Matthew Bell discusses saving the planet with the country’s most unlikely environmental campaigner, the Duchess of Beaufort.
Quite often, while talking to Tracy Worcester, you feel as though the world is about to end. Her assessment of the damage caused by humans to our planet is bleak, the future apocalyptic. ‘The whole thing is going to hell,’ she says at one point. ‘Mark my words, I know it’s all getting worse. These efforts made by me and others in the end won’t work, because there’s too much self-interest out there. For every one step forward, we go two steps back.’ What to do? If, like me, you tend towards an ostrich approach when tackling big problems, a conversation with Tracy is instructive. She makes you think about how everything is linked – food, waste, politics, money – and that globalisation is the biggest accelerator of the problems we face. For example: where once you might have bought a piece of North Sea cod to have on a Friday, today, chances are it has already travelled to China and back to be filleted, because filleters are cheaper to employ there.
Examples of our crazy globalised food economy are legion, and hopefully, we try not to buy strawberries in January or blueberries from Chile. But for Tracy, these small steps of piety are nowhere near enough to tackle what she calls the ‘globalist corporate hegemony’. What she wants is a full-blown revolution, spear-headed by Jeremy Corbyn, a leader she likes as he voted against all wars, and because, like her, he is anti big business. On paper, this is the last thing you might expect to hear from one of Britain’s grandest aristocrats. Technically, Tracy is the Duchess of Beaufort, her husband’s father having died a few weeks before she divorced her husband of 30 years, now the current Duke of Beaufort. But it’s been a long time since Tracy espoused conventional land-owning values.
Her Damascene conversion occurred in 1988, at a meeting of Friends of the Earth on City Road, London. She remembers it as if it were yesterday. ‘I literally drove up in a black BMW in a fur coat with the music blaring,’ she recalls. ‘And instead of reacting with horror, as I would have imagined, they totally embraced me. As they do to anyone who is willing to help: it’s the most giving, caring group of people I’ve ever been in, and I knew from day one that that was where I belonged.’ Not that Tracy is under any illusions about the privileges she has. ‘They probably thought I could pay for everything. I am incredibly lucky because I have enough money. I live the life of a f***ing hedge funder.’ Or rather, she could if she wanted. In fact, all the clothes she is wearing today – tweed jacket, paisley shirt – are sourced from charity shops. She arrives at Scarfe’s by bicycle. You have to hand it to her that she lives by the standards she espouses.
She is a tireless campaigner, employing several people to run her charity Farms Not Factories from a townhouse in Chelsea. She speaks with a passion that sometimes strays into zealotry, so I ask if she is religious. ‘If anything I am a naturalist. I am like indigenous people who believe in the purity and the sanctity of nature, and if we respect nature we will survive, because we’re part of it.’ Does she consider, as David Attenborough does, that the human race is a plague species? ‘It doesn’t have to be, but it is presently. Money has ruined everything. But if money went back to being an exchange system, and we had bartering and local currencies, that would work. Money would stay in local areas, not be spread about the world. I saw that in Cuba, where they have a locals’ currency to which I didn’t have access, but which enabled them to buy cheap local food. But if we’re dealing in a global currency that leads to cheap food coming in from all over the world.’ But don’t people need cheap food? ‘Only if you make them utterly impoverished through debt. It’s about ensuring people have enough so that they can care and use our resources wisely, so that they have a planet left for their children.’
Her belief in localism and communities is attractive but has some confusing consequences. For example, she admires Donald Trump for attempting to encourage America to trade within itself, though when it comes to environmental policy, ‘He’s the devil, a climate change denier, the enemy of the people’. She is also pro-Brexit, because it’s a step towards reversing globalisation. Her enemy, in the end, is corporate capitalism, and she thinks Adam Smith, who supposedly founded it, would be turning in his grave, because we have allowed jobs to be outsourced abroad. Her response to all this is to keep fighting. Doesn’t it get exhausting? ‘It has been difficult because everyone from my background disagrees. Except for my sister.’ Despite her divorce from Henry Worcester she remains close to his family, and spent Christmas at Badminton, where she has a cottage. Her partner Alastair Kenneil is a film-maker and works on her campaigns. I wonder if she ever yearns to retire to the country and grow vegetables? ‘I had an organic veg growing venture, I had a few pigs. And I probably will again. But where am I most useful? I’ve got a lot of contacts, and with Alastair making films, it makes sense that we do what we do.’ Truly, then, a rebel with a cause.
Glass of wine or green tea?
I don’t drink, except maybe a quarter of a glass of red wine. But it’s because I had cancer, so I have to alkalize my body. Green tea helped me fight it.
Gardening or theatre?
Sharp suits or cosy knits?
It depends – I would wear whatever the tribe I am with is expecting. So radical politics comes out of a suit when it needs to.
Rolling hills or seaside?
Cat or dog?
Discover more from the ‘Conversations at Scarfes Bar’ series…