As Brexit approaches, too many public figures seem determined to stress what divides rather than what unites us; yet the great majority of people outside Westminster simply want to get on with building a country we can be proud of, with a fairer economy and healthier environment.
Luckily, the further away from SW1 you travel, the more possible it is to imagine a politics that could make this happen. From Brixham to Birmingham, Sutherland to Stoke, people tell us that they value relationships and the bonds within communities, as much as individual rights and freedoms. They are sceptical about allowing the state to dominate their lives, but recognise its role in making things better. They don’t think of people or nature as commodities; but embrace the role of businesses in building economies that flourish.
Theresa May seems instinctively to understand this politics, which has loosely been called post-liberalism. If she were to put it to work to restore Britain’s natural environment, she could begin a project of remarkable national renewal.
Our wildlife has suffered horribly since the war; our soils are in poor health; and we are facing the impacts of climate change without the resilience we need. The last Government showed what can be done, by securing wide-reaching reforms to European fisheries policies, and creating a magnificent over-seas network of marine nature reserves; but we need more of that ambition, if we are to turn Brexit into a moment of opportunity for the natural world.
The first step will be to re-think the role of the state in protecting and restoring our environment.
As the Government has already shown through its welcome ban on microbeads, emphatic state action is sometimes simply the right thing to do. But truly effective regulation should act as a spur to innovation, creating dividends for those able to produce cleaner, more efficient and safer products. At its best, regulation is dynamic. Its job is specifically to render itself redundant.
A similar story can be told about public funding. State support can help drive down the costs of new products or practices, and in doing so, become an agent for change. Governments around the world have helped reduce the costs of solar power, for example. The trick is to taper such support in a way that works for consumers and builds markets, rather than demanding an open ended commitment to subsidy.
In an ideal world, the active state would be an environmental problem-solver, not a nanny. But in many cases the best solutions don’t come from the centre, but from local people working to improve the places where they live. Their ‘ask’ from Government is to be given more power to do better.
This is certainly the case for many farmers trying to do the right thing for their businesses and for nature. A staggering proportion of today’s farmers say they aren’t profitable without the under-pinning support of the single farm payment. Yet many also acknowledge that this payment, and the rules that come with it, have done little to incentivise innovation; and that they feel trapped in unsustainable patterns of business that demoralise them and their families.
The remarkable thing is that in many cases, the route to a more profitable farm is also the route to a better environment. I recently met a farm owner and his young manager in Devon who have dedicated years to developing a machine to turn sea-food waste into high-grade fertiliser. Outside Banbury, I met a young business man who is turning his farm around by matching inputs to outputs with passion and precision. Producers of the highest quality food tell me that they could sell at prices lower than those of the supermarkets, if they could build shorter supply chains.
The best food needn’t cost the earth – for nature or customers. But we desperately need an agricultural policy that supports positive change, rather than underpinning the status quo – through capital grants, advice, and backing for smaller farms (the core of our rural communities and our biggest pool of innovators); rather than static payments and moribund rules.
Once we have this foundation, we can encourage farmers to form partnerships locally to deliver more ambitious projects of environmental renewal. This might include restoring endangered species and habitats, reducing flood risk or cutting the cost of clean drinking water. It might even see rural communities offering new ways for children from towns and cities to spend time in the countryside – making a real difference to their development and mental health.
Let us imagine that by the end of this parliament, the Government had committed itself to making the UK a world leader in environmental recovery, with bold plans for restoring nature, reducing pollution, and rebuilding sustainable farm and fishing businesses up and down the country. And let us imagine too, that the engines for this project were local communities and thriving businesses committed to making great places - with the support of an active but enabling state. Who would care then, which of us (or them) had voted leave or remain?
Ruth Davis is a senior associate at E3G
The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.