Has Environmentalism Become Embedded In British Politics?

This is a piece I wrote for a small project last year. It seems relevant given the current events, although it doesn’t reflect information which has been released in the past 9 months.
Environmentalism is not a new issue in British politics. During the 19th century, a number of groups around the country advocated redesigning cities so they were less polluted, with modern sewage and water systems. However, then, as now, environmental policies tend to be enacted in reaction to problems rather then pre-emptive or beneficial measures of merit. This tendency is one of the main reasons why environmentalism as a policy has not become firmly embedded within British politics.

This can be illustrated through a number of examples. Chief amongst these are British environmental policy before and after both the ‘Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer’ and the ‘Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change’. Also relevant are the environmental policy decisions surrounding the 2000 fuel tax protests and the reaction to environmental protests by the Thatcher and Major governments. The sources of environmental policy will also be discussed.

It should also be noted that while policy does not seem to be embedded within British government or any of the mainstream parties, it remains a consistent issue with the British population. Thus, it can be said to be embedded as a policy in Britain in general. The persistence of the Green Party – in particular in Scotland post-devolution – is particularly telling.

The origin of contemporary environmental policy can be traced to the London’s smog crisis of 1952, in a pollution-thickened fog descended on the city, lasting nearly a week and resulting in more then 4,000 deaths. Four years later, the Clean Air Act 1956 was passed. This placed restrictions on the amount of smoke emitted by new furnaces and factories, the emission of solid pollutants and types of fuel which could be burnt both in commercial and domestic facilities (United Kingdom 1956, pp3-9). A Clean Air Council was also established to monitor the effectiveness of the this early environmental policy (United Kingdom 1956, pp26).

At the time, there was considerable opposition to the bill within the Government, with the previously passed Public Health Act 1936 being cited as sufficient legislation regarding air pollution. However, public concerns and the results of an inquiry conducted by London’s County Council forced Parliament into action. Even then, the bill for the Clean Air Act was introduced as a private member’s bill rather then as a Government policy (Brimblecombe 2007, p312).

The reluctance of the government to pass environmental legislation – in particular legislation which placed limited on both the public and businesses – was not an auspicious beginning for environmental policy. It was very much a symptom of the time however, with global environmental policy focusing on conservation in Africa – an uphill struggle against the resource hungry economies of the Europe and America (McCormick 1989, pp43-46).

The 1960s brought nuclear testing by Britain, America, France and Russia and with it environmental side-effects. This, in turn, helped to raise public awareness of environmental issues, however not to a sufficient level for the main parties to move their policy away from the ‘white heat’ of British industry to the greener program (McCormick 1989, pp51-68). This changed in 1969, when Harold Wilson created the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution and proposed the merging of the number of government departments and agencies to form a department with responsibility for the environment (McCormick 1989, pp127-129). A year later, newly elected Prime Minister Ted Heath merged the Departments for Public Buildings and Works, Transport, Local Government and Housing to create the first Department of the Environment, complete with a Cabinet level Minister. This move pre-empted a further spike of public interest in the environment, with a series of environmentalist books being released in 1972 and 1973.

The Department of the Environment has persisted in British politics to this day. It is now known as DEFRA, combining environmental policy with that of agriculture and rural affairs. For much of it’s life-time, it has been a hybridised department, often overseeing disparate interests. The combination of transport and housing in the initial department is a clear example of this, as is the combination of environment and agriculture in the present day department.

While the existence of the Department of the Environment in any form can be seen as a step towards the embedding of environmental policy within British politics, it is largely a token measure. Given that very nearly all government departments have an impact on the environment in some way, be it though the fuel consumption of the Ministry of Defence or the paper consumption of the Cabinet Office, it makes sense for each department to handle environmental policy as it pertains to their own policy rather then for a single department dedicated to hammering out overarching policy. The potential conflicts of interest which exist between parts of the Department of the Environment – in particular between the examples mentioned above – are also an indicator that environmental policy has not become embedded in British politics. The department may also be ignored by a government, as it was for much of the 1980s.

Under Margaret Thatcher, the environment was one of the few issues upon which she was not decisive. The interests of big business and agriculture – two traditional Tory support bases – were difficult to reconcile with environmental policy. Coupled with the difficult economic conditions and low oil prices which prevailed during the ‘80s there was little motivation within Government for environmental policy.
Some aspects of environmental policy were even removed from the scope of the government all together, with planning being deregulated to allow businesses and individuals greater rights on land use. It was also made easier for private developers to purchase and develop land. Conversely, the Conservatives sought to increase conservation of land by protecting sites of scientific interest. The effectiveness of this policy is highly questionable, since between 1981 and 1985, a loop-hole existed which allowed the owner of said site of scientific interest to destroy the site within 3 months of it’s identification (Blower 1987, pp281-288). This resulted in the destruction of a number of potentially valuable areas of interest.

The growing power of the European Economic Community (EEC) affected British environmental policy during the 1980s. Many of the mandatory directives which were passed by Brussels were contradictory to existing Conservative policy, such as the requirement for environmental assessments to be provided for major projects at a time when the Conservatives were trying to make the planning process for such projects easier. At the same time, regulations which had been discussed in Britain but met government opposition, such as banning of leaded petrol and various chemicals, were being introduced by the EEC, making up a considerable portion of Conservative environment legislation (Blower 1987, p289-290). The Thatcher government was also responsible for Britain’s participation in the 1983 Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer. This international agreement outlawed the use of Chloro-Flouro Carbons (CFCs) which were commonly found in household goods, but which were wrecking noticeable damage on the layer of Ozone in the Earth’s upper atmosphere. It proved to be one of the most effective pieces of environmental legislation passed, but was never part of Tory policy.
Throughout the 1980s, there was movement to increase road capacity and build new roads, the idea of every Briton owning their own car being very much in the ethos of Thatcher’s government. This policy continued into the 1990s, prompting a number of protests and demonstrations.

In one of the most chilling examples of how environmental policy is not embedded in British politics, many of these protests were characterised by a violent response from police and private security firms. In what Andrew Rowell describes as a ‘green backlash’, leading Conservatives dubbed the demonstrators “eco-terrorists” (Teresa Gorman quoted in Rowell 1996, p325) and “European neo-Nazis” (John Redwood quoted in Rowell 1996, p325).

Despite this, there were some positive aspects to Conservative environmental policy under John Major. Like the Thatcher government in the 1980s, the Major Government was subject to a number of European Union directives on the environment.It also represented Britain in the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1993 and the two initial meetings of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Known as COP-1 and COP-2, these paved the way for the Kyoto Treaty (COP-3) and in 2009, COP-15 in Copenhagen.

During the 18 years of Conservative government the environment was seldom seen as a major issue. The key pieces of policy were all pursued by external agencies – either the United Nations or the European Economic Community/European Union. Those pieces of policy which were passed tended to be ineffective or politically motivated, often being challenged by contradictory policy. The treatment of environmental protesters serves to demonstrate a shocking disdain for the environmental movement, as well as the freedom for democratic protest.

Environmental policy during the late 1990s was largely consistent between governments, with many of the Labour Party’s policies in 1997 simply carrying over from those of the previous Conservative government, albeit without conflicts with protesters. One of the key policies was the escalating fuel tax – a measure which had been introduced in 1993 in response to the previous year’s United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro. By increasing the fuel tax above inflation year on year, the Government sought to inflate the price of fuel to the point at which people would reconsider how frequently they used their cars, resulting in a decrease in the number of car journeys as well as the emissions from them. It was a flagship environmental policy.

In 2000, the commitment of both the Labour and Conservative Parties to this piece of environmental policy was tested when a large number of British oil refineries and distribution centres were blockaded. Led by farmers and haulers infuriated at the rate at which the fuel tax was increasing, the protests brought Britain to a standstill as petrol stations ran dry. The government, the first upsurge in Conservative support since before the 1997 election, backed down, promising a freeze on fuel tax.
The Conservatives, who, under William Hague, had already opposed environmental legislation emanating from Brussels, took the side of the protesters, abandoning their former policy. The extent of support for the protesters was such, that in 2001 the Tories pledged a 6 pence cut in fuel tax if they were victorious in the election (Carter 2008, p198). One of the leading protesters was subsequently elected to the Welsh Assembly for the Tory party, repeatedly taking stands against the Labour Party’s environmental policy.

The stands taken by both Labour and the Conservative Party during the fuel strikes are a clear demonstration of that environmental policy has not become embedded within British politics, when neither party is willing to stand up for policy brought in to protect the environment.

Like the Conservatives during the ‘80s and ‘90s, much of Labour’s environmental policy was dictated by international agreement or the European Union. The most significant of these is the ‘Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change’, which was agreed to in 1997, but did not have it’s mechanisms of implementation completed until 2000. A significant portion of Britain’s environmental policy has been born of Kyoto, including the targets for carbon emissions. Many of these targets in the UK are based on ‘one-time only’ emissions reductions which were a side effect of de-industrialisation during the Thatcher era and the drive to replace older coal power plants with low-emission (and low cost) gas plants. Thus, they have been easy met, gaining Labour public support and false credentials as an environmentally friendly party. The Blair Government has been heavily criticised for setting short- and medium-term emissions reduction goals which were too lax, changing the goal posts for the Labour party’s own political gain.
Labour has also championed a series of token measures regarding the environment, such as increasing the subsides to allow rail providers to increase the frequency of trains, while doing little to improve the railway infrastructure or encourage commuters or business to make use of the rail transport over road or air transport. Late in 2009, it was announced that an additional runway would be constructed at Heathrow as opposed to increasing investment in lower emission rail transport This is symbolic of Labour’s attempts to appeal to the ‘Middle England’ voter who “drives cars, enjoys shopping, wants to own more material things and to go on more foreign holidays” (Michael Jacobs quotes in Carter 2008, p199).

The environmental policy of Labour very much continues the trend set by the Conservatives in the 1980s. Their policy is based on international treaties and EU directives. The Labour Government is not willing to stand up to the British people regarding environmental issues and face considerable opposition when they attempted to.

The great New Labour project, is possibly the most valuable evidence that environmental policy has not been embedded in Britain, as they pass legislation which offers only token gestures to the environment. However, Labour and the Conservatives are not the be all and end of British politics and there are other areas where environmental policy is given more scope.

While there is considerable evidence to demonstrate that green policy has not become embedded within British politics in general, it does appear to have had significantly more success making penetration into the smaller parties. The Liberal Democrats have long used the environment as a key manifesto issue, turning over 8 to 12% of their manifestos to it between 1992 and 2005, a period during which Labour and the Conservatives were averaging 2 to 6% (Carter 2008, Figure 1 p197). Environmental policy is also frequently questioned or proposed in Parliament by the Liberal Democrats, who have pushed for higher targets on emissions, greater use of renewable energy and increased recycling. Since the election of Nick Clegg as leader of the Liberal Democrats, the party has struggled to maintain it’s profile in British politics, lessening the effectiveness of their environmentalist stance.

The main consistent push for environment policy has actually come from the British voter. Since the creation of the Green Party – originally known as Ecology – in the mid-1970s, they have enjoyed a small but consistent amount of support since first standing in 1974, when just five candidates were fielded by the newly formed party.

In 1979, as Thatcher swept to victory, Ecology had candidates standing in 53 constituencies, polling an average of 1.5% of the vote (Curtice in Butler 1980, p419). By 1983, Ecology had doubled the number of contested seats to 108, while polling an average of 1% – unsurprising given the swing to the Conservative party in the wake of the Falklands War (Curtice in Butler 1984, pp334-355). 1987 saw a change in the party’s name and further increases in candidates for the Green Party, with 133 were fielded in all, taking 1.4% of the vote on average. This equated to 89,753 votes, up considerably from 1979’s 39,918 and 1983’s 54,299 (Curtice in Butler 1988, p344).

1992 brought a changed political scene – it was the first time in more then a decade that Margaret Thatcher hadn’t led the Conservative party into an election. Unfortunately for the Greens, they were unable to secure the same level of success which they enjoyed in the 1989 European election (where they polled 15% of the votes). Despite fielding 253 candidates, the Greens secured only 1.3% of the vote (Curtice in Butler 1993, pp342-3).

1997 again proved to be a watershed year in British politics as Labour swept to victory with a landslide majority. The Greens were only able to field 95 candidates but managed to retain 1.4% of the vote (Butler 2002, p69). 1999 brought electoral success for the first time as two Green candidates were elected to the European Parliament, which was followed up by 145 candidates taking 2.8% of the vote (Curtice in Butler 2002, p325). This success was built upon in the 2005 elections, when 205 Green candidates returned 3.4% of the vote on average (Curtice in Butler 2005, pp245-246).

In post-devolution Scotland, the Green Party’s equivalent has enjoyed considerable success, returning one MSP in 1999 and increasing this to seven in 2003. The nature of the Scottish political system has ensured that the Scottish Green Party has had a significant role in the Scottish politics. In Europe, as in Scotland, the Greens have benefited from the proportional representation system introduced in 1992, consistently returning MEPs from England and Wales.

While the Green Party has remained a marginal force in Westminster elections, it has polled consistently. The support for the Greens in both the Scottish Parliament and European Parliament demonstrates that within British politics there is at least an undercurrent of environmental policy which enjoys public support. While environmental policy may not be embedded within the two main political parties, it clearly is within at least part of the public mind and the consistent support for the Green Party in elections can not simply be dismissed as protest voting. Likewise, the Liberal Democrat support for environmental issues would suggest that environmental policy has been embedded with it, however given that the party has never been in a position of government, it remains to be seen how their environmental policies would hold up if they were to gain a majority.

Environmental policy is not dead. However, it plays no real part in British politics or policy making, serving as a green draping when it suites the main parties. The creation of the Department of the Environment was a bold move in the 1970s, however it does not manage to effectively cater to the need of the various areas of government and should not be combined with other departments with which conflicts of interest are highly possible. From the late 70s to the present day, British environmental policy has largely been an illusion, with the effective and groundbreaking policy based on international treaty or European directives not internal British policy. However, there does remain a degree of environmental policy which is a constant in British politics – in the form of the Green Party and the extensive Liberal Democrat environmental policies. However, under the First Past the Post system, the policies of these two parties will remain largely marginalised within British politics, despite enjoying public support.

Environmental policy is not embedded in British politics. At least not in any way which is effective. However, as we witness continuing climate change it is an issue which must become central to policy making. It may well be, however, that it is far too late policy becoming embedded to do any good.

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