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Long-term (1989 to date) Italian resident, originally from UK, I'm an ex-teacher, passionate naturalist and environmentalist who works as a wildlife tour-guide and translator.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

“Vote for Bob”? I’d rather not if it’s all the same to you.

Anthony Charles Lynton Blair’s devastatingly powerful electoral successes between 1997 and 2005 came about by his commensurate skill at occupying the political centre. He has said as much himself. With a lot of help from his Director of Communications and Strategy, Alastair “We don’t do God” Campbell, he managed to embrace virtually the entire parliamentary Labour Party (with the notable exception of that ultimate survivor, Jeremy Corbyn, the other ‘lefties’ such as Terry Fields and Dave Nellist having been ejected under the purge of the Militant Tendency under Neil Kinnock). Much of his success was his skill at “taking” ground that was traditionally held by moderate ‘One Nation’ Conservatives as well as much of the homeland of the whackier libertarian fringes of Liberalism. 

Matteo Renzi - unsure whether he's the Mayor of Florence
or Holly Johnson 
His 10-year lectio magistralis was doubtless closely followed by the young man due to become mayor of Florence, a certain Matteo Renzi, an unelected post-Blairite, a presentation-over-substance leader (called by many “a door-to-door saucepan salesman”) whose main skill would appear to be in offending no one unnecessarily until he can be sure he can continue politically without them. People in Italy used to say you should hold your nose and vote Christian Democrat. Renzi holds his nose and allies himself with characters far out on the left and right, outside his own Democratic Party that already makes Blair’s (then) Labour Party look like a very narrow and pokey niche indeed.

What has all this to do with nature conservation and non-governmental organizations (NGOs)? Because it involves ecological niche theory as (dubiously) applied (by me) to politics with a small ‘p’ and, in this context, access to limited resources (government and EU grants, membership numbers and revenue, and thereby political influence and power) by NGOs that compete, in some respects, like organisms within a socio-political ecosystem.

Let me set out my relationship with the RSPB clearly. I am not a member and haven’t been so since 1989 when MargaretThatcher was invited to name a BR locomotive, The Avocet (the RSPB’s logo bird). I protested by letter and asked for a clearly-stated and public admission that this was a mistake. (For what its worth, the current website states: “We are scrupulous about never taking a party political stance and take particular care during election periods never to imply support for particular parties or candidates”, so perhaps the kerfuffle left its mark.) I had a nice letter back, but no admission was forthcoming at the time, so that was that. Oh dear, never mind. It certainly doesn’t mean I don’t support their aims and I learnt a lesson of not boxing myself into a corner with unreasonable or impossible demands.

"Birds" Magazine 1974
"Nature's Home"
My mother is a member, however, and I regularly get to see copies of the RSPB magazine,  Nature's Home (it used to be Birds magazine but changed title in late 2013) and keep an eye on the Society’s twitter feed, @Natures_Voice. It's now a fascinating magazine to peruse after almost half-a-century of following it. Slickly produced (and I mean that as a compliment) it's a bit graphics-heavy and content-light for my tastes but then I'm an old fart who's been away a long time. Do you notice anything though? Yes … no birds in the magazine title or the twitter handle. Perhaps the magazine’s content and covers say something different? Well the covers still feature birds but a lot of the content is now general wildlife – other flora and fauna in your garden or on RSPB reserves, herpetology, entomology, botany and wildlife gardening. 

Vote for Bob”? I’d rather not if it’s all the same to you.
Then there is the very odd “Vote for Bob” campaign, (“I’m Bob, and I’m a red squirrel. I’m here to get nature onto the political agenda. My campaign is being organised and paid for by my friends at the RSPB”). Admirable indeed but why was the mascot a mammal? Why was “Bob” a red squirrel and not a bittern, blue tit or a barn owl?  Or indeed a crow? ... I bet he enjoyed Margaret Thatcher naming The Avocet!

Why indeed? There is an organisation that covers general flora and fauna conservation (rather than birds) at a national and county level. It’s called the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts and began life as The Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves in 1912,  going via the Society for the Promotion of Nature Conservation and becoming The Royal Society for Nature Conservation in 1981. The 47 Trusts have more than 800,000 members. The RSPB has “over one million members”. Obviously there is considerable overlap in these subsets and many people are RSPB members and members of one or more county trusts. As well as the county trusts there are also a growing host of NGOs representing the conservation of specific floral and faunal groups apart from birds and these include plants (“Plantlife”), insects (“Buglife”), Lepidoptera (“Butterfly Conservation”), “herps” (“Froglife”) and mammals (the “Mammal Society”). Even quite small subgroups like bats have their NGOs – in this case the “Bat Conservation Trust”.

RSPB membership growth 1959 - 2012
Conscious of the need not to labour the point, I’ll get straight to it. Is my perception that the RSPB is “doing a Blair” and broadening its ecological niche to the extent that it is impinging on those of other conservation NGOs’ true? And, if so why would it do that? The simple answer is, I don’t know. My perceptions are subjective and I have no hard information to suggest that it is an official policy but we can look at year-on-year membership growth which has slowed or some might say stalled. 

The RSPB is certainly the largest “fish in the pond” and has had some very public struggles with its credibility in recent years, a credibility which it has seen upheld in judgements. Some of these criticisms were undoubtedly mendacious. That said, while looking for data on this blog-post I came across a  blog post, a newspaper article and a fascinating powerpoint presentation that do provide something of a smoking gun in terms of evidence for a recalibration of the RSPB’s artillery in 2012-2013. The latter even includes the term “brand stretch” (slide 24) as the charity seeks to broaden its appeal. That said, there is NO EVIDENCE of a conscious attempt to poach membership from other organisations but that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. The damage, if there is any, may well be collateral, unacknowledged and unknown in its extent.

"Big Blue"?
I am a life-long naturalist who started out as a birder. I taught Environmental Science to some extraordinarily-gifted young people for 15 years. I appreciate why the RSPB (and all the other conservation NGOs) should seek to get their members to look at the bigger picture, a systems approach and see that the fate of birds cannot be hived off from that of bats or bugs or badgers. I’m also very conscious that ecological niche theory dictates that generalists are often very successful in rapidly-changing and difficult environments and that specialists are often squeezed at such a time. My hope however is that if the RSPB actively wants to be all things to all conservationists, a sort of IBM, Amazon, Google or Tony Blair of the UK’s wildlife charities and ends up, nolente o volente, cornering a slice of other NGOs niches, as “Bob”, the new magazine title and content and even its twitter handle suggest, that this policy fails and it falls flat on its face, leaving plenty of room for the rich diversity of fantastic, specialist and local NGOs that have served us so well in recent decades and can do a far better job TOGETHER than a single "Big Blue".


  1. Perceptive as always Paul - and a little provocative, but necessarily so. I share a lot of your concerns, and indeed partly for the same reasons as you I am no longer in the RSPB. The key to the success of the wonderful NGO diversity is their working together in a coordinated way to achieve the best, and I would rather that that coordination was not under the umbrella of the RSPB. But is there an effective umbrella organisation with sufficient clout and reach to fill that role, in the way that in a different geospatial context BirdLife International does?

    1. Thanks Chris. It's been bugging me for a while so it's good to get it off my chest. I certainly don't want to make out they are baddies ... just disproportionately large and seeking to grow further. The more I check out the .ppt the more interesting it is and how much information it divulges re. the workings of RSPBs central command.

      I agree with you for the need for an umbrella org. that shouldn't be overly beholden to Sandy. The RSWT already does this for the 47 county trusts and so probably has plenty of experience finding a 'party line' for some quite philosophically and socially disparate bodies. It would be quite hard to find a single line for, say, the RSPB and the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust but we still need a forum and 'single communiqué' body that concentrates forces von Clausewitz-style rather than allowing government to divide and pick off the various NGO elements active in nature conservation in the UK, even on issues that they all agree on (such as neonicotinoids).