By Julian Lewis, Guest Speaker
New Forest Show Dinner – 23 July 2018
Believe it or not, people are strangely cynical about politics. When the Austrian diplomat Prince Metternich heard the news that the exceptionally devious French statesman Talleyrand had died, he is supposed to have inquired:
"I wonder what he meant by that?"
In 2016, an obituary in the US Richmond Times–Dispatch was more explicit:
"Faced with the prospect of voting for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, Mary Anne Noland of Richmond chose instead to pass into the eternal love of God, on Sunday, May 15th, at the age of 68".
It is a sign of a healthy society to treat those who would govern us with disdain; but sometimes their interventions cannot be ignored.
Almost two decades ago, John Prescott announced to his Party's Annual Conference in Bournemouth that, to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act, the New Forest would be given National Park status. Locally, this caused consternation. There was widespread concern that the delicate balance between the organisations, traditions and working life of the Forest could be undermined. These had evolved over very long periods – some, indeed, over centuries.
As a relative newcomer, I had been hugely impressed by this evolutionary model, at the heart of which seemed to be the concept of consensus. If it could be preserved under the new dispensation, then all might be well; but, if the new Authority saw itself as an arm of central Government, issuing orders and laying down rules from on high, then the outlook would be grim. And that is largely what happened at first. Insensitivity at best, and arrogance at worst, quickly led to uproar in the Forest – culminating in an unprecedented mass demonstration and rally at Bolton's Bench after which, commonsense prevailed. Consultants were brought in: expensive, but in the event worth every penny. Personnel departed; relationships were re-set; and new people were appointed who were willing to work with the grain of our society, rather than continuing to cut across it.
It will never be simple to maintain equilibrium between the autonomy and welfare of local communities, the demands of mass tourism and the requirements of conservation. Inevitably, there will be disagreements and disputes. Yet, ultimately, all participants in the process know that, if everyone is allowed to play a part, a unique environment dating from the late Eleventh Century will – to coin a phrase – continue to be strong and continue to be stable.
When Mr Prescott made his announcement in 1999, I had been in post as MP for only a couple of years. It was impossible not to be aware of my own inexperience; but, both then and now, I have always known that the Forest has an abundance of expertise on which to draw, and a raft of experts on whom to rely. Today is my chance to express my thanks to those who have always happy to offer encouragement and advice. They include leading Forest figures among the Commoners and the Verderers, and staff at the Forestry Commission, County Council and District Council.
In his NFU days, our Chairman Chris [Whitlock] regularly briefed me and my office on key rural issues; and when the crisis came, early in 2011, over privatising the UK's Forest Estate, it was to our President Oliver [Crosthwaite-Eyre] that I turned for confirmation that the Coalition Government's proposals were as reckless and destructive as I thought them to be. Against all expectations, the Government suddenly gave way: it had belatedly realised – as the NPA had previously – that one must work with, so far as is possible, the grain of society, rather than crudely cutting across it.
It would, frankly, be impertinent for me as a politician to address a gathering like this – made up of those at the heart of Forest life – about the minutiae of issues on which you, not I, are the experts. So I have entitled this talk The New Forest as a Template for our Times, because what I have been describing in the Forest context has wider implications for politics as a whole. In case none of you has noticed, Parliament has been on the verge of a nervous breakdown over our future relationship with the European Union. Were there any arguments which one side could use decisively to convince the other of the best way forward, then this controversy would not have raged, in the way that it has, for the past 40 years. Nor would it have been necessary to turn to the rather alien – indeed, Continental – device of a direct popular vote to try to resolve the issue.
Don't worry, Ladies and Gentlemen, I'm well aware that Euro-wrangling is the last thing you wish to consider on an evening out like this. I merely cite the issue as one extreme example of the uproar to be expected when a political elite – locally or nationally – seeks to impose a top-down road map, on a community like the New Forest or on a country like the United Kingdom, which points to a destination where the people do not wish to go.
As I hinted at the outset, the profession of politics has often been held in low esteem; but it is important to realise that its imperfections derive from the deficiencies of human nature. People enter politics for reasons of conviction and also for reasons of personal ambition. In choosing the power-structures under which we want to live, it is vital to recognise the risk that too much power at the top will invariably result in those in control deciding to abuse it.
In 1947, Churchill famously referred to Democracy as
"the worst form of Government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time".
It is certainly true that those elected by the people do not necessarily succeed; but the saving grace of democratic structures is that, every so often, those who fail can be peacefully removed. The acid test of a democratic system is an affirmative answer to the question:
"Can you kick the blighters out?"
When individuals seeking high office can be shown, in advance, to possess sufficient qualities of saintliness and self-denial to be trusted with unchecked power, then unaccountable power structures may finally lead to better outcomes than democratic control of our communities, our country and any multi-national organisations to which we choose to belong. In the meantime, we should be wise to recognise the limitations of character and competence of the most ardent seekers of power. We should continue to design and support systems in society, both at home and internationally, giving our rulers the chance to govern us well – and giving us the chance to remove them if they fail.
During the final phase of the Cold War, some 35 years ago, my work involved campaigning, in many a public meeting, for the maintenance and renewal of the British nuclear deterrent in the face of a deeply repressive Soviet bloc. Debating the issues with Communist apologists for the Kremlin, one often came up against the following line of argument:
"You claim that holding elections every four or five years gives you democratic control; but all you get is the periodic right to replace Tweedledum with Tweedledee."
The answer to that was straightforward, namely:
"Even if I accepted – which I don't – that there is no real difference between a Conservative and a Labour Government, my being able to replace Tweedledum with Tweedledee, every so often, means that at least I don't end up with Adolf Hitler Tweedledum or Josef Stalin Tweedledee."
So when these three days of this finest of County Shows come to an end, and when the chattering, bickering and disputatious world of politics – at every level, with or without a capital 'P' – intrude once again into our daily concerns, let us try to look upon the democratic process as a blessing, not a curse.
For, messy and exasperating though it is, we are lucky to have produced and preserved a political system with a safety-valve of popular control, even if the absence of top-down rule means that progress is slow. The governance of the New Forest and the governance of England took centuries to evolve. Both eventually settled upon a consensual, not a top-down approach. For all its frustrations, this is still the least-worst option for managing our affairs.
The New Forest Show is a flagship event in both the County and my constituency. It is a privilege to speak and an honour to congratulate all who have been working, for weeks and months, to ensure that this will be the finest and most spectacular yet!