They say that a Leopard doesn’t change its spots, but since the turn of the year it seems that the Conservative Party has been attempting to shed its blue spots for cleaner, greener ones with the announcement of a 25-year environment plan. Theresa May has also used the New Year to make some changes to ministerial posts. New Year, new Cabinet? Well yes, except that nothing has really changed aside from the names filling the positions. The prime minister claimed that her Government looked “more like the country it serves” – despite the fact that one third of her cabinet are privately educated, 74 per cent male and 96 per cent white.
In her speech last week May stated that it was her party’s duty to “make ours the first generation to leave the natural environment in a better state than we found it.” So were there any policies to back up the rhetoric? Or was this latest announcement just another instalment of the Tories relentless PR drive to attract younger voters, just as the chancellor’s autumn budget attempted to do in November? The only tangible piece of legislation to come in light of the plan is the announcement that the successful 5p charge on plastic carrier bags is to be extended to small shops and businesses. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have all already introduced the measure, with Wales leading the way first introducing the charge in 2011.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn criticised the proposals, arguing that May’s pledge to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste by 2042 was “far too long.” While praising the plan for its vision, environmental pressure groups were also left unimpressed by its vagueness and remained sceptical about the Government’s preparedness for action. It’s not difficult to see why either – what constitutes “avoidable plastic” when the pollutant has become so ingrained in our everyday lives that it can even be found in daily facial scrubs, shower gel and toothpaste? The Government should take credit for introducing a ban on all microbeads (tiny pieces of plastic) which came into effect on 9 January this year, but its presence in products we use for our personal hygiene highlights the scale of the problem we face. May claimed that her Government “will take action at every stage of the production and consumption of plastic” but the public will need to see more detail and further legislation if the plans are to be taken seriously.
Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Michael Gove has been on a PR drive of his own since being appointed to the position in May’s reshuffle of June last year. Gove has been visiting environmental groups and was recently snapped parading up Downing Street brandishing a reusable coffee cup. Surprisingly the cup was green, to go along with his green tie. You know, just in case you weren’t aware that he cares about the environment now. If we as a society are half as successful at recycling our waste as the Conservative Party is at recycling Michael Gove, then we should be well on our way to meeting the 2042 target – he has now held the justice and education briefs, as well as his current position.
So what about Gove’s record on the environment and the Conservative Party more generally? A quick look at the MP’s voting record reveals that on 4 June 2013 he voted against setting a target for carbon dioxide emissions produced per unit of electricity. Although the vote took place before he assumed his current position, it raises serious questions about his commitment to the reduction of other harmful pollutants that are contributing towards global warming. If the Tories are serious about the environment then they need to take action on fossil fuels and harmful gases as well as plastic. There was no mention whatever of the oil and gas industry in the 25-year plan. Perhaps because the party doesn’t want to upset some of its biggest donors? Since May became prime minister, executives at oil and gas firms Vitol and Petrofac have donated a total of £390,000 to the party, with the latter donating £400,600 alone since 2015.
May isn’t the first Tory leader that has tried to re-brand her party as eco-friendly in an attempt to make it more electable and I suspect she won’t be the last. Within weeks of becoming leader and after defeating the now Brexit Secretary David Davis, former Prime Minister David Cameron boarded a plane to the Arctic Circle for a fact-finding mission on global warming. After years in the political wilderness under the shadow of New Labour, the Tories struggled to unshackle themselves from the legacy of Thatcherism. The party’s brand had become toxic and viewed as uncompassionate, just as it is now.
Cameron’s trip to the Arctic Circle to frolic around in the snow with huskies was his way of announcing himself as a “new type of Conservative”. A cleaner, greener Conservative, if you will. So how long did Dave’s oneness with nature last? In 2013 the former Witney MP was quoted by a senior figure inside his own party as telling an aide “we have got to get rid of all this green crap,” in response to an environmental policy which proposed to introduce a levy on energy companies. With the Government lurching from one crisis to another and facing fresh criticism over the Carillion scandal, one wonders how long it will be before May is cutting the “green crap” too.
While it is important to put pressure on and hold the Government to account on policy, enacting real change on the environment will require a wholesale shift in societal attitudes towards plastic and other waste. The French philosopher Michel Foucault once troped that “people know what they do; frequently they know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do does.” It is precisely for this reason that documentaries such as Blue Planet II are fundamental to both educating and inspiring action. The cultural change on the environment we so desperately need will not come about by through policy alone.
Words: Matt Mathers
Image: Emma Tyrrell