Comment: Forest sell-off shows the coalition is losing the plot

The reaction against a forest sell-off is predominantly emotional, but that's what makes it so politically potent.

By Ian Dunt

"You're getting sloppy."

For everyone having to sit through a serial killer movie with their boyfriend, it's the line which indicates the end is near. Once the cop realises that the killer is getting sloppy, you know you're two-thirds of the way through. They start cold and calculating, then they get over-confident, cocky. They make risky choice. That's when it falls apart.


The coalition's slash-and-burn approach to public services has had a pretty calculated quality to it. But now they're getting sloppy, too. Last week it was NHS reform. This week, it was the plan to sell off England's forests, which just went to consultation. Both cases reveal the point at which the government's guiding philosophy (publicly-owned=bad, privately owned=good) clashes with the public's tolerance.

NHS reforms are simply incomprehensible. All that work detoxifying the Tory brand and David Cameron ends up allowing his health secretary to throw it all away with a reorganisation the NHS can't afford at a time when it was finally recording impressive improvements in service.

But the drive to privatise England's forests is more significant. It reveals not a miscalculation, but a complete disconnect with the public. The government evidently thought it was a minor issue, one which could be easily smuggled through without much more than a smattering of complaints from environmentalists and some sentimental middle-class types. George Monbiot would write a comment piece. There'd be a three-minute discussion in Any Questions. That would be it.

Instead the plans detonated, triggering a vicious response across the political spectrum. Why should this prompt more heat than cutting Sure Start centres or a regressive VAT rise? Because this challenges something deep down inside the English heart, way past reason or politics.

Most English people never go to the forest, save for perhaps a trip when they were children and another when they become parents. But the existence of the countryside, the pure, unspoilt rolling hills, the crunchy, rich forests - all that palaver - is essential to the way the English think of themselves and their country. In this debate, the countryside is all rolled into one, the hills and forests part of the same mystical dreamland.

We see it, in passing, as we sit on the train from own town to another. We attach lush, sparkling hues to it in movie scenes or idealise it in fantasy novels like Hobbiton in Lord of the Rings. It's a yearning which crosses all divisions - class, race, age or politics. It's actually more aggressive in town dwellers than it is in country folk. City people need to feel the countryside is there, waiting for them, should they ever choose to return.

It's an emotion - there's little that's rational about it. If we really loved the countryside so much we'd actually be out there. But that is what makes it so politically potent. It operates beyond the level of political debate. Caroline Spelman can offer all sorts of assurances, but the suspicions which greet the idea of privatising our forests will not be killed by argument.

It's a mistake which anyone with an appreciation for the English mindset could have foreseen. And it was undertaken for purely ideological reasons. How else can you explain taking this much political damage for a system which costs just £10 million a year, once timber sales are taken into account? That's around 30p per taxpayer per annum.

The gain is miniscule. The perils are legion. The coalition has overreached itself badly. It's getting sloppy.

The views expressed in politics.co.uk's Speakers' Corner section are those of the writer and do not reflect the opinions of the website or its owners.

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