Like a great many people, I suspect, the June appointment of Machiavellian, boris-slaying, hardline Brexiteer Michael Gove as Secretary of State for the Environment left me feeling more than just a little pessimistic. Saddened even; following a succession of unsavoury individuals ranging from the plain old bad (Truss), to the stupid (Leadsom), and the downright villainous (Patterson), it seemed unlikely that Gove would go any further towards easing the concerns of conservationists worried about the future of the British ecosystem, and her wildlife. For all intents and purposes, it seemed like the countryside was in for a rough ride over the course of 2017.
Reflecting on the past six months, I am unashamed to admit that, like many, I assumed wrong. And for all his flaws, I certainly cannot recall an Environment Secretary that offered more hope than Michael Gove. An assertion which, as a Labour supporter, chokes me just a little bit but is proven valid by a brief glance at the MPs recent track record…
At first glance, Gove’s tenure as ES has not been all that bad. He has overseen a (sort of) ban on ivory sales, taken action on plastic pollution, backed a total ban on bee-killing pesticides and installed CCTV in slaughterhouses. He has increased penalties for animal cruelty, raised some seriously important questions over the future nature of farm subsidies and, perhaps most important of all, has promised to make the ginormous mess that is Brexit work for wildlife. Gove has even made a far greater effort than his predecessors to liaise with environmental NGO’s and campaign bodies, demonstrated by the kind words spoken about him by high-ranking figures at the RSPB and Greenpeace. On a side note, rumours suggest Gove may also be in favour of Lynx reintroduction – something sure to placate Britain’s growing rewilding lobby.
While Gove’s willingness to engage with environmentalists and his action on alternate fronts are both commendable; it is his promise of green Brexit which interests me most. It is one thing to promise such and something different entirely to deliver it. And while the signs of change are there – his stance on pesticides and farm subsidies, for example – it will take more than just soothing words to ease the worries of environmentalists concerned as to what the future holds. Brexit, thus far, has been a mess and Mr Gove must make some bold, fearless moves if he wishes to keep his promise alive. Although, Gove’s ability to listen to and engage with all sides of the rural spectrum suggests he may be able to iron out a workable solution of benefit to all likely to be affected as we depart the EU. Conservationists, farmers and landowners included.
There have, of course, been some major smudges on Gove’s record this year (not as many as his predecessors, I digress). He has failed to end his party’s flawed, illogical and wholly unjustified slaughter of Badgers in Southern England. He has failed to make any progress in tackling the growing issue of illegal wildlife crime – particularly in our uplands – and, it appears, has failed to combat the pressing issue of air quality. Depending on your personal views, however, you may see the deeds he has succeeded in as arguably more important. In my opinion, the impact of plastic pollution and Neonicotinoids is surely far greater than that of a limited badger cull, for example. Gove appears to be choosing his battles, and while some will surely condemn his inactivity on certain issues, I at least feel optimistic that this ES is actually making positive steps for nature.
Of course, as is customary with MPs (and past incarnations of Gove), all this talk of progress could be mere twaddle – empty promises and false words, we see this too often in our society. It could be that Gove, just possibly, is attempting to garner easy wins and bolster his reputation before yet another bid for higher standing in the Tory party; while equally, it could be an attempt to distract environmentalists from other issues – of arguably greater importance – likely to sneak past unnoticed by the swooning crowd. It could be that Gove’s rebranding as a shy green and repressed environmentalist is part of a far greater deceit, or at the very least, a mere stepping stone on his path elsewhere. I doubt it, but all of these are possible.
Say what you want about Gove, over the past six months he has done more than most of his predecessors combined to alleviate some of the pressures on the environment. He has made tentative steps in an altogether progressive direction and taken the views of conservationists to the heart on some occasions. While there is always more to do, and plenty that Gove must do in order to maintain his standing, the leader of DEFRA has, at least, given us hope for the future. Hope that, contrary to the past-record of his party, this Tory government – for however long it lasts – may at least consider the needs of nature as we move forward into 2018.
Gove isn’t perfect, not by a long shot, but until the Tories are almost inevitably now, swept from office, I wish him all the best in his endeavours. And hope that the trust of the environmental community has been well placed.