A traditional reedcutter at work on the Norfolk Broads. Photograph: Getty Images
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The frisson of autumn on the Norfolk Broads

A reminder is that we share a habitat and a common experience with other creatures.

Mid-autumn, just before our boat goes into dry dock for the winter, has a special frisson on the Norfolk Broads. The reeds begin to bleach and reflect the sunsets, so that for a while the water appears to glow brighter as the dusk closes in. The last migrants leaving for Africa cross with the first arriving from the tundra, the swallow flying under the goose. This week the local kingfishers have reappeared, darting between moored-up cruisers and skin-diving between their hulls. We’ve seen otters close to for the first time, one rolling right in front of the boat with a huge bream in its paws.

But the rain and cold that have permeated 2012 are still casting shadows on all species that depend on the sun. Flying insects, the birds that eat them, the raptors that prey on the insectivorous birds have gone into guerrilla mode; hiding out in remote, sheltered redoubts, working unsociable hours, keeping= silent to conserve energy. It’s happening below the radar of most of us and just how much damage has been done won’t be known until the year’s records are analysed. It’s unlikely to be good news.

Does it matter either way? Short of outright extinction, is the fraying and fragmentation of species of any real consequence to us? The government seemed to think so when it set out its
 green agenda and acknowledged that biodiversity was essential to the earth’s survival and what it liked to call “quality of life” (ours, that is). Now, this commitment has gone the way of all its other green pledges. In the past few months the government has junked the advice of two of its own scientific advisory committees. The biologically absurd and culturally objectionable badger cull has been given the go-ahead (albeit delayed until next year). Incontestable evidence that neo-nicotinoid insecticides are one of the causes of the collapse of bee populations has not made a dent in Defra’s support for them.

Now Defra has asked the Law Commission to rationalise wildlife protection laws in the UK. Not a bad idea, perhaps, given the piecemeal way they’ve accumulated over the past hundred years. An updating would provide an opportunity to bring legislation into line with new ecological threats, and with our new understanding of the crucial importance of wild species to the earth as a whole. But this is not what the Law Commission has in mind at all. The first duty of wildlife law, it has put on record, is to “provide the framework within which wildlife can be controlled, so that it does not interfere with the conduct of human activity” – a principle that is equivalent to saying that the prime object of child protection laws is to ensure the wretched infants don’t get in the way of their parents’ career opportunities. The commission concedes that the law should protect individual animals from harm, but only if that harm is “above a permitted level”.

It’s not clear if these barbarous, commodifying guidelines were dumped on the commission by Defra. They certainly sit snugly with the government’s social and economic project. But they may equally show the UK legal establishment returning to its default position on wildlife. The status of a wild organism in common law is as potential property. While it is free and alive, it belongs to everybody, or, more correctly, to nobody. But by being “rendered into possession” – the legal euphemism for killing or capturing – it is turned into goods, the property of the owner of the land on which it’s taken. The notion of wildlife as part of the family silver – private inheritance more than common heritage – melds seamlessly into the idea of it as disposable nuisance, and many early protection laws carried an exception clause concerning “interference with legitimate human activity”. But this is the first occasion when the exception has been made the guiding principle.

As a principle for legislation it’s not only irrelevant but actively hostile to the conservation of our archipelago’s biodiversity, as well as offensive to anyone who regards living organisms as more than entries on a cost-benefit ledger. The problem is that we don’t have an agreed alternative scale for the “value of species”. That clunking, portmanteau term “biodiversity” doesn’t help. Like “natural capital” it’s an intruder from corporate-speak, defining species as commodities, whose numbers can be simply and demonstrably totted up. By this crude index a perilously rare species barricaded in a nature reserve counts equally with an ocean-wide phytoplankton fuelling an entire ecosystem. They’re both just ticks in a box, a place where the trader meets the twitcher.

Nor is our current attitude towards nature’s “usefulness” (the implicit opposite of the Law Commission’s “interference with the conduct of human activity”) remotely appropriate. By
useful, we mean useful to us – and visibly so. We may have grudgingly admitted pollinating insects into the realms of the utilitarian but not the predators that attack the parasites of the pollinators. We allow agricultural fungicides to leach into the groundwater and collaterally damage a “useless” (and probably unlovely) tree-root fungal symbiote and wonder why hedgerow oaks are withering . . .

The interdependence of species is far too complex for us to make crass and anthropomorphic judgements about what is and what isn’t “useful”.

In September a huge fin whale beached on the East Anglian coast at Shingle Street. It was thin and in distress and eventually died, despite Herculean efforts to get it back into the water. For a few days it became a kind of shrine, while the authorities worked out what to do with it. People flocked to the beach to see the sinuous carcass with its prodigious maw. They came out of a sense of wonder, or morbid curiosity, or simple melancholy. A great leviathan had lost its way and become embarrassingly dead meat. In the end utilitarianism triumphed.
The whale was carted off on a lowloader to a processing plant, where its blubber was rendered down for biofuel.

Were those of us who thought it would have been more fitting to bury the body on the shore guilty of sentimentality as well as serious impracticality? This is not a “conservation of biodiversity” issue: the loss of one fin whale is neither here nor there. But the fate of its remains nags us with another challenge: how we conserve the meaning of wildlife – which may underpin our so far feeble attempts to save it physically.

I’d like to argue that we should respect wild organisms for their own sake, because they’re here. But I’m aware that this is a philosophical conceit and that “their own sake” is really code for “my own sake” – or at least my aesthetic and moral satisfaction. The philosopher Edward L McCord’s book The Value of Species tries to find a compromise. He argues that “individual species are of such intellectual moment – so interesting in their own right – that they rise above other values and merit enduring human embrace.” This raises utilitarianism to an intellectual level but for me still fails to do justice to the sheer breadth of the experience of living in a world alongside other species.

Gliding west at last light on the Broads, the answer often seems self-evident. In October the pinkfeet geese return from Iceland. The great scrolls of birds unwind across the sky so high up that they make yet another plane of colour, their bellies lit pink by the sun long after it has sunk out of sight. But they’re not remote in any other sense. The ebb and flow of their chatter, the calligraphy, the waving scribbles of birds (“taking a line for a fly”, to misquote Paul Klee) speaks plainly about the company of one’s kind on great journeys.

The Broads are full of such moments. The spring duets of cranes, segued trumpetings that can carry half a mile and which are couched in a minor third, an interval found in every musical culture on earth. Swallowtail butterflies folding their wings to fly through raised sails. A strange aquatic plant called hornwort, which on very hot days, in a few unpolluted pools, fizzes with so much transpired oxygen that the stems “jiffle” against each other and sing like Aeolian harps.

The Broads – medieval open-cast peat mines that were inundated during a climate shift in the 13th century – have just had a “biodiversity audit” and the results are jaw-dropping for anyone who regards them as no more than a watery holiday camp: more than 11,000 species, including a quarter of the entire country’s tally of conservation priorities.

But the statistics say nothing about the kind of relationships that are possible with this cornucopia of life forms. A few hours before the geese fly in to roost we round the corner in Somerton Dyke, where the whirligigs begin. Everyone looks out for these engaging beetles, just a few millimetres long, as they drift about in flotillas close to the reeds. They shine in the sun, like beads of mercury, and every few seconds the entire gang bursts into a frenzy of high speed, near-miss swirling, a waterborne roller derby. It’s comic and touching and so far unexplained – except that, like the flights of geese, it feels intuitively comprehensible, a kind of dance about the companionships of crowds.

Whirligigs are ancient animals, whose family emerged more than 200 million years ago in the Triassic period. They have no known predators, because of an extraordinary skin coating, which is a highly scented, toxic and antibacterial wetting agent. Their hind legs work like paddle- steamer wheels and give whirligigs the highest acceleration of any aquatic animals. They do not “interfere” with any human activity, nor are in any way practically useful to us (though I suspect that pharmacologists and nano-engineers will be looking at their bactericidal moisturiser before too long). And though they have undoubted “intellectual moment” it’s not at all clear why they touch one so. You round a corner and there they are, at the usual address, and if they’re not you begin to worryand miss them.

This is nothing to do with anthropomorphism or manufactured empathy. It comes, for me, from something I can only describe as a sense of neighbourliness; the emotion the poet John Clare felt so powerfully for his fellow commoners, of all species. Neighbourliness is not friendship. It doesn’t demand reciprocity. It’s based on sharing a habitat, on the common experience of place and season and the hardships of weather. It might provide a bridge across that great conceptual divide between us and other species.

Richard Mabey’s most recent book is “The Perfumier and the Stinkhorn” (Profile, £9.99)

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Something Rotten

Photo: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
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Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Something Rotten