This was originally posted on Mark Avery’s website.
Imagine that the environment movement was able to force the government to concede substantive change to a controversial piece of legislation central to its agenda and of great national significance. Imagine that it was the only sector to win such a change to the legislation.
Imagine that the movement won the promise of an ambitious environment bill (the first for almost 30 years) intended not merely to slow nature’s decline, but to reverse it. Imagine that environmental concerns were not parked away in their own space, but drove a major change to farming policy: the replacement of basic payments with a system based on the principle of public money for environmental goods.
Imagine, in addition, that the government was seriously considering strengthening its climate targets and keen to host UN climate talks. And imagine that the Leader of Opposition devoted a major part of his party conference speech to the environment, helping create the state of virtuous competition between the main parties to which all campaigners aspire.
As you will have guessed, there is no need to imagine these things. They are the reality of the last couple of years during which green NGOs have been more sharply focused and better organised than at any time I can remember.
Greener UK, a coalition of 14 environmental groups, was formed quickly after the European referendum and our movement’s work on Brexit has been the envy of other sectors. Our work has had an impact on both sides of the Brexit negotiations: not only did we win a significant change to the EU Withdrawal Act; the draft EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement requires the UK to improve its environmental governance (including on climate change) and establishes ‘non-regression’ from existing EU environmental laws as the basis for our future relationship with the EU.
This is real influence. In a period of political chaos we are not merely clinging to the wreckage but winning things the movement has wanted for decades. So I was surprised to read, in a recent blog, from veteran environmentalist Mark Avery, that he thinks green NGOs have “played a tiny role” in Brexit debates and “are effectively totally marginalised and out of the game on the most momentous decisions of our generation”. He thinks that the environment has become “a political footnote – after all, how has it figured in the years of argument over Brexit?” – and that the environmental consequences of Brexit “have hardly had a mention in the last three years when we have been ‘debating’ our future in or out of the EU. Shame on the media, politicians and the wildlife NGOs.”
I think Mark is wrong. We have been busy where we can be sure of making a difference, and on issues on which our members are (for the most part) united. This includes the EU Withdrawal Bill; the draft withdrawal agreement and political declaration; the draft environment bill; the agriculture, fisheries and trade bills; and the crucial (and neglected) process of agreeing Statutory Instruments to replace EU laws. The newsworthiness of our work, drawing on the efforts and expertise of over 200 people from across the sector, often seems to be in inverse proportion to its importance.
We have enjoyed a good deal of success because we have been united, 14 NGOs working closely with the four Links, Sustain and other organisations and networks. We would not have been able to retain that unity or our influence if we had got stuck on the question of whether the UK should leave the EU. But we have engaged with the question of how we leave. We have said that a no deal Brexit should be ruled out and I have stated that the version of Canada-plus, endorsed by Boris Johnson and others, would be a disaster. We have set out benchmarks for the final agreement with the EU, produced briefings for the meaningful vote and, more recently, an analysis of the Norway-plus option.
It is irritating that, in the last fortnight, the government has courted trade unionists and not environmentalists. The prime minister says the government is working to improve the environmental terms of Brexit, but it needs both to improve the environment bill and the political declaration with the EU if there is to be any reassurance that our laws will keep pace with the EU’s. At present, the prime minister’s rhetoric on the negotiations looks like greenwash.
Is everything perfect and exactly as we would want it to be? Of course not. It never is. Even in normal times, environmental NGOs struggle to give their issues political bite, in spite of their millions of members and the millions more who care about wildlife and the countryside. And these are not normal times. It is hard to get political attention for our issues, harder still to get that of journalists (and prominent bloggers).
We have had some significant wins but an awful lot is still to be decided. With seven weeks to go until the UK is due to leave the EU, huge risks remain. Government moves slowly, so inevitably we have more promises – more bills and strategies – than firmed up legislation and regulation. And some of the promises, for instance on the environment bill, are inadequate.
Greener UK would, I believe, have less, not more impact if we took sides on Brexit. Much of our work is detailed and technical. It is unlikely to make headlines. It does not bring the emotional satisfaction of taking a clear stance for or against Brexit. However, it is making a big, practical difference for wildlife and the countryside and it has the potential to deliver much more.