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Bill Oddie: What a stupid bloody move to hold the referendum

Sebastian Whale | PoliticsHome

5 min read Partner content

Conservationist Bill Oddie tells PoliticsHome staying in the EU is essential for the environment and explains why he is sick to the back teeth of the referendum campaign.

Bill Oddie cannot wait for the EU referendum to be over and done with. It is an issue that has dominated the media agenda since the Conservatives secured a majority at last year’s election, and - unfortunately for the TV presenter - is a matter not likely to be silenced after the results emerge on 24 June.

Nevertheless, the constant coverage has left the environmentalist at the end of his tether. “I have found the whole thing deeply depressing. Mainly… there has never been anything that has been dragged out to this extent and filling the papers as much as it has done. It’s just pathetic, it’s awful,” he says, patently exasperated as we begin our phone interview, him residing in his Hampstead abode.

The conservationist, who co-chairs the pro-Brussels Environmentalists for Europe, is perplexed why we’re having the poll in the first place.

“This whole palaver is a disaster. What a stupid bloody move. There is a school of thought, which I occasionally veer towards, which is thinking for Christ’s sake don’t ask the people. We don’t know, I don’t myself, and when it’s obvious throughout this campaign that most politicians don’t know what’s going to happen,” he says.

“This isn’t the sort of thing there should be referenda about. It should be something clear… a very specific issue.”

Despite his indignation at the very fact we are all being put through the ringer and voting in this referendum, Oddie comes down heavily in favour of the campaign to remain in the EU. He believes the environmental case for staying in Europe is unequivocal, suggesting EU directives on beaches, air pollution, birds, water and other measures have helped improve Europe’s collective agenda. Inside, the UK can play a role “to improve the situation in some of those EU countries”.

“If we drop out they’re not going to take any bleeding notice of us, if we can't find a minister to go in and say ‘shall we not shoot birds in Malta, and birds in Cyprus’, we’ll be losing our influence on Europe I would have thought as well,” he says.

Outside of the bloc, environmental policies would be left in the solitary hands of the British government, a permutation that proves too much for the colourful 74-year-old.

“The background of this is we’ve got a government who’s actually been bloody awful for the environment and wildlife and all sorts of things. Extremely dodgy, with a couple of appalling ministers in important jobs… they’ve been terrible,” he says, without singling out individual ministers for questioning.

He adds: “From all the evidence we’ve had so far, if you hand environmental issues back to the British government it will eventually deteriorate again. But we don’t know that, they might stick with where they are, chances are they won’t improve it, that’s for sure.”

Oddie is incredulous that the main players in the “demeaning” referendum, namely Nigel Farage, David Cameron and Boris Johnson, are not even “bloody mentioning” the environment. He is unsure as to why the issue is not more prominent in the campaign, but suggests this is not a unique phenomenon in British political discourse. “Twas ever thus”, he reflects.

Like many during the EU debate, the former Autumnwatch presenter finds himself on the same side as people with whom he holds strong disagreements, bordering on personal dislike. This is particularly pertinent in the case of Cameron, who he jokes is “on the same side as me”, rather than the other way around. But he is more than content to be in cahoots with other pro-EU campaigners.

“Even if I didn’t know the reasons, I have to say I wouldn’t be saying yes… to Farage, Boris and the entourage. I probably wouldn’t be saying yes to what Cameron has to say either, but there are still people like Caroline Lucas who I respect a great deal. Those are the people who I listen to when I’m stumped.”

What about the reluctant pro-EU campaigner Jeremy Corbyn. Has he captured Oddie’s imagination? “I didn’t notice him, I didn’t know he’d qualified if we’re talking European cup. I can’t say anything else, I’m not against I’m not for, it’s neutral, he’s done a very good job of being away I suppose, or maybe he just hasn’t appeared in the same place I noticed,” he explains.

Oddie is also seeing a difference of viewpoints in his beloved north London. While Remain banners sit proudly in the windows of many homes in Hampstead, in the shops Oddie is hearing an increasing number of people in favour of leaving.

“I have no idea why that is,” he says. “I’ve taken a chance on talking to one or two people in the cafes or anything like that round here and said ‘so how you going to vote then’. And it’s all sort of ‘out, out, I’m out’ and you say ‘why’, ‘oh the NHS’, and I say ‘hey, what’s that got to do with it?’. And they say ‘no, no, it’s a terrible being in Europe, it’ll ruin it’, really? Then you know that they’re biting their tongue off to say ‘we don’t want all these foreign people either’, and it’s lurking underneath there somewhere.”

Oddie, who starred and co-wrote comedy series The Goodies in the 1970s, has previously railed against establishment figures, including politicians and the royal family. So I cannot help wondering how he reconciles this world view with an unerring belief in staying within the EU?

“It’s very easy this issue, because it’s basically by restricting the things to what I know about which is the environmental issues... The EU’s record has been pretty good on that.”

He adds: “I don’t know what the disadvantages of being in the EU are, nothing has affected me, I am prouder to be and feel more connected with life, the world and what it feels and what it’s doing if I’m a European, than if I’m British.”