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Michael Gove sets out his vision of 'Green Brexit'

On Friday, I and some eighty plus conservationists and journalists were invited to listen to the UK Secretary of State for the Environment, Michael Gove MP, speak at what was his first major speech after having been appointed some six weeks ago.

Before he spoke, WWF, who were hosting the event at their headquarters in Woking, set out the challenges facing the new Secretary of State including noting that since his appointment, some 40,000 whales and dolphins may have died in fishing nets around the world, and that this was not just a problem of distant lands but that bycatch around the UK was still a critical threat to whales and dolphins.

So, it was with interest that I arrived on Friday morning to hear what was to be a wide-ranging speech. The speech covered a range of topics including the UK’s strategy to the revision of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and indeed, the full speech can be found here at the Defra website, but here, I am going to try and extract what I think was relevant for whales and dolphins.

I would suggest that the whole speech is actually worth reading for a perspective on how the UK government is going to tackle protecting the environment, and animal welfare post-Brexit.

The Speech gets off to a good start

I have to say, I welcomed the opening of Mr Gove’s speech because he clearly set out what motivated him to believe in protecting the environment, placing animals central to his belief system,

Now, I am an environmentalist first because I care about the fate of fellow animals, and I draw inspiration from nature and I believe that we need beauty in our lives as much as we need food and shelter. We can never be fully ourselves unless we recognise that we are shaped by forces, biological and evolutionary, that tie us to this earth that we share with others even as we dream of capturing the heavens.”

Mr Gove also nailed his colours to the mast when he stated he was not willing to subjugate the UK to the calamitous decisions of the US Administration when it comes to climate change.

“I deeply regret President Trump’s approach towards the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. I sincerely hope the recent indications that the President may be minded to think again do signal a change of heart. International co-operation to deal with climate change is critical if we’re to safeguard our planet’s future and the world’s second biggest generator of carbon emissions cannot simply walk out of the room when the heat is on. It’s our planet too and America needs to know that we can only resolve this problem together.” 

At a time when we see huge negative changes in our increasingly acidifying oceans, WDC has been championing the case for protecting whales because of their role as ecosystem engineers, and that our own future depends on theirs.  Gove challenged us and the wider UK public to recognise that hubris, as he put it, was at the root of many of our modern day problems.

He noted that a reliance on new technology and innovation, whilst critically important, cannot be relied on to find all the solutions, and so we should not aim simply to halt or slow the deterioration of our environment. We must raise our ambitions so we seek to restore nature and reverse decline.”

I believe that this perspective will be critical as we seek to end the huge numbers of dolphins and porpoises killed in nets in UK waters Technology in the form of pingers and other such emergent technologies, may have a role to play, but they will never fully cure the problem. Our various governments are going to have to be flexible in understanding what is a complex issue that needs sophisticated solutions.

Gove also recognised that the necessary democracy of the conservation movement is critical to developing policy. He noted that their “…campaigning energy and idealism, while occasionally uncomfortable for those of us in power, who have to live in a world of compromise and deal-making, is vital to ensuring we continue to make progress in protecting and enhancing our environment.”

An ‘unfrozen moment’

Gove argues that Brexit is an ‘unfrozen moment’, that allows us to look again our conservation policies and practices. At the same time he acknowledged that the EU had been a force for good.

“The European Union has, in a number of ways, been a force for good environmentally. Our beaches are cleaner, habitats are better protected and pesticides more effectively regulated as a consequence of agreements that we reached since we entered the EU.” 

“I have no intention of weakening the environmental protections that we have put in place while in the European Union.”

Of course, Mr Gove also pointed to where the EU has failed wildlife, as when it ordered countries to abstain on protecting bluefin tuna.

Walfluke in GrönlandHearing that made me sigh a little. WDC has warned the EU over the last decade that adopting such positions would always be ammunition for those who believed the UK should leave the EU. WDC had campaigned successfully to get the EU to change the way that it voted on critical votes at international environmental meetings after the EU prevaricated at the International Whaling Commission (IWC) on protecting whales when it came to increased commercial whaling in Danish Greenland, but the legacy of its failure to change quickly enough was fuel to the fire of those who wanted the UK to leave the EU. I would urge the EU to continue to look carefully at this issue and ensure that its mandate to protect wildlife is not compromised again in years to come because of procedural issues and lack of understanding of how the EU Treaties work.

Mr Gove’s speech was peppered with positive comments such as, “…environmental policy must also be insulated from capture by producer interests who put their selfish agenda ahead of the common good”.

This gives us some hope that, at the same time as UK trade delegations are negotiating Free Trade agreements in places such as the US, where commercial interests may well wish to see the UK lower animal welfare and environmental standards (I note that Dr Liam Fox, when challenged on the issue of ‘chlorinated chicken’ mentioned animal welfare as a “secondary issue”)  , the UK’s department for environment, farming and rural affairs (Defra) will be preventing any weakening of our current strong provisions.

Of course, there will be areas where we need to watch carefully what the UK government does in the months and years to come. 

Gove went on to say, “but while natural beauty moves us deep in our souls, environmental policy also needs to be rooted, always and everywhere, in science. There will, of course, always be a need to make judgements about the best method of achieving environmental goals in ways which improve rather than upend people’s lives.”

Michael Gove delivering Green Brexit speechWhilst supporting the concept of basing our environmental understanding in the science, I hope that a lack of understanding or a lack of ‘scientific certainty’ will not be used as an excuse to not take action.. Don’t get me wrong, the UK needs to commit to funding marine conservation including filling scientific research gaps, including understanding, monitoring and taking decisions to protect whales and dolphins. Furthermore Mr Gove failed to mention the precautionary principle, and yet it has been a touchstone of how to approach environmental problems. How this all crystallises into policy will have to be monitored in the future.

In discussing fisheries management, Mr Gove rightly paid tribute to Richard Benyon MP, a previous progressive thinking UK fisheries minister, but I was disappointed that no explicit mention was made of whale and dolphin bycatch. However, our reading of the speech as a whole makes us optimistic that we can work with the UK Defra team to encapsulate Mr Gove’s ambitions to improve UK standards outside the EU.  Again, it’s one to watch, but we shall hold the UK to account on this critical issue.

Where Mr Gove was explicit was on the issue of plastics in the oceans and I welcome his announcement that further to “…a consultation on banning microbeads in personal care products, which have such a devastating effect on marine life” the UK has responded “…and we will introduce legislation to implement that ban later this year.”

Mr Gove also recognised the role of the UK in respect to marine protected areas, As custodians of the fifth largest marine estate in the world, we have a responsibility in the UK to protect these unique and fragile environments… And by completing the Blue Belt of marine protected areas around the UK and working with our Overseas Territories we hope to create the world’s largest marine sanctuaries, we hope to deliver over four million square kilometres of protected maritime areas by 2020.”

I was especially pleased to hear the Secretary of State reaffirm the UK’s position on commercial whaling,

“…We will continue to fight to uphold the moratorium on commercial whaling.”

And finally, Mr Gove spoke of creating new institutions to champion the environment,

“But as we prepare to leave the EU we must give thought to how we can create new institutions to demonstrate environmental leadership and even greater ambition. Not least because we have to ensure that the powerful are held to account and progress towards meeting our environmental goals is fairly measured. And I mention that because I know that inside the EU, the European Commission and the ECJ have provided enforcement mechanisms and understandably, some are asking what could or should replace them.

My view is that we have an opportunity, outside the EU, to design potentially more effective, more rigorous and more responsive institutions, new means of holding individuals and organisations to account for environmental outcomes.”

What these institutions will be we are yet to see, but the commitment to holding individuals and organisations to account’ is a principle I would wholeheartedly support.

Overall I have to say it was an optimistic speech; it was not defensive, but was challenging to both industry and us as civil society; and Gove lived up to his reputation of being an inventive and disruptive thinker when it comes to tackling problems that are new to him.

What was missing, apart from a specific reference to bycatch (our thanks to WWF for mentioning it in the introduction to the speech), was any reference to the devolved nature of fisheries and environmental policy in the UK. Was this a deliberate omission to avoid a complicated domestic political issue, or was Mr Gove simply wishing to set some stretching principles by which to enter into future discussions with our various home governments?

Of course, we shall have to see if there really is such a green Brexit as the UK government claims. The ‘proof is in the pudding’ (I feel justified in using such term of phrase for such a UK centric blog) and we stand ready to remind the government about its ambitions and commitment in the months and years to come.

The Epilogue

Michael Gove had opened his speech by noting that it was a Conservative government who in 1972 commissioned a White Paper on our natural heritage, entitled ‘How do you want to Live?’

“The Department, with perhaps more idealism, or less due diligence, than has subsequently been the case in Government communications strategy, commissioned Philip Larkin to write a poetic prologue.”

Subsequently titled ‘Going, Going’. Larkin’s poem has been used extensively in environmental campaigns, but did Mr Gove know what happened to the speech when it was first seen by the government panel putting the report together? I suspect, from the tone of Gove’s speech, that he did.

As the Philip Larkin Society remind us, “the commissioning committee deliberately deleted Larkin’s lines about ‘spectacled grins’, ‘takeover bids’ and ‘Grey area grants’, for instance, as being too near the truth no doubt and likely to offend the ‘cast of crooks and tarts’ in industry to whom Larkin addressed his lines.”