purely his own.

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Bonus Pinning Gets Sharper

(This is the second of three blogs about innovative developments in economics and business which, it seems to me, may have a big effect on many campaigns)


Pinning CEO’s bonuses to specific outcomes could offer campaigns a powerful tool

At the end of last month, Catherine Howarth, Chief Exec of the pension fund specialist NGO Share Action, announced a campaign to push oil companies Shell and BP towards investment in renewable energy.  We have of course been here before.


From the late 1990s both companies talked great talk about becoming ‘energy companies’ and going green but when governments failed to organise taxation to make this more profitable than investing in new oil and gas, they both reverted to bad old fossil fuels.  BP dropped ‘Beyond Petroleum’ and Shell dropped solar, and then wind in 2009. Now in the 2016 post-Paris political climate, and lagging way behind other newer renewables players, Shell has re-started its wind business with the creation of a new ‘green energy’ division.  But Howarths campaign could pose much more acute incentive to deliver than general political commitments to phase out fossil fuels because she proposes that shareholders demand that executive bonuses are pinned to investment in green energy.  In her sights are ‘responsible investors’ such as pension funds, who can get to vote on executive pay.

What’s New: The Context

Money as they say ‘talks’ and from the child with its piggy bank up to the most ‘remunerated’ executive, it provides an incentive.  So it’s not surprising that this strategy is not entirely new.  What’s different is that the context has changed, making it far more likely to work.  That in turn means it should be higher up the list of tactics campaigners consider when they come to decide what tactic to build a strategy around.

What’s changed is not so much the formal rules – as specialists have pointed out, the requirements for Boards and CEOs to act on non-financial measures of performance, for instance those set by the US Securities and Exchange Commission – remain mainly rudimentary or non-existent.  It’s public opinion, and hence politics.  Today politicians are far more willing to challenge Executive pay on behalf of the public rather than defending it as a necessary freedom for the private sector to decide, lest we stifle entrepreneurship and lose its trickle down benefits.

In an era of corporate excess, recession, stumbling growth and ‘rewards for failure’, freeing corporations from social constraints is no longer a popular or particularly credible mantra.  There is of course abundant evidence that on subjects such as carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, achieving efficiencies and using renewable energy increases profits (unless you sell fossil fuels) but the ‘facts’ have less to do with it than the public mood.

So for instance Britain’s recently appointed Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May, is making great play of her desire to stick up for workers and get them onto corporate Boards.  Bonuses in general are under fire, from London and the Hague to Australia and points in between and beyond.

Lefty Campaigners ?

Campaigners are often lefty or left-leaning and so eschew trying to influence businesses, sometimes preferring instead just to condemn them and call for political action instead.  They need to recognize that this mood of corporations coming under attack from the Right, is an opportunity which may not last.  If they care more about outcomes than feeling good, it’s an opportunity to be taken, and investor and customer pressure may be the faster route, with regulation following on from behind.

Politicians will certainly be emboldened by knowing that the media and consumers have turned against the corporate executive class, who are increasingly easily spooked by negative social media.  Bonuses are simply the most egregious example of the huge wealth inequalities now developed in most societies, and therefore the most responsive target: smaller has become ‘better’.  Last month for example, the boss of a ‘troubled’ British railways company unfortunately named Go-Ahead, which owns Southern Rail operator Govia Thameslink, announced that he had waived his right to a bonus despite increased profits, because the service to customers had been so bad.  The Guardian reported that he said “It just felt like the right thing to do”.

Campaigners thinking about the Bonus Pinning option will find that there are quite a few examples of blue-chip companies which are already a way down this road.  The British retailer Marks and Spencer for example, linked executive bonuses to hitting sustainability targets when it needed to overcome internal foot-dragging and give some teeth to its much-lauded ‘Plan A’.  Another sustainability leader, the Anglo-Dutch food and household products giant Unilever, has done much the same.   M & S wrote in 2012:

Another key factor was the introduction in 2010/11 of a Plan A target for every M&S Director as part  of their annual bonus objectives – and their ‘cascading’ through teams. This has ensured that Plan A is not seen as a ‘nice to have’, but a must-do, that is every bit as important as hitting sales or margin targets. It also ensures that Plan A progress is reviewed by senior management on a regular basis over and above the normal Plan A governance structure.


Plan A: bonuses were part of it

An indication of how far this has gone in a few cases, and how much attitudes have changed and can change, comes from DSM, a Dutch multinational which adopted some radical sustainability targets.  In 2014 DSM North America President Hugh Welsh said:

I didn’t get my full stock bonus last year. It wasn’t because I didn’t meet my revenue or profit goals; I exceeded them. Instead, it was because my carbon emissions reduction efforts fell short, partly due to the integration of multiple companies DSM North America purchased in 2012.

DSM tied all managers’ compensation to sustainability in 2010, with targets related to greenhouse gas emissions, energy and water usage, eco-friendly product development and employee engagement, as well as – of course – profit. Last year was the first time in my career – on Wall Street, American Standard and DSM North America – that I missed my numbers.

And you know what? I’m not mad about it. Instead, I’m more determined than ever to meet the goal this year. By not giving me all of my deferred stock compensation, my company made it clear it means business when it comes to sustainability practices. In my opinion, this is the way it should be.

So far these are still exceptions rather than the rule: when Unilever CEO Paul Polman got a £431,775 top-up to his bonus payment in 2013 ‘in large part for his work leading the company’s sustainability plan’, it was treated as newsworthy, whereas a similar reward for increasing sales of detergent or fats and oils would have gone unremarked.  Bloombergs headlined its report:  ‘Unilever Hands CEO Polman $722,000 Bonus for Sustainability Work’, as if something vaguely improper had happened.  But what’s actually happened is probably that sales of fats, oils and detergents are now linked to sustainability measures.

Alcoa and Intel, two huge and very different companies, have also linked pay to environmental targets.  In the case of chip-maker Intel this has meant giving every employee an incentive, and resulted in a 35% reduction in absolute greenhouse gas emissions and a 28% reduction per-chip within four years.  Even the most business-sceptic campaigner might think there’s something happening here.  A 2014 report put the proportion of companies linking executive pay to sustainability targets at 25%.  A 2010 study of publicly traded companies in the US, the UK, Australia, France, Germany, and the Netherlands, put the figure at 29%.

Even in companies like Alcoa the total proportion of the rewards determined by such factors can be low, for example just 1% but in some cases it is a much bigger factor.  In the case of Paul Polman at Unilever he got an extra 37.5% bonus for sustainability factors.  In the case of BP and Shell, the call is directional, as the internal trade off is a zero sum game over investment of profits either towards renewables, or towards more oil and gas.

What’s Driving This ?

Every company will have its own internal and external story, and every NGO, not-for-profit or other lobby group which tries to influence them will have a different perspective but no company is totally isolated from society, even oil and chemical companies.

In recent years the ‘NGO’ end of blogosphere has been full of retrospectives, often anguished voyages of self-doubt, by veterans of the “Occupy” movement and “Wall Street Protests”.  That movement can certainly take some credit for crystallizing and perpetuating public disquiet about how finance and big business work,  and how that affects the wider public interest.

Recession driven by the credit crunch, debt crises and asset bubbles has further undermined public and political confidence in the ‘neo liberal’ project.

Within and around companies, these currents have met up with those from older 1990s initiatives such as the ‘Sustainable Development’ movement, Socially Responsible Investment, and their yet older antecedents. Amongst other things, these brought process, targets and measurements for public goods and externalities.

In addition many developed economy governments are now struggling with domestic stresses over how to balance public expenditure across generations, the politics and expectations of funding pensions and health, the affordability of housing, and the politics of economic migration.

Add these together and big business bonuses, available only to the 1%, quickly float to the surface as discrete, soluble looking examples of what is wrong.

At the same time, after decades of hesitation and argument, governments have accepted climate change as real, immediate and requiring a total economic restructuring.  Carbon and energy choice is an obvious metric with which to hold corporations to account in the public interest.  ‘Diversity’ in sex, age or ethnicity in hiring personnel is another, which also has well established metrics.  But these are far from the only ones.  What for agrochemicals for example ?  The amount of biodiversity in places where their products get used ?  Or for human rights ?

Pin The Tail on the Donkey

To my mind, the encouraging factor which underlies all of these is the influence of public opinion.  However erratic and partial the social elastic may be, it still functions, despite the fluid reconfiguration and even fusion of roles amongst media, politics, business, markets, consumers and citizens.

Bonus Pinning may not be a game with a permanent future but in the short to medium term, it could be a great way for the public to pin the tail on the corporate donkey.


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Positive Money: Give Us Back Our Currencies

(This is the first of three blogs about innovative developments in economics and business which, it seems to me, may have a big effect on many campaigns)


To my mind one of the most interesting new campaigns of recent years is Positive Money (PM), set up in 2010.  Yes it’s about economics but if you think it’s not really relevant to your campaigns, you are probably wrong.  I suggest checking it out.

If you’ve not heard of Positive Money it’s probably because for a ‘campaign’ it is incredibly (to use an Anglicism) pointy-headed.  It is full of really brainy people who mostly have little track record in the darker arts of campaigning (media, politics, advertising, marketing, state power, psychology, religion etc) but who know loads about economics.  Such cleverness can be both a strength and a weakness, as campaigns need to be put in very simple terms if they are to gain public leverage.

Pincer Movement Potential

So far Positive Money hasn’t come up with campaigns that capture the public or hence media or indeed mainstream political attention but I think it may well do, only rather than bottom-up, it’s working its way down from the top.  In some ways it’s what the 1%/99% ‘bottom-up’ movement always needed to meet coming down, in order to create a pincer-movement with potential for systematic real change in real time.

A possible deficit of street-fighting tacticians aside, Positive Money has a basic problem in that it is selling, indeed inspired by, what for most of us is a very unexpected insight.  This insight is that almost all of what we think of as ‘money’ is now not so much ‘currency’ (coins, bank notes) but electronic money, such as debt.  Indeed it is the issuing of debt by banks (such as mortgages for houses and other lending by commercial banks), which creates most of the money in a modern economy.  97% of the money in the UK, says Positive Money (and it cites lots of evidence such as from Bank of England economists) is this non-currency money.  Like many ideas which could have a revolutionary effect, it’s counter-intuitive and so people don’t immediately spring to act on it.

The Grip of Death Moment

By his own account Ben Dyson the founder of Positive Money, was set on the campaign trail by a theory in the book he read called The Grip of Death.  This explained ‘why most economic theories failed, and why governments were usually unsuccessful in manipulating the economy’, because ‘almost all money is now created by commercial (high-street) banks, as debt, when they issue loans’.  Lots of bad stuff followed such as financial crashes when ‘expert’ economists who themselves did not understand this, tried to deploy ‘conventional’ policy measures to which might old style economies running on real money might have responded but to which modern economies full of electronic debt did not respond.


I found this fascinating but anyone who knew much about campaigns would see the pitfall: Positive Money was then drawn into an educational campaign, which is largely incompatible with instrumental campaigning.  It’s been on a bit of a mission-to-explain.  The two things can hardly ever be done at the same time.

Positive Money’s central proposition which can get rather lost in a forest of stuff about why-it’s-a-good-idea to reform aspects of the banking and finance system, is to:

‘remove the ability of banks to create money, in the form of bank deposits, when they make loans … [and]  transfer the ability to create new money exclusively to the state, creating what we have termed a ‘sovereign money’ system’.

This is what they mean by ‘Positive Money’, and although ‘Democratic Money’ might possibly get you there quicker, the central idea is highly political and quite understandable:  that creation of money should be under democratic control, and that means it should be controlled by elected, accountable politicians because control of the creation of money – how much, when and what for – is of crucial public interest.   Left to itself, with each cycle the ‘market’ operation of the system just ratchets up the difference between rich and poor, making the disparity greater and greater.


Put simply, the proposition is to ask who should be in charge of our national currency, the nation or the banks ?   A case maybe of “give us back our money” which for most people would be awfully similar to “give us back our money”.  What other metaphors might one use ?  ‘Robbery’ perhaps, springs to mind.

QE or Public Money ?

This summer, Positive Money got a bit of a gift when a side effect of the UK EU Referendum vote for Brexit was a political crisis, which led to a fall in the value of the Pound Sterling and in turn a new Conservative Government, which promptly jettisoned previous Chancellor George Osborne’s policies of austerity and ‘balancing the books’.  So in August to try and boost growth, the Bank of England set out on a new round of QE or Quantitative Easing, often called ‘printing money’.


outside the Bank of England with a message

This gave Positive Money a chance to campaign about a real choice by calling on new Chancellor Philip Hammond to convert this newly created ‘money’ into real money and not just the electronic value of stocks and shares.  Such stocks and shares are mainly held by the wealthy as investments.  Positive Money point out that the previous UK round of QE increased the wealth of each of the richest 5% of households by an average of £128,000, thereby also increasing inequality, which the government is supposedly against.

Instead, Positive Money argues, and an increasing number of economists agree with them, that the Bank should create money and put it into the real economy, in ways that mean it gets spent and creates work here and now.  Either as ‘helicopter money’ whereby individuals get cash (which in the case of poorer people they are likely to spend), or, by investment in infrastructure projects, which also create real world economic activity including jobs, also leading to cash in circulation.

So why doesn’t QE normally do this ? Even at Positive Money’s own website you have to drill down to get the details but as I understand it, essentially it’s because the government gives the money to financial institutions and banks not to people to spend, or to itself to spend.  Under QE the Bank of England creates a new ‘reserve’ account for itself and uses it to buy up ‘government bonds’ from pension funds or insurance companies.  ‘Money’ then appears in the bank account of a Pension fund, such as in RBS.   Only if this then gets spent will it benefit the real economy.  Seeing as the wealthier shareholders in Pension Funds  don’t need to spend it like the poor do, they mostly don’t: as a result, £375bn of QE produced only about £25bn economic activity in the real economy.

Positive Money says the Bank of England should give the money straight to people, especially poorer ones, or to the government, which should then spend it on infrastructure.


Relevance to Campaigns

If your campaign issue has anything to do with trying to or needing to reduce inequality, it is self-evident that taking control of the creation and direction of money into public hands, could play a huge role in shaping outcomes.

This has also to be one of the best ways of seriously using money to resolve critical practical problems for instance in the environment, and there is coincidence of interests between those wanting to achieve outcomes that rely on new investment (such as energy or transport infrastructure, or buying and managing forests), and those who want to stimulate flagging economies, such as politicians.

Tackling climate change is perhaps the most obvious example. If for instance we had a global decade or so of green investing to replace the old fossil based economy with a renewable-powered economic base, we’d be a long way down the track to implementing what governments promised in Paris.  (The necessary investment cost has been put at $270bn out of $6trillion spent globally on new infrastructure a year, or just 4.5%).

Positive Money can be contacted at

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Time to Put Chemical Farming Indoors

Chris Rose

A current side-effect of the prospect of Brexit is that Britain’s* green, countryside and wildlife groups are in an unusual fever of activity.  A quite frantic process of policy formulation is underway as they scramble to try and influence what Brexit might mean for Britain’s farming, because Brexit means decoupling UK agriculture from the infamous Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).  Yet unless they are prepared to play much harder politics than they have for decades, and are a lot more radical in their proposals so that they engage a much wider slice of society, it is well-nigh certain that the promise of the moment will simply be lost.  For much of our wildlife, Brexit would still probably mean exit.


Traditional unfertilised hay meadow in Swaledale: many species


Hay meadow after fertilisation and probably re-seeding and spraying, Swaledale: few species

The Smart Money Must Be on Business as Usual

Dozens of NGOs are meeting in layers of committees and networks convened by the Green Alliance and others.  They will cook up proposals which will no doubt include well-researched wish-lists of what should be done: rather more of this, quite a bit less of that.  Yet at the same time and without fanfare, the dark suited officials of the Treasury, without whom in the end nothing much will be done, are in frequent contact with the brown-shoed reps of the National Farmers Union (NFU) and the slightly more dapper folk from the Country Landowners Association (CLA), to discuss practicalities.

I hear that No 10 has signalled to the ‘green groups’ that it is interested in ‘innovative’ ideas for the future of the 70% of the country under agriculture, and not simply cheaper ideas.   A cynic might suggest that keeping the NGOs busy developing innovative ideas has the twin benefits of stopping them causing trouble, and at the same time possibly coming up with a few eye-catching embellishments to policy which prove Brexit had a green lining after all.  The smart money must be on an outcome which is close to Business as Usual.

Government does not need to seize this inter-generational opportunity for change if it does not want to, and at the moment I doubt it feels it needs to.   I’m told that some arch Brexiteer politicians privately say it would be relatively simple to pass a law which simply carries over most of the EU CAP systems of farm support albeit with different names for programmes.  This would avoid a spat over ‘farming’ becoming an obstacle in the bigger, more headline-grabbing Brexit negotiation tangles over things like immigration, free movement and market access.

There certainly are Conservative politicians who would like to see a radical change towards more ‘sustainable’ forms of agriculture, and there are Conservative advocates for a Natural Capital approach, and some who would agree with the former Conservative Minister who pithily described CAP as ‘the engine of destruction’.  Yet pro-nature, pro-conservation reform of the countryside is nowhere close to being a government priority.  De-coupling from CAP to go green on farming and countryside is not an opportunity government currently needs or wants to take.

If the CAP was being radically reformed without Brexit, it would be different.  That would be the main game.  But it is not.  The main game for the UK Conservative Government is engineering a Brexit they can sell, and in that, countryside, farming and wildlife is a very small side-show.  So just because this is the biggest thing that has happened in the agri-environmental world for decades, does not necessarily mean it’s really a big opportunity, unless it becomes a problem the government needs to solve with a change of course.  Well-mannered wish lists will not be disruptive.

Three Things That Need To Happen

To my mind three things are needed in order for any Brexit process to catalyse a significant shift towards a radically better UK farming and countryside policy.  They need to come together but are to reset the purpose of public agriculture policy in the modern public interest, to end chemical and energy intensive as a failed experiment with no place in the wide outdoors, and to democratize decision making about the countryside.

A Modern Public Interest Purpose for Farming and Countryside Policy

When it was invented, support of farm incomes through price support, and the consolidation of holdings and subsidy of infrastructure changes (eg pull up hedges) so that farms could modernize and make use of new inputs of energy, fertiliser and chemicals, was seen as in the public interest.   It’s not now.

So policy should be reset is based on an updated test of the public interest, one that requires gains not losses in ecological and human health:  better ecosystem function (eg progressively less chemical pollution and climate changing emissions) and more wildlife, rather than the current payment for farmers-to-be-farmers, which mainly means farming-as-usual.   I call it net ecological gain.   This is an elite level argument but one where a much wider range of NGOs than just the countryside and wildlife groups have some standing, as channels and representatives of the wider public interest.

Containment of Intensive Farming

Second comes a complete break with chemical-intensive and energy-intensive farming.  The 1960-70s style ‘green revolution’ of intensification is an experiment which has proved a largely unmitigated disaster, and it needs to be ended.  As a Friends of the Earth pesticides campaigner in the early 1980s, I met large numbers of people at the sharp end of intensive chemical farming:  for instance people whose health had been ruined by exposure to farm sprays, sometimes just by living or walking in the countryside; doctors concerned at rates of rural cancers; others whose homes and gardens had been contaminated, and one memorable group of intensive arable farmers who were taking turns to grow food to feed their own families, without the use of chemicals, because they were so worried about the pesticides they used commercially.   It seemed to me that this was an industrial chemical process allowed to be conducted outdoors, simply because society, especially the media and politicians, still saw rural areas as benign and pre-industrial because they looked ‘green’.


Intensive wheat farming in Oxfordshire

Society was promised more precision biological pest control such as ‘Integrated Pest Management’, and high tech, less polluting agrochemical applications such as systemic insecticides which would stay inside a living plant.  That’s where we got the now notorious neonicotinoid pesticides for which there is abundant evidence that they have been eliminating bees and very likely many other insects, and are all over the place in the environment, cycling through soil and water and living things.   As the recent UK State of Nature report demonstrated, the massive loss of bees, butterflies, moths, wild plants and birds has not stopped but overall gets worse, year on year.  We have shifted from ‘the problem’ mostly being outright habitat destruction such as grubbing up old hedgerows and meadows, partly because there are very few left to destroy.  Now the problem includes a countryside infused with pollution from artificial fertiliser which itself is eliminating natural diversity of plants and pollinators, plus the vast greenhouse emissions of intensive agriculture, and the prophylactic application of herbicide, fungicide and insecticide which is sterilising and polluting the countryside, for example with 20 applications on a single crop.


Bumblebee on a primrose: both increasingly rare sights

Seeing the impact of CAP, it has been reformed by the EU.  Structural or “Pillar 2” funds have been redirected into ‘agri-environment’ schemes.   Sometimes valiant and sometimes frankly tokenistic attempts have been made to use these funds to mitigate against the combined effect of technology x chemicals x energy, all underpinned by price support and then farm payments, but overall they have failed.  Not really surprising when such ‘agri-environment’ funds make up only 20% of the total farm subsidies, and are relatively recent, and the progressive sterilisation of farmland has left many farmers ignorant of wildlife and wild plants that would have been known and understood by their grandparents.

If intensive chemical farming is needed, then like other hazardous industrial processes, it should be only done indoors, where it can be properly monitored and controlled, with zero emissions.  Let he agrochemical industry find ways to make a profit from that, maybe by converting from being bulk chemical providers to fine chemicals, service providers and even industrial farmers themselves.  Any outdoor farming, including organic, should have to prove itself to be ecologically not just benign but beneficial.


Majoram growing on organic Courtyard Farm in Norfolk

Ironically, much leading edge food production is already moving indoors, although usually without much if any use of chemicals, and driven by market forces and consumer concerns over health, environmental impact, limited resources such as water, and animal welfare.  Examples include ‘Vertical Farms’, ‘Z-farming’, the rapidly growing creation of meat substitutes and foods catering for Flexitarians, vegans and vegetarians.  Many of these are proven technologies in a world of start-ups and emerging consumer trends, noticed by supermarkets but largely ignored by the conventional farming, countryside and the wildlife policy community.

Democratization Of Countryside Policy

Third, and essential to bring about the above, we need to change who gets to make decisions about the 70% of Britain which is ‘countryside’.  Not just to enfranchise the 80% who live in towns and cities but the over 99% who do not own or control farms.  Only 0.45% of the UK population are farmers.  A mere 0.25% of the people own the countryside.  Yet this is the public realm, and their incomes are hugely reliant on public subsidy.  What’s missing is something that NGOs could do something to help bring about: ways to engage the 99.5% who neither own nor control their countryside.

This wider public does think it has something to say and a right to say it, concerning ‘Green Belt’.  That’s because the British version of Green Belt is a development-planning mechanism and planning is not left to whoever happens to be a big property developer or landowner.  We don’t let the Duke of Westminster decide how to run London.  We should not let farmers and landowners substitute for democracy in deciding the future of the countryside just because they happen to own it or farm it.

A decade ago I suggested a system of ‘Countryside Contracts’ through which groups of farmers might do a legally binding deal with groups of non-farmers to farm their land in ways that both could live with.  Community Supported Agriculture is another example.  Many other ‘crowd sourced’ formats might be possible.   Elected Local Authorities might become the conduits for public funds for farming and land use, starting for example where the public interest in land use is heavily recreational as in National Parks or where better flood prevention is important.

Unlocking Other Forces

If you took these changes together; the public interest purpose of policy, a containment of intensive farming, and a democratization of who gets to decide the countryside, then many other interests could come into play.   For one thing, it could free up a lot of land for other purposes, many of which could help solve political problems, such as places to build new homes.  (Fortunately the popularity of golf courses is waning).


The rewilded, de-canalised River Adur running through Knepp Estate, Sussex

‘Rewilding’ could also benefit.  Thanks to Friends of the Earth I recently I visited the amazing Knepp rewilding project in Sussex, started by the remarkable Charlie Burrell back in 2001.  With growing populations of wildlife such as nightingales and turtle doves which are still vanishing in almost all of the countryside including on most of the ‘conservation estate’ run by NGOs, Knepp is inspirational and arguably, an embarrassment to the conservation establishment.  The supply of landowners like Charlie Burrell is limited but more important, the rewilding concept has the Zeitgeist: it captures a public interest demand in a simple sounding concept which many of the 99.5% instinctively love.  Yet so far their leverage on this wider debate about possible post Brexit post CAP farming is effectively zero.  Sounding off about rewilding is one thing but channelling that energy into a concrete demand could make a real difference.  Ecological guru E O Wilson recently called for 50% of the planet to be set aside to save 80% of the remaining wildlife in the world.  How about  50% of our farmland, which is 35% of the UK ?


Chalk Hill Blue Butterflies on Carline Thistle


If the coming environmental proposals for a post-Brexit UK countryside and farming policy are not  simply to be ploughed under, the conservation groups have to disrupt the transition of Business as Usual which the NFU and CLA have been lobbying for in Whitehall with all the vigour of recently released beavers.

This is the NGOs moment to involve the country, not just their members and certainly not just their experts.  The CAP-shedding aspect of Brexit may be an unexpected Christmas for countryside policy wonks but without popular and activated political backing they may end up playing the turkeys.

I am not that optimistic about the UK NGOs pulling off a major coup and really redirecting national policy on farming and the countryside although if they did, it could inspire similar changes in the rest of Europe, even if Brexit happens.

A significant internal problem is the competition between NGOs.  The National Trust for example, as the elephant of the pack with its four million members and itself the biggest farmer in the country, has got in early and issued a six point list of principles.  These are not bad and probably radical by internal National Trust terms in that they imply that some of its own farmland will go over to nature, and they explicitly call for no public money to be spent that does not pay for ‘public goods’ and that ‘basic income support payment should be removed’.  Their list has enraged the NFU but will not be noticed by the wider public: some much sharper demands are needed that affect how the 99.5% live, and the countryside they see, in ways non-experts can understand.

Other big players like the RSPB might also be tempted not to wait for the swathe of smaller groups to agree on a common set of demands, and so produce its own wish list.  The difficulty is less that these lists don’t ‘add up’ but more that it drains the energy of their joint lobby.

A further issue is that the established conservation and wildlife groups – much less so other NGOs which may get involved – make themselves beholden to the ‘goodwill’ of farmers.  In reality the ‘good farmers’ they actively work with and promote are at best a few percent of the total.  Great though these people are, this too often ends up meaning that the NGOs are terrified of opposing the NFU.

Finally, rehearsing and dusting down the old arguments will not disrupt the process and so make a radical shift a possibility.  Unless civil society has something new to say, and enough of the groups get behind a few new ideas which have public resonance, they will not create the political problem which requires the government to listen to people, the 99.5%, rather than to just the NFU and the CLA.

* Actually for Britain read UK as all this includes Northern Ireland which while not ‘Britain’ is part of the UK


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Brexit Pending

Brexit is not trending: it’s pending.

blog brexit pending

It’s strange to me that so many campaigners – mostly strongly opposed to ‘Brexit’ and concerned at it’s potential implications, are treating the B-word as if it’s a reality: something going to happen, or which has already happened.  Making contingency plans and doing research is one thing but publishing websites and blogs and organizing events which treat ‘Brexit’ as a done deal, risks helping make it so by accepting it as reality.

Some people among the 52% who ‘opted’ for Brexit in the UK EU Referendum do think that by doing so they had ‘done it’: that Britain is now ‘out’ and they can act accordingly.   Yet as most cause campaigners know, this is not the reality.  The UK Prime Minister declared “Brexit means Brexit” but neither she nor anyone else actually knows what that means.  It was not a legally binding decision, only indicative of public sentiment, and it was voted for on false promises and lies such as the non-existent £350m a week for the NHS. A classic case of mis-representation and selling with false claims.

Nor does anyone know how long it will take, nor really if it is even possible, without for example, gaining the consent of Parliament or even, getting the European Court to decide on what the terms of Article 50 actually mean in law (as it is a European law not a British one).

Teresa May says she will take the Brexit turn but right now Brexit is an idea which is pending.  Britain is still in the EU, no terms have been agreed, and nobody knows if she can even get a deal which satisfies her own supporters, the City and the country.  In October, the Government faces legal challenges in the High Courts on its claim to be able to act on the Royal Perogative and invoke Article 50 without involving Parliament.   Yet it will also need to repeal at least one Act of Parliament in order to make an exit from the EU and the Divine Right of Kings lapsed around 1689.

delays brexit

Politically, if May does trigger Article 50 and then manages to ‘square the circle’ on market access and tricky issues such as financial passporting,  and movement of EU nationals, and ends up accepting that a lot of British legal rules and policies (which greatly concern many campaigners) will in fact remain closely aligned to those of Europe for reasons of practical self interest as well as matters of law on international treaties and so on, Britain may find itself looking at a post Article 50 package which is very similar to what it already has only more expensive and without a lot of the benefits.

At that point Britain might feel that it should stay in an ‘improved’ EU but that will be more difficult if Brexit is treated as inevitable rather than an option pending confirmation on seeing what it really means.  After all, many of those who voted ‘Brexit’ freely admit that Europe was not really what they were concerned about.  Politicians need to act on those other real concerns.

So it is odd to say the least if campaigners who voted against something, which may not happen, and which nobody knows how to make happen, and which has unknown contents, are now talking up Brexit as if it is a fact rather than a political notion.  Could it be that they have been stunned by the referendum result and are still experiencing political concussion  ?

To avoid just endlessly repeating the word ‘Brexit’, we need a different terms to describe the phoney-war no-mans-land that Britain finds itself in during the post-referendum limbo.  Possibly the age of BP: Brexit Pending ?


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Values, Nature and Location in Britain

keep britain farming

Is there any correlation between being pro-nature and living in rural or urban areas ?  If so what does this mean for nature conservation or environment groups, where they should look for support or how they should try to shape policy ?

Some of Britain’s largest and most prominent voluntary sector organizations, such as the three million member National Trust, are principally devoted to ‘protection’ and enjoyment of ‘rural’ heritage.  Economic, social and physical differences between ‘urban’ and ‘rural’ areas are frequently assumed to reflect or drive lifestyles, identity, attitudes and even values.  As the countryside generally looks greener than the town, it is easy to assume that this must be where the nature is and people in rural areas are different in leading ‘more natural lives’, and indeed are the more pro-nature part of the population.

Every so often these ideas become controversial and political.  A rural-urban dichotomy provides a conveniently simple frame which invades the thinking not just of many who know little about it – such as many journalists – but even of conservation groups who may use it while at the same time realizing that changes in farming in particular have objectively drained nature from much of the green rural landscape.

This is a hugely complex area and this blog cannot claim to investigate it in any detail but shares one set of data from the 2015 British Values Survey drawn from a nationally representative sample of 2020 adults (over 16) by age and sex, which includes one measure of being pro-nature, and separates people by location: the sort of settlement they say they live in.  Thanks to Cultural Dynamics Strategy and Marketing (CDSM) for permission to reproduce this data.  (Read more about their model here).  So far as I know this is the first study to look at UK values, nature and location.  Do let me know if you are aware of other relevant research.

Pro-Nature and Location

One of the statements tested in the CDSM survey was “He [or she] strongly believes that people should care for nature. Looking after the environment is important to him [or her]”, for which respondents selected one of Not at all like me, Not like me, A little like me, Somewhat like me, Like me, Very much like me.  This creates the ‘Nature Attribute’ on the values maps.

The same survey mapped location: people opted for one of these settlement categories as best describing where they live: Rural, a Village, a Small Town, a Large Town, a Small City, the Outer Suburb of a large city or, the Inner part of a Large City.

Who is Most Pro-Nature ?

The responses to the nature question are shown as a ‘map’ here:


Overall 33% of the population responded positively to the nature proposition (agreed that they were like, very much like or somewhat like a person who had those feelings) but agreement is not spread evenly around the map.

The Nature map shows greatest overall agreement with the statement He [or she] strongly believes that people should care for nature. Looking after the environment is important to him [or her] in the Pioneers and in the RT Roots VM of the Settlers and the NP Now Person VM of the Prospectors.  There is least support in the GD Golden Dreamer Prospectors.

Note: the ‘Values Map’ is divided into three Maslow Groups (Settler, Prospector and Pioneer) and within those, twelve Values Modes or VMs.  In order of their ‘transition’ they are Roots (RT), Smooth Sailing (SS), Brave New World (BNW), Certainty First (CF), Golden Dreamer (GD), Happy Follower (HF), Now Person (NP, Tomorrow Person (TP), Transitional (TS), Concerned Ethical (CE), Flexible Individualist (FI) and Transcender (TX).  For more on the VMs see links at the home page and key below:

MGs and VMs only 640

‘Nature’ is just one of many Attributes which correspond to questions asked in the British Values Survey and these Attributes can be located on on the values map (below)

UK Location, Nature and Values nature attribute on attribute map

The point of maximum ‘Espousal’ (statistical agreement) for ‘Nature’ as defined by the statement above, is in the Pioneer area.  The red dots on the map below show which other Attributes it is positively correlated with.  These include many ‘centred’ in the Pioneer area and some in the Settler area.  (See links at the end of this document to download the Attributes list and a more detailed higher resolution slide set of the images with further data).


For conservation groups in the UK three important things flow from this when considering their potential natural ‘base’, if their offer is framed as something like people should care for nature, and looking after the environment is important :

(a) the main base is in the Pioneers and they see nature and caring for it in terms of inter-connectedness, globalness, universalism and many other values

(b) another robust part of the base is Settler, especially RT Roots Settler but they see the importance of nature and protecting it more in terms of identity and survival, and associate it with values such as conformity, security, discipline and recovering the past.

These two sets of motivations give an opportunity to agree on nature being a good thing worthy of protection but then to disagree on why, and what to do about it.  For instance the Pioneers are likely to agree with Attributes like Positive Green and Global:

Positive Green:

“I believe that the way we live is having a huge negative impact on the environment +  I think it’s up to each and every one of us, starting with me, to change our behaviour in the interests of saving the environment”


“I believe there’s still a lot I can learn from other cultures + By preference, I’d live somewhere surrounded by people from different ethnic, racial and social backgrounds.”

Settlers on the other hand are likely to agree with Attributes like Shangri-la and Distant:


“I believe that society has lost its way + I would like to live in a time where there is more mystery, romanticism and adventure”


When it comes to spending time doing non-family things – work, sport, social life, etc. – I’m not concerned +  My family is always there and I will be able to find time for them.

(c) The blue dots indicate where there is a negative correlation with the Nature statement, which is across much of the Prospector part of the values map, including Attributes such as Aspiration, Achievement and Good Time.  This is an indication of why conservation and environment groups usually fail to generate much support from Prospectors, even though they make up about a third of the population (and a much higher proportion of those in full time work).

In the CDSM system the top two thirds of respondents agreeing with a statement are termed ‘Espousers’, in this case Espousing the ‘Nature’ Attribute (in total this is 33% of the sample of 2020).  The data are shown below:


As well as Pioneers and particularly TX Transcenders and CE Concerned Ethicals responding strongly to the ‘nature’ proposition, so do RT Roots Settlers, and women (indexing at 118 ie 18% more than average while men under index).  This female skew in nature groups in the UK is well known but is cultural and not universal to all countries.  People over 45 over index positively and those under 34 under-index but there is, despite frequent media assumptions to the contrary, no correlation between the pro-nature attitude and social class (bottom right).  The box below explains the colour coding.

significances coding by colour

As discussed in a previous blog, if you change the framing of the ‘nature’ proposition, for example by making it first and foremost about being for-children rather than just for-nature you can get a significantly different result, and win agreement many more people (especially Settlers and GD Golden Dreamers) who reject this form of the nature/environment statement.

The charts below show the MG and VM level nature responses and the MG indexes, along with the actual numbers of people who are Nature Espousers in each Maslow Group.  Note that even though Settlers are more likely than Prospectors as a whole to be pro-Nature, there are more pro-Nature Prospectors because they are a larger segment of the population.  Converting this disposition into more active support is probably the greatest single gain that environment and conservation groups could make in terms of social and political influence.  Unfortunately most conservation and environment groups are content just to mine their existing base, while at the same time often complaining about their lack of ‘public support’.


Below are the same data broken out by Values Modes.


The Question of Location

Here is the overall breakdown of the BVS sample of 2020 people by location:

location slide uk

As might be expected from a representative British survey, most people say they live in places which would be described by various measures as ‘urban’ or ‘suburban’.  Only 3.5% opt for ‘rural’ and 14% for ‘village’.

Here are the data for each settlement category by MG and VM values groups, along with age, sex and Socio-Economic Group class:

rural area data

The only statistically significant difference between the British population as a whole and people living in ‘Rural Areas’ in this survey is an over index in the 45-54 age class and an under index amongst the 22 – 34 year olds.  There are no sex, class or values differences.

village data

Settlers over index in Villages (but note they are not the largest of the three MGs in villages – an over index is a disproportionate skew not an absolute majority), along with the RT VM and a skew to older people.  No class difference from the population average.

small town data

In small towns (Elgin and Ramsgate are just category examples) the NP VM under index but otherwise values are population average, and there is just a skew to the over 55s.

large town data

Large towns such as Oldham are, as a category, average on all measures.

small city data

Small cities are average on all measures except an over index in the 22-24 age class and an under index in the over 65s.

large city suburbs data

The suburbs of large cities are average on all measures except for an under index in the DE social class.

large city inner part data

The inner part of large cities shows the most differences.  There is no class difference from the average population but NP (Now People) over index and RT under index (quite possibly because NPs are more likely to move to ‘where the action is’ and RTs are least likely to do so), there is an over index to males, Prospectors and under 34s with an under index amongst the over 55s.

All in all then the values and other differences across most of these settlement categories, especially class, are very few.  You cannot make generalisations about types of place in these terms, and values groups or class.  In fact people do show strong locational-values differences but at geographic scales which are much finer than these categories and vastly more granular than a general ‘urban/rural’ difference: for example on a ‘street by street’ basis.  It will also be the case that there are settlement differences within these categories, for example some small towns or villages may have a skew one way or another towards different values groups.

Nature and Location

Along with the data shown immediately above, the BVS tables contain data on the top 100 Attributes broken out by location.  One of these is the Nature Attribute. I’ve not shown these tables in the blog but you can download some slides with more detail here.  Extracting the nature results by location, this is what we find:


The highest proportion of Nature Espousers in any one location category is in villages at 43.8%, followed by rural areas at 41.1%.  Lowest is in ‘small city’ at 24%.  We can only speculate as to why this may be the case.  As we’ve seen above Settlers and older people over index in villages and some of these will be people who moved to villages to retire, in some cases because they want to be in a more tranquil place and maybe because they are seeking nature.  But people move, or not, for many different reasons.


Above is the Nature Index showing that the only statistically significant departures from the national average across settlement type are an under index for inner large city and small city, and an over index for villages.

Perhaps of more practical significance for recruiters, campaigners and marketers, the actual number of people positively espousing Nature in each locational category are shown below.  From this you can see that Small Town is the single category with the greatest number followed by Villages, Suburbs of a Large City, Large Town, Inner Large City, Small City and Rural Area.


If therefore you ask the question “where are the conservationists ?” the answer is that most of them are in urban not rural areas.   Counting villages + rural as overall ‘rural’, 77% of all Nature Espousers are from towns or cities and 23% from villages or rural areas.  If all the ‘small town’ category was also counted as ‘rural’, 54% of Nature Espousers are from large towns or cities.

I can’t share the data for all the conservation groups in the UK because no such survey has been commissioned or because they’ve not released the information but it is likely that the Nature Espouser profile described above does represent the potential core base of the conventional ‘green’ conservation offer.

Of course the current recruitment and retention of people by environment/ conservation groups is only a fraction of that potential – if we assume it is a total of 4m individuals from a national population of 65m of whom about 52m are over 16 then that’s about 8% as opposed to the 33% ‘Nature Espousers’.  A best case scenario might then be to multiply actual support fourfold.  Changing that offer to appeal to more Prospectors could significantly increase the potential, and provide a politically more robust and powerful base of support.

Download slides with more detail:  UK Location, Nature and Values

Download abbreviated CDSM Attributes list

Read more about values in my book What Makes People Tick – available at this page

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What Should Campaigners Do About Brexit ?

Chris Rose  1 July 2016

Out of disruption comes change, out of chaos comes opportunity.  In the UK, thanks to the narrow 52:48 pro-Brexit vote at the EU referendum of 23 June, we have both.  Everything has changed and NGOs need to react to that.

The instinct of British voluntary sector or civil society groups is to ‘stay out’ of politics, and their reflex is to hunker down, wait for things to blow over and make friends with whoever ends up running the country when normal service is resumed.  Usually this would be a good strategy but not now.

This time they should help those young, positive, forward thinking and optimistic young people who voted to Remain, to take the opportunity to change Britain for the better.  If they do not, the NGOs themselves risk becoming increasingly irrelevant.


picture: Olly Wainwright

A Tragi-Comedy

The Brexit referendum results from a tragic comedy of errors, brought about by long,  slow separation of politics from the people, and short-term political miscalculations.

The unexpected Brexit result shocked the waiting audience because it went against all expectations, including those of most who voted to Leave and the leaders of the Leave campaign itself.

As soon as the curtain lifted on what should have been the Final Act on 24 June, the chief actors tumbled fighting onto the stage.  The Prime Minister committed political suicide, principal characters got assassinated, the two main Political Parties at once descended into chaos, and what should have been minor characters now strut and swagger in the limelight.

The critics are dumbfounded.   Living in Britain right now means living with a new political earthquake every day.  So much so that pundits and commentators are almost lost for words.  I fear we may soon face a national shortage of political metaphors.

And now the audience has discovered that the premise of the whole story may be false: the choice they were asked to make may be impossible to implement.  It’s not over.   Some want their money back but those who promoted the play claim that the box office is closed.  Angry and dismayed, the audience has spilled out into the streets, fearful for homes, their children, their jobs, future and country.  Nobody knows how it will end.  A new chapter is needed and if civil society organisations take no part in that, they may find the new story has no happy ending.

The Story So Far

Here’s the plot of the tragicomedy as described in a much shared Facebook post by Benjamin Timothy Blaine a few days ago

So, let me get this straight… the leader of the opposition campaigned to stay but secretly wanted to leave, so his party held a non-binding vote to shame him into resigning so someone else could lead the campaign to ignore the result of the non-binding referendum which many people now think was just angry people trying to shame politicians into seeing they’d all done nothing to help them.

Meanwhile, the man who campaigned to leave because he hoped losing would help him win the leadership of his party, accidentally won and ruined any chance of leading because the man who thought he couldn’t lose, did – but resigned before actually doing the thing the vote had been about. The man who’d always thought he’d lead next, campaigned so badly that everyone thought he was lying when he said the economy would crash – and he was, but it did, but he’s not resigned, but, like the man who lost and the man who won, also now can’t become leader. Which means the woman who quietly campaigned to stay but always said she wanted to leave is likely to become leader instead.

Which means she holds the same view as the leader of the opposition but for opposite reasons, but her party’s view of this view is the opposite of the opposition’s. And the opposition aren’t yet opposing anything because the leader isn’t listening to his party, who aren’t listening to the country, who aren’t listening to experts or possibly paying that much attention at all. However, none of their opponents actually want to be the one to do the thing that the vote was about, so there’s not yet anything actually on the table to oppose anyway. And if no one ever does do the thing that most people asked them to do, it will be undemocratic and if any one ever does do it, it will be awful.


Read Vox magazine’s useful explanation of what this actually means here .

The Brexit vote came about because of short term political miscalculation.  The reason a referendum was called at all, and the reactions to it, is a far longer backstory of gradual decay and hollowing out of British politics in the widest sense.

The Backstory

For generations, Britain’s formal political connections between people, Parliament, Government and governance (running the country and getting stuff done), have thinned and frayed.  The old machinery of local, regional and national political representation and delivery is still there but short-term political advantage has been to do less, while maintaining a pretence that you are in fact in control of outcomes, using electoral promises and attempting subsequent command of the media space.  The military, the National Health Service and so far the police, mostly remain directly accountable along the old lines but much else that matters, such as basic services, transport, infrastructure and education has, so far as possible, been delegated to the market.  Consequently there has been less and less agency through voting.

Participation in formal politics has dwindled but the edifice has survived so long as enough people felt life was getting better,  could get better or they were secure in feeling it would get no worse.   This reflected the progressive shift from a Settler-dominated society, in which political allegiances were ‘tribal’ and the public broadly respectful of conventional authority, to one in which Settlers were a minority (now 24%), and most national political competition was for the ‘aspirational’ Prospector vote.  Since the 2008 financial crisis but going back much further to the crushing of the Trade Unions by Margaret Thatcher and the technological and lifestyle changes of the 1960s, many Settlers have felt themselves increasingly ‘adrift’, ignored by most politicians, left-behind by a changing world and without political leaders who spoke for them.  Enter UKIP, with a radical simple sounding solution, of leaving the EU.

The same values-shift and polarisation process has taken place in other European countries (eg Germany, France and Italy) but Britain was particularly ill-prepared to maintain a sense of cohesion and community.  In common with the US it has a socially dysfunctional first-past-the-post political system which encourages adversarial polarisation on every issue, and a political class dominated by Labour and Conservative politicians schooled in a perpetual struggle to take power from one another while marginalising the huge parts of society who were politically too widely distributed to elect many MPs (eg the Liberal Democrats, Greens, UKIP) because we have no national Proportional Representation.  Except of course in European Elections which few in England take part in.

So for generations, many people who wanted reform and change (mainly Pioneers, now 38%) put their efforts into setting up or supporting NGOs or Non-Governmental Organisations: a huge part of civil society.  By ‘getting stuff done’ through campaigns to influence policy they became a form of ‘people’s politics’, filling a gap where the public interest was not met through the market or formal politics.  They have even worked to influence business and with business to by-pass politics altogether and create outcomes in forms of unpolitics or consumer politics.

But that is a very hit and miss and incomplete process.  The charity and voluntary sector has grown big enough to be hard to completely ignore but remained weak enough to not change major outcomes where the main political parties are opposed, on sustainability for instance.   Charities lack the resources to replace the state, and campaigns, whether by Greenpeace, health charities promoting particular medical needs or 38 Degrees, often only pick off the cases where public attention can be focused for long enough to make politicians look ‘out of step’ with opinion.

Britain also lacks the consensus-seeking mechanisms which involve politicians, business, labour and civil society which are still quite common in Germany, Scandinavia and the Netherlands.   The social connections between different classes, values groups, regions and interest groups are threadbare.

Normal political elections in Britain do not offer a way to change these arrangements but the Brexit referendum pulled a thread which activated and divided society.

Britain in Shock

Right now Britain is in shock.  It faces many developments that people who voted Leave or Remain might consider disastrous, and which few of them seriously considered before the referendum.

So profound is the turmoil that developments which would normally rank as national political crises in themselves, go almost un-discussed.  For instance the Scottish National Party wants a new referendum on independence and ‘Republican’ politicians in Northern Ireland talk of merging with the Irish Republic, which if Britain leaves the EU will be across a ‘hard’ land border, undoing the work of successive Irish and UK governments which have toiled for decades to make it irrelevant as possible.

Meanwhile media attention focusses on the entertaining mass dog-fights that have broken out in both the two main political parties.  Labour and Conservatives are both pulling themselves apart through internal leadership struggles.  Boris Johnson, face of the ‘Leave’ campaign victorious in the referendum, emerged as front runner to replace Prime Minister David Cameron, only to be politically assassinated by Michael Gove, his running mate, days later.   The same day, Teresa May took over as Conservative party front runner to be Prime Minister. She announced she would abandon one of the main planks of economic austerity insisted upon by George Osborne: to achieving a budget surplus by the end of the Parliament.  Normally this would make headlines but it was relegated to an aside.

In Labour, there is a life and death struggle between the MPs, who are broadly aligned to the Labour voters, and the slew of new Members who support the ‘hard left’ leader Jeremy Corbyn,  an ethical warrior with little popular touch who has proved himself limited in Westminster.  Corbyn was effectively elected by accident when the party changed its rules and was colonised by left wing activists, who do not care if they are of touch with potential voters because they are on a ‘long march’ to socialism.

Meanwhile predominantly young and ‘non-political’ people who voted ‘Remain’ in the referendum have taken to the streets to protest in favour of the EU.  This has simply never happened before in the UK.   They look to me like the mostly young, educated Prospectors and Pioneers which Ashcroft polling and CDSM surveys suggest will have voted to Remain.

Government itself is in limbo: major and supposedly critical infrastructure decisions such as on a new or extended London Airport are simply being kicked into the distant long grass.  Sterling has dropped in value.  Big Business is furious and demanding continued access to the Single European Market, which the Leave campaign said could be accomplished along with immigration controls but EU politicians now say is impossible.  Britain will lose the ‘Financial Passport’ if Brexit is implemented and as a result banks plan to transfer jobs to Europe and the European banking Authority will leave LondonA range of  business investments and property deals are being frozen.  Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England forsees a cut in interest rates below the record low of 0.5%.

Most of the people voting to ‘Leave’ thought the outcome would be to remain (ie it was a safe ‘protest vote’) and it’s widely thought that the leaders of the Leave campaign expected to lose but it would boost their chances of taking over from their party colleague David Cameron, as Prime Minister.  In other words it was a cock-up.

And that’s just the start of it.

Why It’s Not Over

The first thing campaigners need to realise if they don’t already is that it’s not over, for a number of reasons.

  1. Legal Obstacles to Brexit

There was a Brexit vote but it’s quite possible the UK will not invoke Article 50 (nothing to do with Area 51 but the so far untested mechanism for a country to exit the EU).  The referendum is not legally binding but merely a sort of official opinion poll.  David Cameron said he was bound by it as Prime Minister but that was a political statement not a legal obligation, and he then passed the decision to his successor.   A Cambridge Professor of International Law and the UK Constitutional Law Association both argue  that whether to invoke Article 50 and on what terms must involve a debate in Parliament.  Before Brexit can be triggered, it is argued that Parliament must repeal the 1972 European Communities Act

These legal points could create grounds for a challenge in the Courts (a Judicial Review) if any attempt is made to invoke Article 50 without action by Parliament.  Front runner Teresa May currently says this will not be until December 2016 and that negotiations with the EU could take ‘several years’.


The Guardian

  1. Political Resistance to Brexit

David Lammy MP has called for Parliament to vote down Brexit.  In the UK which has a representative democracy, Parliament is sovereign, not referenda.  Pro-European Conservative Peer Lord Heseltine has pointed out that “There is a majority of something like 350 in the House of Commons broadly in favour of the European relationship”.

Labour MP Geraint Davies has filed an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons making a similar call.  His bid says “UK citizens must agree on the terms of leaving the EU and, if not satisfied, be given the opportunity to opt for the UK to remain an EU member”.

The Liberal Democrats have declared they will run at the next General Election on a ticket of re-entering the EU, if Brexit takes place.  The Greens have proposed an alliance with the SNP and others.   So far these are merely straws in the wind and Labour, the theoretical but non-functioning Official Opposition, has played no part but in the next months, anything could happen.

  1. Public Opinion

Although the new Conservative government will no doubt make strenuous efforts to ‘manage’ public opinion and make it seem like Brexit is inevitable, if there is sufficient opposition and in particular if some of those who voted Leave are shown to now wish they had not voted Leave, this position may become untenable.

It is already claimed on the basis of a Survation poll in the Mail on Sunday that over a million people ‘regret’ having voted Leave.   It would only take 2 or 3% of those who voted Leave to decide it should have been Remain for the non-binding Brexit referendum result to lose its political credibility.

A steady stream of such reports started immediately after the result, such as one who tweeted  “personally voted leave believing these lies and I regret it more than anything, I feel genuinely robbed of my vote”.

Before the referendum leading Brexiteer Nigel Farage said that a 48%:52% result against leaving would not be the end of the matter, it would be “unfinished business”.  Likewise on 27 June Boris Johnson said that the 52% :48% result in favour of Leave was “not entirely overwhelming”, which is one reason why Leavers doubted that he would ever see it through.

Whereas both the Leave and Remain camps seem to have had no real plans for what would happen in the event of a Leave result (not least as they were internally divided),  the Swiss Bank Credit Suisse produced this analysis:

Swiss chart

Note the box ‘swing in public opinion due to uncertainty, recession and austerity’.  Factors which could lead to such as swing in opinion in the short term (this year before any chance to invoke Article 50) include:

  • Housing: if house prices fall or even stagnate, this could cause a lot of concern in the UK which is a society much more fixated on house-owning than most of Europe, and where house buying is a major driver of the economy
  • Fuel: truckers and drivers have in the past staged direct action protests when faced with fuel price hikes, and the cost of oil is sensitive to sterling falling against the dollar
  • Jobs: if existing jobs in banking or other sectors are moved to Europe
  • Investment: freezes by companies or deferral or cancellation of high profile public projects such as in transport or energy, some of which face loss of EU funding
  • Passports and pet passports, foreign homes etc: if the press starts looking for examples which directly affect their readers, they will come up with real life examples such as the need for citizens to buy a new passport , and maybe having to put their pets into quarantine if travelling to and from the EU, and consequences for the many more affluent Britions who have bought homes abroad in the EU or now live there.  Some Daily Mail readers have already noticed this.
  • The start of any steps towards legal obstacles to Brexit such as in Scotland


Unarguable impacts will count for much more than the forecasts and risk-of claims made by the Remain camp in the referendum campaign.

If there is sufficient public disquiet at either the consequences of a possible Brexit or the way in which the Leave campaign was run, or both, the Government might have to call a General Election to get a mandate to invoke Article 50.

It is notable that Boris Johnson (now irrelevant), David Cameron (resigned) and Teresa May (currently thought to be front runner as new Conservative Prime Minister and a past Remain campaigner) have all ruled out a second referendum and May has ruled out a General Election until 2020.  (The UK now has fixed term elections so a General Election can’t happen unless the Government calls it).  The main reason for this may be that they know the Conservative Party would split over the issue, which might result in it losing power.  Another factor may be that they fear a legal challenge on Article 50.

The definitive nature of their denials of a second referendum may reflect anxiety rather than well-founded confidence.  A second referendum cannot be ruled out.

On 29 June a petition to Parliament (which now requires a debate to take place in Parliament) calling for a second referendum to be held if the first did not reach 60% based on a turnout less than 75%, passed the 4 million mark.  By 1 July it received another 79,800 signatures but it was earlier hit by the revelation that someone had encouraged tens of thousands of signatures from outside the UK, and officials had to remove 77,000 signatures as invalid.  Even so it is the largest such petition in British history.

In addition, the public may increasingly realise that they were lied to by the Leave campaign.  For example broken promises on the £350m a week for the NHS, over reducing immigration and over business continuing to enjoy access to the Single European Market.

Finally, the people who almost certainly voted Remain, particularly the younger, more professional, hopeful, forward looking, optimistic, more-than-average educated  Pioneers and Prospectors, may organise themselves to sustain some sort of Remain campaign.  This above all is what the Conservative government will hope does not happen.  This is a complete unknown because many of these people have never been politically active before.  Most of them have no ‘baggage’ or party allegiances and being largely unknown, do not appear in conventional political calculations or on TV.  But these people represent Britain’s future.  They could be a potent force.

  1. Negotiations

In theory there are no negotiations until Article 50 is invoked and no informal negotiations.  In practice the informal negotiations are already going on, for example in public statements from EU leaders and British politicians, and there will be a host of private informal informals.

This has to happen not least because Big Business (and small businesses) are hungry for some sort of certainty about the terms of  possible Brexit, and they less they get that, the more likely some are to pull out of the UK.  As such talks go on and the rumour mills grind into action, the possible downsides of Brexit will become more apparent and feel more real.  This too will affect public opinion.

Let’s Imagine

Let’s for  moment imagine that some campaigners decided to throw in their lot with a campaign to stop Brexit from happening, either as individuals with skills or with the resources of organisations behind them.  What would face them ?

The main thing they could do in the short term is to keep alive the prospect of Remaining by showing that those who voted Remain have not given up and some of those who voted Leave at least regret it and wish they’d voted to Remain.  In short that people are angry that they were lied to and misled and therefore want the whole thing re-thought by politicians.  There are many ways that could then play out.

Doing this requires generating visible events and activities to sustain momentum.

The main hope of the Conservative Government is that interest in the whole subject tails off as the supply of political excitement dwindles and summer arrives.  Holidays are the principal enemy of the campaigners in the short term: once Parliament goes into recess and the various players retire ‘to the country’ or go abroad on holiday, the normal expectation is that politics goes into summer hibernation.  That may not happen this year thanks to the political leadership elections and if the EU Remainers were to manage to be present at summer events, even that might be enough to prevent it.

Why NGOs Should Get Involved

Britain’s NGOs range from tiny voluntary groups with no staff to the National Trust, the largest landowner in the country.  In the middle are many large politically (small p) active players such as green groups like the RSPB, WWF, Wildlife Trusts, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth who all (if reluctantly in some cases) came out for remaining in the EU on grounds of evidence that it would be better for the environment.  These are the sorts of groups which have the capacity to help make sure that the unfinished business remains unfinished.

The environment groups tried, unsuccessfully for the most part, to get environment made part of the referendum campaign.  Craig Bennett of Friends of the Earth has pointed out that one upside of this failure is that at least it was not actively rejected by either camp.  But other NGOs have seen their priorities much more directly included in the campaign, such as all the health charities whose work is closely tied to the NHS.  They and the country were promised £350m more a week which has now been airbrushed from the Brexit package.  That would take an awful lot of fundraising effort to replace.

On grounds of pursuing their objectives, their mission and raison d’etre, whether charities or not, such groups have a prima facie case for now getting involved in the public discussion.  So far most of them have stayed silent, heads down.

The NGOs also have a much bigger reason to abandon their usual position of wait-and-see.  The referendum earthquake is not just party political but envelops the whole of society, and may have repercussions that spread far outside the UK.   As I argue above, British civil society has grown into something of a political vacuum caused by generations of dislocation between formal politics and the people and now the façade which hid that fact has come crashing down.

Until now these groups had many pragmatic reasons to ignore this unhappy state of affairs, leaving it to those who decided to involve themselves in politics.  But now they owe it to the younger people who have been betrayed by the referendum, on top of the inter-generational theft of resources they have suffered by many of their parents and grandparents voting for lower taxes while insisting on generous pensions and maintenance of state services.

demo 2

The First and Second Political Betrayal of the People

In the very long run up to the Brexit referendum many of Britain’s most dependent people were effectively forgotten and taken for granted by the political system.  They felt betrayed and  many took their revenge in a protest that turned out to have an instrumental effect.  That was the first political betrayal.  Now we have a second betrayal but it most affects our young, our most able, those who had most to look forward to and those who often are already paying in more than they get out.  These people will carry the burden not just of making the economy work but of making our society work.

One way or another they deserve the help of those who have the machinery they lack, and that includes the campaign groups.

To my mind that is the clear moral and ethical case for NGOs to intervene.  They are actors who can and do reach across society better than the formal political parties.  They can make a difference to the outcome, whatever form it takes, and may find they have allies in some businesses.

So NGOs should abandon the pretence that they are not political actors just because they are not in formal politics.  This is a moment of opportunity to make real changes in our society, without parallel since the end of World War Two.

They should not abandon the optimistic, hopeful young just because it is comfortable to do so, or because they fear upsetting those who have been used to wielding power in the old order.

If they do not, if they stand by and let the optimistic young people who saw a future with Europe simply go back to their work, to their studies and to their families disappointed and despondent, then they also stand to lose.  Many of the NGOs already have ageing supporter bases.  They are likely to find that other players take their place.  Becoming invisible and not being there in the hour of need, is a step towards becoming irrelevant.


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campaignesr brexit pull graphic 2



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Fishermen Led Up The River By Farage

Please note that data in yesterdays blog on Brexit Age and Values has been updated


A message hoisted on the ‘Fishing Shed’ in Wells Next the Sea before the EU Referendum

A week or two ago, chief Brexiteer Nigel Farage of UKIP led a flotilla of fishermen up the Thames to complain about the EU.  Many in the fishing industry campaigned for Brexit.  Today came warnings that as with many other claims made by the Leave campaign, fishermen may not get what they hoped for.

“Promises have been made and expectations raised during the referendum campaign and it is now time to examine if and how they can be delivered,”  the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations told The Guardian.

“Unfortunately, perhaps” it added, “the UK’s geopolitical position means that it is not politically or legally possible just to ringfence most of our fish resources, in the way that, for example, Iceland can. The reality is that most of our stocks are shared with other countries to some degree or other”.

And “we can certainly seek to renegotiate quota shares, as well as access arrangements, but it is realistic to expect that there will be a price. Who will pay that price is a critical question.”

Not exactly vote Leave and ‘get your fish back’ then.

farage thames

Nigel Farage with his flotilla on the Thames

Here’s a little story about Brexit from where I live, Wells Next the Sea in Norfolk, which illustrates the tangled nature of the story.

welsl harbour graphic

We have a small but active fishing fleet (now sadly, one of the biggest on the East Coast of England).  Like many other ‘small fishermen’, many blame the EU Common Fisheries Policy and access for foreign boats for their woes, and the lack of quotas allocated to smaller boats.  Partly as a result, our local fishermen now fish almost entirely for shellfish such as crabs and lobsters, not fin fish like cod or plaice that have long been covered by quotas.   Crabs, lobsters and other shell-fisheries are regulated and some are covered by quotas but not in the same way as fin fish.

I’m no fisheries expert but I do know a bit about it and spent a year or so working to support campaigns intended to help get smaller fishermen a better deal from the CFP, when it was being reformed.  This was partly successful in that the Member States including the UK agreed to a policy designed to encourage this but in practice the UK Government did not use it to help small fishermen, a decision contested in the Courts by Greenpeace.  Even so, many in the fishing industry still saw the EU as the problem rather than the attitude of their own government (see EU fisheries reform fails to live up to green hopes).

In my view it is damaging to communities, employment and the environment that fisheries policy does not favour smaller operators doing more sustianble forms of fishing but I don’t think leaving the EU will help.  The problem is in Whitehall and Westminster not in Brussels, only UK politicians like to pretend it is, knowing that this plays to beliefs prevalent in the industry.

In reality fishing stocks have been depleted by over-fishing, and that started decades before we joined the EU.  There are also a large number of access agreements made outside EU legislation between countries around the North Sea which would need to be drastically changed if Britain’s fishermen were to ‘get our fishing grounds back’, and many of them currently enjoy access to stocks outside what could ever become British waters.

Ironically, as with farming, ‘European’ money has also poured into fishing in a way that it has not into many other industries.  For example on Wells Quay there is a ‘fishing shed’, or as it is officially known, the ‘Wells Shellfish Handling Facility’.  I am very familiar with this having spent several years of my life helping project manage its laborious construction, when a Harbour Commissioner.  The idea was to support the then profitable Velvet Crab fishery, which needed a processing facility.  ‘Velvets’ have now much diminished but the shed is well used by the fishermen, for instance for keeping crab and lobster bait in a cold store.

FS 1

That shed was built partly with EU fisheries funds: £130,594.19 or the total £421,000 cost came from the European Fisheries Fund.  Presumably that won’t be happening again after Brexit.  And ironic because it is the self-same shed on which the protest against the EU was hung.

I’ve heard from fisheries policy officials and ex Ministers that the main reason the UK Government likes a few big boats doing the fishing rather than lots of little ones is simply that it’s administratively convenient to regulate that way.  I can’t see Brexit changing that.

FS 2

An EU funding logo acknowledged on a display panel (which I designed) outside the shed, which explains where the local fishing is done.  It’s popular with visitors but they probably never noticed the EU flag.  Maybe it should have been bigger but maybe it wouldn’t have made any difference.

Seems to me that Mr Farage and his friends have led our fishermen up the river.

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