When Michael Gove was appointed as Environment Secretary back in June, green campaigners on all sides of the House of Commons fell over each other in expressing outrage. Green MP Caroline Lucas fumed that she could not “think of many politicians as ill-equipped for the role of environment secretary”, while the rather more soundbite savvy Lib Dem Ed Davey declared pompously that the appointment was “like putting the fox in charge of the hen house”. Irate MPs whipped up support from grassroots campaigners – who were dubious of the ex-education secretary who is despised for improving schooling in England – and prepared themselves for a fight. It seemed doubtful that Gove’s second chance, in a government too unstable to support much controversy, would last until the end of the year.
But then the following happened: Gove took the environment seriously.
And rightly so. “Environmentalism” – the desire to protect the environment – may have been hijacked by the left in recent decades, but it finds its natural home in the party which announces in its name a desire to conserve. As Roger Scruton explains in his 2013 essay “Environmentalism and Conservatism”
“There is no political cause more amenable to the conservative vision than that of the environment. For it touches on the three foundational ideas of our movement: trans-generational loyalty, the priority of the local and the search for home. Conservatives resonate to Burke’s view of society, as a partnership between the living, the unborn and the dead; they believe in civil association between neighbours rather than intervention by the state; and they accept that the most important thing the living can do is to settle down, to make a home for themselves, and to pass that home to their children.”
For too long, this excellent case for Conservative Environmentalism has been forgotten by Tory politicians preoccupied with inter-party rows about climate change – but with Michael Gove, it has been revived. Since his appointment just five months ago, Gove has criticised US president Donald Trump for pulling out of the Paris agreement on climate change; told Sheffield city council that its plans to cut down thousands of trees would “surely damage our children’s rightful inheritance”; and even announced to astonished colleagues that his priority now is a “green Brexit”.
In his official role, he has unveiled plans to reform Britain’s fisheries policy, to make all abattoirs install CCTV, and to cut down on plastic waste in the oceans.
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Most recently, he has spoken eloquently about his commitment to the environment, telling the WWF last month that he is an environmentalist because “he cares about the fate of fellow animals”, “draws inspiration from nature” and “believes that we need beauty in our lives as much as we need food and shelter”.
DEFRA, which has languished since Cameron’s first term in office, is now being led by a true reformer who both understands and respects the intellectual case for Conservative Environmentalism – and has the guts to act upon it. Bringing Michael Gove back into the fold may have been part of a shrewd calculation to balance Leavers and Remainers in the cabinet, but it was also the best decision Theresa May has made all year.