Should we trust Michael Gove? That’s the question lurking underneath all of the commentary about the environment secretary’s protestations of love for the planet. He gave a barnstormer of a speech at WWF’s Living Planet centre last week, declaring that marine plastics would be tackled, the ivory trade would be halted and eleven million trees would be planted.This expanded on his address to our own summer reception two weeks ago, where he declared that his love for the environment was just that: it came from the heart. This matches a longstanding tradition in conservative environmentalism. Roger Scruton has written that ‘oikophilia’, or love of home, is the root of environmentalism. The romantics who founded the National Trust, CPRE and RSPB did so because they loved nature and were disgusted by the despoliation of natural beauty, wildlife and the countryside. Over 100 years on, these (and newer) environmental groups still rightly use emotion to inspire people to protect and conserve the natural world.
Many people have pointed to Gove’s voting record on climate change, his association with climate sceptic Brexiteers, and his scepticism about experts. Modern environmentalism is deeply rooted in science, and many environmentalists self-identify as experts. There is a lot of scepticism, but it is not easy to fake an emotion as powerful as love, and this is at the heart of Michael Gove’s message.
Promises he has the power to keep
Gove is clearly his own man. Defra staff were not briefed in advance on the content of his statements. He is listening to advice, but he is making the decisions. This is true to character for a man who once attacked ‘the blob’ for seeking to blunt the thrust of his education agenda.
As the UK leaves the EU, he will have huge formal power to determine the rules on farming, land management and fisheries policy. The need to secure trade relationships, not least with the EU, means that the UK cannot act entirely unilaterally, but he has wide freedom on subsidy, which decisively determines the character of the UK’s countryside and wildlife.
And, as a leading Brexiteer, he has the political power within cabinet and his party to deliver, much more so than a remain-leaning Conservative might. If Michael Gove makes promises, no one should doubt that he has the power to keep them.
Trust, but verify
It would be a foolish politician who made promises that he had no intention of keeping. So we should trust Mr Gove. Or at least, we should ‘trust, but verify’.
The origins of this phrase are a Russian proverb, popularised by Ronald Reagan, who used it repeatedly when he switched to a policy of collaboration in negotiations on nuclear arms reduction with the Soviet Union, a body he’d previously referred to as the “evil empire”.
This is a useful blueprint for modern environmentalists. Michael Gove is clearly signalling his intent to raise environmental standards across the board. He has good reasons to do so.
First, as environment secretary, his job is to protect the environment. He’s a serious politician, and it’s hard to look serious if you’re undermining your department’s mission.
Second, he is clearly seeking to rehabilitate his political reputation. What better way to do so than to reform farming and fishing, deliver a truly sustainable rural economy and succeed in raising environmental standards just when everyone thought you would do the opposite?
Third, it fits into a wider narrative akin to business secretary Greg Clark’s ‘clean growth’ led industrial strategy. Gove talked about the benefits of being a world leader in environmental protection. The UK’s high quality, low carbon reputation underpins its soft power and, increasingly, its manufacturing exports. British agriculture would gain from better environmental protection.
But, more importantly than all this is realpolitik. As Philip Larkin noted in the poem that Gove quoted in his speech last week, when it comes to the environmental risks which inevitably accompany Brexit, “Most things are never meant.” Nobody voted to wreck the environment. And, frankly, there are no votes in promising to do so.
So, rather than meeting his overtures with scorn, let us trust Michael Gove. But let’s also make sure he keeps his promises.
[Image: Secretary of State Michael Gove welcoming guests, courtesy of Defra from Flickr Creative Commons]