If you go down to the Westminster woods today you’re in for a big surprise. You’ll find lots of cuddly Conservative politicians who won’t frighten the children and love nothing better than to feed nuts to fluffy-tailed red squirrels, save foxes from vicious packs of hounds and plant millions of trees across the north of England.
It’s sometimes the case that when a government is perceived as feeble it tries to divert attention by announcing things which make our inner David Attenboroughs coo with delight. Thus in the past couple of weeks, amid an avalanche of dismal headlines about the crisis in the NHS, we have heard of a string of initiatives on wildlife and the environment.
Theresa May’s decision to ditch plans for a vote that possibly could have overturned the ban on foxhunting with hounds, introduced by Labour in 2004, came hard on the heels of a raft of other announcements aimed at greening the party’s image. Her speech on the environment last Thursday tried to position her as the scourge of plastic waste. But, being a congenitally cynical kind of bloke, it has all left me looking for a sick bag.
I can’t help but remember a conversation I had back in the 1980s with a prominent member of the African-Caribbean community in Liverpool 8. We spoke not long after the Toxteth Riots, when years of tensions between the police and predominantly black residents finally exploded into several days of violence and destruction. A major part of the Thatcher government’s response to deprivation in the area, so glaringly highlighted by the riots, was to give Liverpool the International Garden Festival, established on a derelict industrial site next to the Mersey and drawing over three million visitors. “Wonderful,” the community leader told me. “We make a fuss to draw attention to what’s happening in Toxteth and they present us with a bunch of flowers.”
I have a feeling that the same thinking processes – as far as the government’s concerned – are behind the so-called Northern Forest, a scheme to plant 50 million trees along the M62 corridor. This is a pretty cheap piece of positive image-making for the government, since it requires just £5.7m of public money to kickstart the project. However, it’s not the government’s idea at all, although you would be forgiven for believing it was, given that May seemed to take credit for it in an interview with Andrew Marr. In fact, the forest was the idea of the Woodland Trust and other groups.
Then we had Michael Gove setting out a post-Brexit, wildlife-rich vision of Britain covered with more trees as well as flower meadows and thousands of miles of new hedgerows. Erm, that would be to replace the same woods, meadows and hedges that largely Conservative-voting farmers have destroyed to squeeze ever-more income from the land since the Second World War.
I expect to see politicians continuing to take the credit, despite it being a gift to political cartoonists. I can picture that famous Brothers Grimm folk tale set in dense woods in which May, dressed as Little Red Riding Hood, finds Boris Johnson as the Big Bad Wolf in her grandmother’s bed…
But I digress. The Northern Forest is a great idea by the Woodland Trust, but be very wary of politicians trying to hype it into a Northern Powerhouse with leaves.