Gove the environmentalist?

Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The speech by Michael Gove today is just fantastic – but is it fantastical?

I don’t really care whether he believes what he says or not, I just care whether he implements his quite detailed words of today during his time as Secretary of State for the Environment.

Since 2010 we have had one pretty good environment secretary (Caroline Spelman), one pretty poisonous one (Owen Paterson) and two absolute duffers (Liz Truss and Andrea Leadsom). This has not done the Conservative Party’s green credentials any good at all, and in fact things are even worse than that, the Conservative Party is now the party of killing nature (Badgers, Foxes, Bees and Buzzards) not of defending it.

Being anti-environment is an electoral liability, particularly with young voters, and having Environment Secretaries who are either loathed or despised by environmentalists is not a great idea even if a few farmers still grumpily support you.  And if you arrive in the Environment Department at a time overlapping with Brexit then this is actually a time for action on many fronts. It is a chance to sink or to swim but treading water just won’t do.  It’s a role and a time made for a consummate politician. Now I don’t know whether it was luck or judgement that led to Michael Gove getting this role and making today’s speech, and if judgement whether it was Theresa May’s or Michael Gove’s, but it is quite a remarkable speech. It’s certainly the best from a Conservative minister since the days of John Gummer around 20+ years ago.

There is no talk of ‘green crap’ or ‘green blob’ here, instead Gove praises the campaigning abilities of the NGOs (some of whom deserve it more than others, but that’s what politicians do).

Any suspicion that Mr Gove is on the climate-sceptic side of things is allayed (whether he really is or not) by a good passage on the danger of climate change and a dig at Trump’s US policy of isolationism.

Any suspicion that he’d rather have houses than heathland is diminished (though not completely removed) by his mention of them here.

Any memory of his remark about not needing experts (which, to be fair was about economists – and are they really expert?) is pushed back by a passage about the importance of rationality, evidence and science. Whither the badger cull, one asks?

Any worry that he was put here to dismantle environmental protection post-Brexit is assuaged by his remarks about having no intention of watering down environmental protection. Well, we’ll see – this is where I think the pressure from others will be greatest and therefore where the need for support from the environmental movement is also greatest.

And his sketch of the future of agricultural support is just what we would like to see – and not exactly what the NFU would like to see.  It’s a good sketch and with CLA support for its basic outline it might be what we get. It is a good idea for a the leading Brexiteer to demonstrate how good a job we can do in this area outside the EU, and he’s right, it’s possible that we could do much better.

There’s a little bit of re-writing history and also ignoring some of its pertinent facts, in that he tends to blame the EU for all environmental ills and credit the UK (even if it were a Labour government) for the good things but then he didn’t have much option really since his predecessors at Defra have left him nothing much to point to as the Conservative’s great successes.

Our job as environmentally aware citizens, and that of the NGOs, is to watch Gove closely – for I don’t wholly trust him.  We should praise, sometimes unnecessarily enthusiastically, every good thing he does and point out sharply every time he departs from the route he has mapped out today.

If Mr Gove delivers even a quarter of what he set out today then he will be a very successful environment Secretary; if he tries and fails then he will have been better than most; but if what he said today is just talk and there is no action then he will have set himself up for a massive fall, his political career will be further damaged (this is his comeback tour – you don’t get many chances) and the damage will stick to the political prospects of his party and for that he would not be forgiven.

I am very much a pragmatist and on this agenda, the agenda which Michael Gove has chosen to set out so clearly, his success will be a success for the environment and so he deserves the chance to succeed, with our support – even though at first that support should be given with a certain amount of suspicion.



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19 Replies to “Gove the environmentalist?”

  1. Forgive my scepticism but….

    I recall similar words in the 2011 Natural Environment White Paper. How many of the aspirations in that paper have come to naught or been lost along the way?

    And have I misread it, or is there just a hint of a suggestion that the production of high quality food is a public good which should be supported from the public purse. Does all British food get a free pass as “high quality”, by definition, and therefore gets a cash payment?

    It also looks to me as though Gove has already decided that NE, EA, FC and the RPA are due for a big shake-up, though this is confused by the suggestion of creating new “world-beating” institutions. I wonder what Kew will make of that!

    1. Miles – maybe. I think this is a big step up from the 2011 White paper and it’s pinned to the Secretary of State himself, by himself.

      We’ll see – obviously we’ll see. Almost every day will be a day of judgement on Gove’s own chosen agenda – as another comment here points out, it’s a huge bag of sticks to beat him with if he backslides.

      1. that’s interesting re the 2011 white paper. I guess the next iteration of the 25 year plan will show how much of this is just green wind, and how much is real intent.

  2. Mark (and Miles),

    Michael Gove is a political animal and is, from what recent history has shown, quite prepared to say one thing, when his intentions lie elsewhere. And he doesn’t hesitate to lose friends along the way if he sees the decision as better serving his own interests.

    I have been mulling over the speech from another perspective – is it meant to placate potential critics, perhaps divert their attention or provide a false sense of security? Perhaps encourage them to take the eye off the ball?

    I think it is perhaps noting that the Countryside Alliance (in particular) and other politically powerful organisations were not mentioned in any significant way outside the scope of food production whereas he made a particular point of mentioning the RSPB. Interesting. Gove was so effervescent that I was half expecting Chris Packham to get a mention, and even a certain Dr. Avery! How will the CA and others respond to this speech as it is not singing from their hymn sheet will also be interesting (perhaps); or if they don’t respond at all.

    Indeed, the speech was so remarkable, if it were attributed to Caroline Lucas MP, we’d all believe it. There is a saying that if something is too good to be true, it probably isn’t. I’d argue that this is an example, and that there is an alternative and unsaid ambition being communicated here.


    1. Richard – thanks.

      Being a political animal doesn’t mean that you lie all the time – it means that you may be quicker and more brazen about changing your views when you have to!

      There is a difference between buying something that is too good to be true and swallowing Gove’s promises – the vendor of a disappointing product is often practically anonymous and is hoping you won’t meet face to face, Mr Gove has not sold us anything except hope, and he knows he must face public opinion in the future, indeed, every day of the future.

      I thought the praise for Meurig Raymond was interesting – I rather expect that Meurig was surprised to be praised, surprised to be talked about as if he were part of the consensus and perhaps rather wishing he could correct that impression – but I’m just guessing really.

      1. Mark,

        I am sure he doesn’t lie all the time. And may be he fully intends to pursue the objectives he talked about. And yes, I take your point about being on the public record. Which rather begs the question, which public record should we believe? The climate change denier, or believer?

        Obviously, he could and may well have changed his mind (permanently, or just for this morning?) and time will tell.

        Let’s wait and see, but for me, actions are needed. Not well honed words.


        1. Richard – for me too.

          But he now has a different job and he has probably realised he can’t do that job if he looks as though he believes all that rubbish he said before.

          And in any case, what do we want him to do…? What he said before or what he says now…? Correct – what he says now! So which do we praise and concentrate on … yes, what he says now! That’s what is most likely to get him to do what we want, isn’t it?

          PS So I’m not sure he doesn’t lie all the time – but i do think we support this version of his views if we want them implemented.

        2. Gove was a poor Education Secretary for all sorts of reasons but his being a climate change denier was not one of them. Whilst those with a care for the environment were justifiably concerned (and right to remain sceptical) about his appointment to the current post, the repetition of all that stuff was not our finest hour.

  3. Errr… Are we so desperate for good news from politicians that we capitulate critique when our language is co-opted and blurted out through crocodile tears like this? Gove is a pretty unreconstructed neocon with strong Machiavellian tendancies (just ask a school teacher about his dreadful legacy). And here he’s deploying a pretty standard Orwellian tactic of flattery and doublespeak (a long-established tendancy of neocons everywhere). His deeds are what we will consider and you can bet that they will be crafted to fit the interests of corporate and private power over nature come what may.

  4. There is no question he is a neocon, he has avowed those politics many times. Can you be a green (of any hue) and a neocon? Actually yes – Henry Jackson, father of neoconservatism was. Not to be confused with the Henry Jackson Society, which is far closer to neoliberal or even right-libertarian politics.

    Is Gove a Green Neocon? That remains to be seen.

    1. Miles… A ‘Green Neocon’?… that’s my oxymoron of the week sorted. Asking a neocon to look after the environment is like asking Dracula to look after the bloodbank. Whilst Gove romances the environmental movement with ‘green’ subsidies his fellow neocon traveller, Liam Fox, is out there with the Trump administration, negotiating our environmental standards downwards for a post-Brexit world – more US-style megafarms and chlorinated chickens to come.

  5. Anybody notice “Our approach should therefore be, in Byron’s words, to love not man the less but nature more”? This is the quote that George Monbiot uses at the top of his website. I don’t think this is coincidence, I think it is a cynical tactic of co-opting your opponents words to make them think you agree with them – to cover up what you’re really planning to do.

    However, I don’t have a problem with refusing to believe he means a word he says and at the same time insisting that he sticks to his promises. Give me a stick out of that bag that somebody mentioned and I’ll happily beat him with it!

  6. I don’t think he proposed building on heathland itself. Green belt yes.
    Does any degree of misrepresentation or spin by environmentalists help their causes?

    1. No, he didn’t suggest that designated heathland should be built on. What he did suggest was that the designation of that heathland affords it undue protection from nearby built development, and that such protection should be removed. The Surrey Heaths are already suffering badly because they are surrounded by – embedded within – the suburbs, and are used by huge numbers of dog walkers. If one adds more houses close to these heaths, one gets a net increase in such recreational pressure, adding to the damage. The solution, enabled by the legislation that Gove says he wants scrapped (or at least said so a few months ago), is to create new, natural open space close to new housing developments. That way, you ‘intercept’ some of the additional recreational pressure before it gets to the sensitive heathland. Gove appeared, several months ago, to want to strip away the protective legislation which would cause untold – and undue – damage to these designated heaths. So although he’s never suggested building on the heaths, he doesn’t mind seeing them damage. And for what?

      1. Thanks Messi. Recreational damage is a bit of a myth.
        On this small Sussex heath, 75% surrounded by housing and some light industry, we have plenty of thriving wildlife including good indicator species. The place is alive with all sorts of people doing different activities. We have over 30 years of data to show that any damage or disturbance is fairly irrelevant. In fact we can show that some of it is beneficial.

        I’m a dog walker. There are lots of dogs here. Dogs have two important benefits. One, they get people talking to each other. Two, they keep an over population of deer on the move. That effect amounts to ‘wolves by proxy’ doesn’t it? We, stranger to stranger, sometimes discuss and argue that thought.

        There’s a desperate need for more affordable, good quality housing round here and right across the country. We have a huge national crisis.
        And by the way, why is it only the super wealthy and lucky who can live near or adjacent to heathland? Why can’t other people live in the green belt — there’s loads of space in the form rubbish sandy farmland which only grows stuff by being constantly dosed with massive amounts of NPK?
        And a final thought, if damage and disturbance are such big deals, what is it with 60 ton battle tanks churning up Lowland Heath and turning it into super rich habitat with all kinds of unusual flora and fauna? (Wood larks depend on loose ground for foraging and nesting) etc etc

        1. Murray – some of what you say is true, some, with all due respect, is wrong.

          Yes, most recreational use of wildlife sites is perfectly harmless, including most dog-walking (which, as you say, can actually be beneficial if dogs are perceived as a threat by over-abundant deer). I walk my dog and that creates a ‘landscape of fear’ for deer as you describe.

          On the other hand, science has well established the fact that nesting success of woodlarks and nightjars can decline as the density of walkers, and particularly walkers with dogs, increases. Territory distribution is also influenced by the density of dog walkers.

          This is not to say that dog walking on urbanised heathlands is ‘bad’, or should be ‘curtailed’, it’s merely saying that, at some sites, an increase above current levels of use could cause additional problems.

          Given that we both agree that access to natural wildlife sites is good for people, whether they’re dog walkers or not, then surely we also agree that creating more accessible, wildlife sites is a good thing? The creation of this additional natural open space for people and to relieve pressure on existing heathlands is precisely what Mr Gove is protesting against.

          Having grown up on a high rise south London sink estate, and now having not a hope of buying a house, yet aware that my rent is higher than mortgage repayments, I’m acutely aware that there’s an affordable housing crisis. I don’t think that getting developers to make a very small, per house contribution towards the creation of new natural open space in any way adds to the national housing crisis. I think the housing crisis could be tackled whilst at the same time including new natural open spaces within new developments. That’s what Suitable Alternative Natural Open Spaces achieves as a co-benefit. It’s good if you can walk out f your new house with your dog straight onto a piece of natural open space, rather than have to drive to a nearby bit of existing heath.

          You’ll know my views on the biodiversity value of tank disturbance because I called them ‘metalic megafauna’ in my guest blog about Salisbury Plain.

          Anyway, back to Gove: he basically wants to stop the creation of natural, accessible open spaces alongside new development – that’s what he said a few months ago.

          1. Messi, thanks for that. Thanks too for reminding me of your ‘metallic megafauna’ tag – nice one.
            I agree with the science. But acting on it is a matter of degree and compromise; Nightjars have bred here all those 30 years despite all the dogs. And Woodlarks and Little Ringed Plovers used to breed in the sandpit up until a few years after it was abandoned. And here you are right – these two species went because more and more people started to walk in the quarry (dogs as well).
            Let’s however thank your metallic megafauna for the very fact that they had a dozen or so years breeding at this location in the first place. (They’ve now moved into a working quarry nearby). And thanks for recognising that places like this small SNCI common are vital in helping to reduce the pressure on bigger and more ‘prestigious’ SSSI heaths just up the road.
            I’m biased, but this common has a much greater ‘buzz factor’ than a lot of reserves and SSSI’s – for starters there’s more bird song from a greater variety of species. I believe it’s partly to with ‘edge’ – the edge of town; of boundaries; of gardens; of allotments; of forestry. And then there’s the edginess that comes via dogs; people; past industries; paths; vehicle tracks; dirt biking and other illegal stuff. How do you put a number on edge effect and buzz factor?

            By the way, I’m also not a believer in Gove but we all have to hope that he might surprise us with some of his speech.
            As for my Green Belt comment – I still think there’s ample space for new affordable accommodation (private and rented,) using wildlife depleted farmland.
            I don’t get your last sentence about Gove’s intentions but at the same time I’m prepared to defer to your greater understanding of the politics on this. Yes, I’m fully aware of the tricks developers play re social housing quotas.

            I think the subject we are debating here (me not doing it very well) should be at the top of as many environmentalists’ agendas as possible. The public will love them for it.
            Thanks for the Suitable Natural Alternative Spaces – I need to look that up.

  7. If Gove said water was wet then I’d want independent confirmation before I believed it. He has negative credibility; not just zero credibility which makes you doubt the truth of his words, but negative credibility which makes you doubt previously known facts if he personally restates them.

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