The prospect of leaving the European Union has created uncertainty and concern about the future for environmental protection and support for nature conservation in the UK. The appointment of Michael Gove as Environment Secretary initially heightened some of those concerns. However, against expectations he is being seen as a possible advocate for the natural world. Is this justified? Can we trust his apparent enthusiasm for confronting environmental harms and the interests of the wealthy and powerful?
A green conversion?
When Michael Gove was appointed as Environment Secretary in June this year you could almost hear the anguished and angered screams from environmentalists up and down the land. The Guardian reported that even a coalition colleague of Gove’s had commented that it was like putting the “Fox in charge of the hen house”. Caroline Lucas, the Green party co-leader and MP said it was hard to “think of many politicians as ill-equipped for the role of Environment Secretary as Michael Gove”.
There were concerns that his voting record on setting carbon emission targets, his attempts to remove climate change from the school geography curriculum, and his opposition to EU environmental laws, all signalled an Environment Secretary likely to have little regard for the environment.
It is a surprise therefore that within just a few months he has been transformed into, if not quite the poster boy for the environment movement, at least someone about whom there are positive mumblings.
At the heart of this apparent transformation is his belief that environmentalism is a “core Conservative instinct”. This view was reflected in his Conservative Conference speech in October this year where he insisted that “Conservatism is rooted in nature…and in reverence for the natural world” and presented the party as “the first and still the most ambitious green party”.
Questioned in 2014, while still Education Secretary, about why many Tories view the environment as a left-wing issue, he responded that the environmental agenda had been captured “by people who want to use the genuine dangers ... as a way of providing a new rationale for greater state power and centralisation”. He argued that, on the contrary, environmentalism was in reality a “core Conservative instinct”. His position as Environment Secretary offers an opportunity to demonstrate his belief.
Progressive and traditional values
In speeches over the first few months he has pledged to tackle marine plastics, review the scientific evidence on neonicitinoids, halt the ivory trade, protect urban trees from the axe and challenge privileged rich landowner’s right to agricultural subsidy. He has decried the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy as “environmentally damaging and socially unjust” and insisted that farm subsidies must be earned through the provision of public goods.
On the other hand he has also referred to the need to support farming against the vagaries of unpredictable weather and diseases, and to protect the ‘human ecology’ of upland landscapes. His view of what constitutes a green and pleasant land may be quite different from that of many environmentalists, more rooted in a nostalgic view of a bucolic rural idyll than a wild and wildlife rich landscape.
His intention to provide support for farmers to provide public goods may well sit uneasily with his instinctive desire to reduce bureaucracy and red tape and limit the power of central government. The very nature of public goods means that they sit outside the market and ensuring their protection and delivery requires some sort of enforcement or verification.
Nonetheless, the announcement of a consultation on a new watchdog to both advise and challenge government and other public bodies may well be a sign that he is serious about challenging the powerful and holding to account on environmental protection. In the announcement from Defra, Gove promised that environmental standards will not only be maintained, but improved.
As an Environment Secretary outside of the EU his powers to bring about those changes might well be liberated. There would of course be a need to meet conditions of any trading agreement, but the power to change, in particular, the agricultural subsidy system would be considerable.
Green or career motives?
The Conservatives are actively assessing the need to promote stronger environmental policies, recognising this could resonate with younger voters whom they need to attract. Meanwhile it seems improbable that Michael Gove will remain as Environment Secretary for very long. The appointment feels like a halfway house in his journey to full rehabilitation. He is known to have ambitions for the Treasury. It could be that his departure leads to a replacement with a much more conventional view of the role of Defra, less willing to take on vested interests within agriculture and amongst wealthy landowners who benefit from the current subsidy system.
On the other hand we could end up with a pro-environment Chancellor who understands the need to protect the natural environment as part of building a strong economy with a true green legacy. If I had to bet though I suspect a change of role might also trigger a change of perspective, or at least an emphasis on other aspects of his Conservative philosophy. An emphasis on small government, reduced bureaucracy and the vested interests (largely of the left) he also sees in the environmental lobby.
The rhetoric is encouraging but, as the saying goes, fine words butter no parsnips. Pledges need to be delivered, new structures and agencies need to deliver real transformation, and changes in financial support must demonstrate genuine public benefit. Making promises and then not keeping them would seem an unnecessary risk. But then it is find it hard to shift the image of Michael Gove in front of the Brexit battle bus emblazoned with a promise of £350m a week to the NHS.
 Mathew Taylor, Guardian online, 12 June, 2017. Michael Gove as Environment Secretary is like “Fox in Charge of the Hen House”. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/jun/12/michael-gove-entirely-unfit-to-be-environment-secretary-says-greens [accessed 17 November 2017]
 Blue and Green tomorrow, online, 27 February 2014. Q&A with Michael Gove at the Conservative Environment Network launch – full text. Available at: http://blueandgreentomorrow.com/environment/michael-gove-qa-at-the-conservative-environment-network-launch-full-text/. [accessed 27 November 2017]
 DEFRA online, 12 November, 2017. ‘Environment Secretary Michael Gove announces plans to consult on a new, independent body for environmental standards’. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-environmental-protections-to-deliver-a-green-brexit [accessed 27 November 2017]