Conservatives' hard right Brexit plans: UK's great leap backwards to 'dirty man of Europe'

Back to the future? Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square, London, in the Great Fog of 1952. Photo: N T Stobbs via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA).
Back to the future? Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square, London, in the Great Fog of 1952. Photo: N T Stobbs via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA).
It's barely mentioned in the election campaign or reported in the media. But a powerful faction of Tory ministers, ex-ministers and backbench MPs are bent on using Brexit to ignite a massive bonfire of 'spirit-crushing' laws on wildlife protection, air and water pollution, pesticides, renewable energy and public health, writes Brendan Montague. At risk are not just EU directives and regulations but even the UK's own Climate Change Act. May's Brexit may not just be hard, but very, very dirty.
We could, if we wanted, accept emissions standards from India, America, and Europe. There'd be no contradiction with that. We could say, if it's good enough in India, it's good enough here. There's nothing to stop that. We could take it a very long way.

As any dodgy dealer knows, the best way to sell something duff is to harry the unsuspecting buyer.

Theresa May in calling an election with less than seven weeks' notice is bullying the voter into a panic decision: one that could jeopardise the health and happiness of future generations.

The spin from Number 10 is May wants to be even stronger in negotiating in Europe and the Tories want to take advantage of the division in the Labour party.

It seems just as likely that the prime minister wants to shore up her authority before it is undermined by the gaping chasm opening under her among her own warring tribe.

May was after all the compromise candidate: a Remain campaigner trusted to abandon her principles and drive home the Brexit agenda. She is hoping we fail to notice she is quickly becoming the compromised candidate.

The united front between the Dirty Brexit industrialists and the Clean Brexit conservatives cannot hold. So which Tory party is Britain being asked to vote for?

We can unpick them one by one as we please

The Conservatives simply cannot deliver the Brexit the right-wingers promised: the party is now slowing pulling apart under the weight of its internal contradictions. The most significant and serious of these contradictions, in terms of the long-term wealth and health of the country, concerns the environment.

May is proposing that 12,000 regulations are copied and pasted into the UK statute book through the Great Repeal Bill: but an estimated 1,000 will need to be changed in the process. There are more than 200 laws "covering water and air quality, waste management, nature protection, industrial pollution control, chemicals and GMOs, noise and forestry".

"All EU laws will transfer into British law", May explained. "And then we can unpick them one by one as we please."

Who would want to unpick environmental protections? The middle-ranking businessmen who funded the Leave campaign, who populate the neoliberal wing of the party, and who supported Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, are desperate to revive their profits.

The environmental splendour symbolic of 'greatness'

And their claim that capitalist competition drives innovation simply does not hold any more. The return on investment must instead come from creating new markets at the margins, and reducing the costs of production: this means destroying decades of negotiated environmental regulations.

We could, if we wanted, accept emissions standards from India, America, and Europe. There'd be no contradiction with that. We could say, if it's good enough in India, it's good enough here. There's nothing to stop that. We could take it a very long way.

'The Great Unpicking'. This is the real agenda for many of the bankrollers of Brexit.

A contradiction and split in the party arises because the business class needs the support of millions of workers to win an election. This includes well educated, highly paid workers. It includes those concerned about their own immediate natural environment. And those worried about the impact climate change will have on their children.

A significant number of the Conservative party want to, well, conserve much of this country's environmental splendour. It forms part of their foundational myth as evidence of the greatness of Britain. It grounds their patriotism.

The environmentalists in the Tory party who have clustered around the Bright Blue think tank recently performed an extremely canny manoeuvre. They polled the membership, and found extraordinary levels of support for the current European Union regime of environmental regulation among its grassroots.

Rebecca Pow, the Conservative MP for Taunton Deane, used the poll to hook her arguments into the news agenda. "I have found huge support among Conservatives from old to young for protecting our precious environment", she told the press.

"In this Brexit world we should adopt wholesale the current EU environment legislation relating to areas including water, wildlife, habitats, beaches and climate change and tailor it to our particular needs, as time goes on."

The industrialists again set the agenda

The split between conservative Conservatives and desperate profit-seeking Tories was brilliantly personified by David Cameron and George Osborne not so long ago. Cameron wooed those threatening to defect to the Green party with, "Vote Blue, Go Green". Osborne attacked the "environmental Taliban" to the delight of carbon intensive industry.

Osborne allowed the green rhetoric to continue, knowing that to investors actions speak louder than words. He began the process of "cutting subsidies for solar and onshore wind, abandoning Zero Carbon Homes, announcing plans to sell off the Green Investment Bank, and crapping the Green Deal. In addition we have seen scrapping of £1 billion of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) projects, reducing tax breaks for clean cars and allowing fracking under National Parks."

May as the 'strong' leader of the Tories now has to hold together the two competing halves of the party. The signal at the beginning, was she would serve the industrialist, climate denying wing. This is why on taking office she abolished the Government's Department of Energy and Climate Change. But mostly, she has tried to ignore this issue.

Lord (Kate) Parminter, the Lib Dem environment spokesperson, wrote in the Ecologist magazine: "Since Brexit, the Conservative government has avoided questions about the future of environmental protection. For example, Government ministers were asked seven times if the government would retain EU air quality limits following Brexit. They still declined to make a commitment."

It seems May remains beholden to a small, vocal, hardened and influential faction within the Conservative party which is determined to strip away environmental protections agreed in Europe. This faction seems to be getting the most air time.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, a wealthy descendant of Somerset's coal barons, told a hearing of the House of Commons Treasury Select Committee that Britain can and should go "a very long way" towards destroying current environmental standards.

"We could, if we wanted, accept emissions standards from India, America, and Europe. There'd be no contradiction with that. We could say, if it's good enough in India, it's good enough for here. There's nothing to stop that. We could take it a very long way. American emission standards are fine."

Plans to ditch 'spirit crushing' EU regulations?

Andrea Leadsom stood against May in the leadership contest for the climate-denying right wing. She is now Secretary of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which is responsible for the imposition of an estimated 25% of all EU environmental regulations.

Leadsom argued that a third of these environmental rules "won't be easy to transpose" during a hearing of the Environmental Audit Committee in October last year. She denied any "ulterior motive" before asserting: "There are roughly a quarter that cannot be brought immediately into law either because it requires technical attention or falls away, and that's the bit we will be looking at to see what steps need to be taken."

She said the Great Repeal Bill would bring comfort to environmental groups and businesses alike, with a smooth transition of EU into UK law, but then added that " ... over a period of time, we will be able to repeal, amend, and strengthen laws at leisure."

George Eustice MP, the farming minister, has advocated an end to "spirit-crushing" environmental regulations. "The birds and habitats directives would go", he said, referring to two key pieces of European environmental law. "A lot of the national directives they instructed us to put in place would stay. But the directives' framework is so rigid that it is spirit-crushing."

David Bannerman MEP reinforced the message by describing Brexit as "a huge opportunity" to end "over-regulation", his comments not targeted specifically at the environment. Owen Paterson, one time environment secretary, welcomed the suggested scrapping of the Renewable Energy Directive, adding: "It's distorting the whole energy market."

The Express, the in-house magazine of the extreme right of the Tory party, could barely contain its excitement. "The Renewable Energy Directive is thought to be among of raft of EU policies set for the post-Brexit bonfire of Brussels diktats ... [It] resulted in the Government spending billions on subsidies for wind and solar farms..."

And while we're at it, let's ditch the Climate Change Act!

The Telegraph, jockeying for position as the extreme right newsletter, wants to see the end of EU regulations as just a beginning for its war on bureaucracy;

"[T]here is a great deal of UK red tape that needs looking at, too. The Climate Change Act 2008 was a unilateral decision to commit Britain to cutting carbon emissions by 80 per cent within five decades. It proved that the British are capable of making mistakes all by themselves."

The industrial core of the Conservative party is also well represented by think tanks and lobbyists. Key among them is Open Europe, which has used donations from rabidly right-wing think tanks to fund anti-EU research.

As the country is crushed under government austerity the PR team focused attention on the potential costs of EU laws, while downplaying any benefits. The most expensive regulation, The UK Renewable Energy Strategy, is priced at £4.7bn a year.

This is clearly designed to feed resentment, including among people relying on foodbanks to feed their children. Children who are currently protected by environmental regulation.

As the accumulation of billions in capital swirls into offshore tax havens, the electorate are being told it's a choice between food or health. As a nation, we apparently cannot afford both.

May promised Red, White and Blue Brexit. The Conservative party promises Hard Brexit. The terrifying reality is we are headlining perilously close to a Dirty Brexit.



Brendan Montague is a regular columnist for openDemocracy in our 'Brexit Inc: the environment and corporate power in the new Britain' series.

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