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The Royal Society for the Politicisation of Birds

The RSPB's Director of Global Conservation, Martin Harper, has been allowed great freedom by the Trustees of that huge and rich organisation. His reach is, as his title implies, global. Whilst he sort of denies that it was anything to do with him, such is his power and freedom that he could easily have had a conversation with his friends in France and Spain, and vetoed the attempt by Natural England to re-introduce hen harriers into southern England. He is here, there, and everywhere, and this freedom – and being the de facto power behind the RSPB's throne – may have emboldened him into sailing four square into party politics.

The Government is preparing for Brexit. They can hardly do anything else. You may like it, or you may dislike it, but it is obvious that appropriate preparations need to be made, particularly when it comes to trade. Making sure that trade within our own country, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, is based on a single set of rules seems about as basic as it gets.

Surely no one could object to the idea that something made in Scotland should be saleable in England and vice versa? Accordingly, the Brexit Bill contains some unremarkable provisions – things any sensible person would probably expect. First: that if goods or services meet one of our four nations' standards, they can be traded across all of the UK. And second: the banning of discrimination by any of the four nations against products from the rest of the UK.

The alternative would of open the doors to horrendous, internal trade wars and any country could control the other three by manipulating its own laws on trading standards. The government has taken the view that ensuring a level playing field for goods and services within the UK should be the responsibility of the Westminster Parliament, where all the nations have a voice, and should not be turned into a political football at the risk of causing ever greater problems.

None of this seems that extraordinary. But the RSPB is, according to Martin Harper, profoundly upset by the governments proposal. So upset that it is apparently taking common cause with the SNP to campaign against them.

Speaking through the National, an SNP newspaper, Martin said the following:

Talking about these two clauses (mutual recognition and non-discrimination) from an environmental perspective they create a problem”.

He then gives an example.

“The RSPB and others have long campaigned to ban the use of peat in horticulture. If part of the UK, let's say Scotland, wanted to introduce such a ban it could regulate Scottish suppliers but it could not prevent the sale of peat compost in Scotland from other suppliers in the rest of the UK”.

He added that the RSPB “remain concerned that the Internal Market Bill will quash any political enthusiasm for higher environmental standards”.

Leave aside the news that RSPB has “long campaigned to ban the use of peat”. Who knew that? Temper your understandable horror and alarm at the appalling idea that gardeners in Scotland might buy English peat.

Far more amazing is the spectacle of a previously non-political charity apparently taking common cause with a political party, Who expected that? Let's be clear about the appearance. The paper he spoke to is SNP from its first headline to its last full stop – as it is entirely entitled to be. The example he chose was a Scottish one – although he may have not been aware that much of the current trade is in the opposite direction, as Scotland has one of the biggest licensed peat extraction sites in the UK. Finally and most obvious, the political party in Westminster who are trying to destroy the two seemingly unexceptional clauses is the SNP. Nor can this just be a folly of his own. Martin is very clear that he speaks for the whole organisation that is the RSPB.

Does it matter? You bet it does. Without those clauses the Scottish parliament, where the SNP have a working majority (thanks only to a tiny number of Greens, none of whom got enough votes to actually win a first past the post seat, and who will never need to be popular enough anywhere to win one), could dictate what happened in the whole UK. It could also give them an effective veto in international trade negotiations. So, as things currently stand the RSPB seems to prefer a position where a few Scottish Greens have the power to decide what and how, goods and services are traded in the UK.

Does RSPB support for the SNP and Green Party position matter? The SNP obviously think it does, or it would not have featured so prominently in their paper. What could have been seen by those supporting the Bill as just another piece of party politics can now be portrayed, according to Martin Harper, as a matter of grave concern, with the potential to prevent the attainment of higher environmental standards.

What possible reason could Martin have for this ground-breaking foray into party politics? What could the SNP possibly give Martin in return for this seismic shift into party politics, changing the custom and practice of one hundred and fifty years? Well, when the Werrity report emerged there were several bits that the RSPB didn't like. One was that it did not recommend the immediate licensing of driven grouse moors. It will be interesting to see what happens after the RSPB's sally into party politics. Our guess is that the SNP is not as easily bought as some people may imagine.

We may have got this all wrong. In fact we actually hope we have. What we have written is based on what Martin Harper said to the National. They may have got it wrong – although it is difficult to imagine that a competent newspaper would make a mistake of that magnitude. Otherwise we are left with an unpleasant spectacle of a once respected charity changing its name. In future it will be more accurately known as the Royal Society for the Politicisation of Birds.

On the bright side, at least we now know where they stand on gardening.


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