By Morvern Rennie
Deep in the forest a gentle breeze rustles the canopy above me wafting the smell of hay and rippling the dappled light across the ground. My children squeal and giggle, the dog pants, somewhere a cockerel crows. The softly undulating hills vanish into a vermillion sky where great marshmallow clouds puff lazily eastwards.
Or perhaps a parallel time machine has transported me to the fabled brexit yesteryear?
This is England. 2016.
The England hungered for by brexiters, right here. As it always has been. Thriving.
During my two years here I have sought out and discovered many such places. The landscape is distinctive, beautiful, it is easy to see why great writers, artists and composers were so inspired. From the placid lakes of Cumbria to the craggy shores of Cornwall – across the rolling hills of Shropshire and the cosy Cotswolds villages – iconic rural England is alive. This is the England fought for in great wars. The land which defines the English as a people.
If these places exist then why all the angst?
I was brought up in rural Aberdeenshire where the ‘right to roam’ was, like all rights, instinctive and unremarkable. My family was never well off and we spent summers camping nearby and staying in various bothies across Scotland. Whilst it is true that we don’t own the land (and that needs sorted) we have always had access to it, generally for free. See a hill – walk it. See a cave – explore it. Scotland is and was mine, ours.
Even from our biggest cities the beaches, hills and lochs of Scotland are a short bus or train ride away. Beyond the petrol or ticket fare there doesn’t need to be great expense if you are endowed with an adventurous or imaginative nature.
Scottish land reform has a long way to go compared to our Scandinavian neighbours but we do have a collective ‘self’ we belong to a land and it is ours (in all but title). There is outrage and boycott where people have the cheek to charge us to access out own land, art and culture ( try finding a Scot who happily pays to go round Edinburgh castle!)
Gentrification in England reaches far beyond Hackney.
The most scenic parts of England have been commodified. Spot the trespassing sign, pay your national trust membership, stick to the designated path. People on modest budgets have been priced out their native environment. You’d be lucky to find weekend accommodation in picture postcard England for under £200. Parking the car £5 or more a day. The food is great, the restaurants are expensive. Even budget options like camping are over subscribed and more expensive than on mainland Europe. Why would you bother when the weather isn’t guaranteed?
Urban England slurps up 81% of the population. Most people have cheaper and easier access to all inclusive package deals in Spain than they do their own country.
The English yearn for a sense of self but, stuck in sprawling conurbations they have come to define themselves by comparison to the foreign other. What they are not. Rather than an understanding of where they come from, what they are.
From the many articles I’ve read since brexit no one seems to have explored the relationship between the English and their land. Instead focussing on the disconnect between the political elite and the disenchanted masses. The economy, class, xenophobia and metropolitan elitism have all featured prominently in the discussions but no one seems too bothered by England the place or the English national identity.
An Englishman’s home is his castle. The right to privately own your corner of England and keep uninvited others out (even the King of England himself) looms heavy in the story of England. In the days of unfettered monarchy this was rightfully a source of great pride. Its modern manifestation has led to a people excluded from their own land by gentrification, housing bubbles and second homes. All that remains for ordinary English folk is the feeling that others require permission to be here and the desire to have control over that power.
It is easy to dismiss brexit as a vote against the European people but I suspect the crux of the matter is not the desire to exclude but a requirement for permission. As the English were sucked into population centres, the corner of England they alone control is diminished, encroached on, jostles against others with more communal traditions. Maybe the tension behind brexit would be better relieved by reforms in land ownership and access rather than control over borders.