Brexit will have devastating consequences for the environment - and that's no accident

Many voted for Brexit to restore Britain to a green and pleasant land. But in doing so they have increased the risk of greater environmental damage as EU regulations are rolled back.
The driver for the businessmen who funded the Brexit campaign was cutting environmental and social protections to increase profits. But knowing this would win few votes, the public campaign focused on 'taking back control' and immigration. So what does this mean for the environment in post-Brexit Britain, asks BRENDAN MONTAGUE
Most Brexit campaigners are businessmen who see environmental regulation as an impediment to profit.

“Do you try and win votes over the important issues (which means fighting the battle on basically unfavourable ground)? Or do you forget about winning voters over and concentrate on trying to convince them that the unimportant issues (on which they are already on your side) are really important? For a variety of reasons the Tory strategists eventually plumped for the second course. I believe they were right to so do.” 

The ‘Scapegoat’ is Europe

Immigration is in reality an unimportant issue. Immigrants make a “vital” contribution to the UK economy. And yet immigration dominated the Brexit campaign. Brexit in turn dominated the general election with Theresa May demanding a mandate for the negotiations with the rest of the European Union. 

The dog-whistle politics of the Tories and UKIP seemed to deafen swathes of the electorate to the important issues: the government’s responsibility for a moribund economy, chronic housing shortages, fatal cuts to public services, the sell-off of the NHS, and the crisis of climate change. 

The Tories convinced some British white working class voters that immigration was really important because it was an issue on which white politicians appeared to be on the same side. And everybody forgot about the Tory donors and their magic money tree

Crisis in Housing, Health, Employment 

Most Brexit campaigners are businessmen who see environmental regulation as an impediment to profit.

It’s a very old trick. The quote above is from Lord Lawson, the chairman of the Vote Leave campaign. But it does not refer to the recent Brexit crisis. 

It’s Lawson’s contemporaneous analysis of the 1964 general election for the Financial Times. He humbly coined it “Lawson’s law of election campaigning” in his self-serving autobiography, The View from Number 11: Memoirs of a Radical Tory

The Tories convinced many that immigration was the problem. But May as home secretary failed to solve the ‘problem’ of immigration. This allowed the Brexiteers to present Brexit as the solution to immigration, and by implication the crisis in housing, health, employment.

Poisoned Air and Rivers

My investigation for openDemocracy suggests that immigration was only of marginal importance even to those who ran the Brexit campaign. They knew it would win votes.  

What they really wanted was to leave Europe, and leave behind environmental regulations and human rights legislation designed to protect the population from poisoned air and rivers, from dangerously long working hours, and from climate change. 

The key question I attempting to answer in the Brexit Inc. series for openDemocracy is, why hasn’t Britain done more to protect the environment and prevent run-away climate change? The threat is extreme, and very real. 

The Countervailing Force is Business 

Environmental campaigners have since the early 1970s fought hard to force governments around the world to protect their citizens, and the natural environment that is the material substance of their nation. But fight for the environment is far from over, and we’re losing badly. 

Brexit means this conflict will now take place in Westminster, Holyrood, Cardiff Bay, Stormont (and possibly Dublin) rather than Brussels. But why are the politicians resistant to the pressure of the environmental groups and their supporters? 

The public, the environment charities, those politicians who are seriously concerned about climate change represent a serious force. But the countervailing force is business - micro, small, monopoly and transnational.

Hating Environmental Regulations

What does this look like up close? How did businesses influence the Brexit campaign? Was the business community split? And how did the industrial wing of the Brexit campaign succeed?

Our investigation into the Brexit campaign has established that most of the people publicly involved in the Brexit campaign are small to medium businessmen who see regulation and government as an impediment to profit and success.

The European Union is seen - rightly - as an instrument of regulation and state restrictions on the private sector. It is therefore deeply resented. In particular, the business people involved in Vote Leave and Business for Britain hate environmental regulations and the working time directive.

“Regulation Costs Business”

Business for Britain, one of the two main Brexit campaign groups, raised concerns about regulations designed to reduce emissions, including from the transport sector. Many of those involved work directly or indirectly for companies with high intensity emissions. They made sure their core supporters understood the important issues.

Business for Britain released a press release early in its campaign, headlined “New Research Reveals £12bn Cost of Lisbon Treaty to British Businesses”.

It stated: “Research by Business for Britain, based on official Government data, finds that EU regulation stemming from the Lisbon Treaty has cost UK businesses £12.2bn since December 2009, and currently hits British companies for £6.1bn annually.

“The Steady and Unaccountable Intrusion”

“In 2009, David Cameron correctly warned: ‘The problem we’re facing today... will now be made worse by the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty... These problems boil down to the steady and unaccountable intrusion of the European Union into nearly every aspect of our lives’.”

Matthew Elliott, the chief executive of Business for Britain, was quoted saying: “The Lisbon Treaty was hugely unpopular at the time, and we can now see that it has increased the cost of doing business in Britain.”

There is an extremely strong correlation between supporting Britain leaving the European Union and espousing climate denial. There are very many points of evidence that the same group of people are promoting Brexit and attacking climate science and policy.

“Greater Profitability and Growth”

The same motive - a dislike of regulations - drives climate denial and in particular the attack on the UNFCCC and IPCC process, and the European Union’s role in that process. 

The assumption is that without the European Union the Conservative government would be free to remove regulations, allowing for greater profitability and growth for companies which are carbon intensive or otherwise polluting.

Lawson (yes, him again), argued that “EU regulation is untouchable” without Brexit. Ian Brown was the South East chairman of Business for Britain and works in the carbon intensive construction industry. He attacked the working time directive in the local newspaper.

“Sheer Mountain of Regulation”

Carl Chambers, then Yorkshire chairman of Business for Britain, works for CNG, which is the “largest independent shipper of gas in the UK”. He is also opposed to European Union regulations.

“The European Union has been a very costly exercise for the UK,” he told local media. “We are spending £350m a week and that’s on top of the cost of complying with the sheer mountain of regulation and law which come out of Brussels.

“The reason I have got involved is if you are going to have regulations and laws that affect businesses as well as the general population, those laws should be passed as close to those people as possible...We have got 50 per cent of our laws and regulations coming from Brussels. It’s unrepresentative, it’s unaccountable and it’s costly.”

“Bureaucrats in Brussels”

Nigel Baxter, the East Midland chairman of Business for Britain, runs RH Commercial Vehicles with sites in Cossington in Leicestershire and Alfreton in Derbyshire, and is the boss of a truck hire company in Nottingham.

The local newspaper reported: “He says many small and medium-sized businesses in the East Midlands are fed up with bureaucrats in Brussels imposing oppressive regulations and costs on them, and want to see a fundamental change in the UK's relationship with Europe.”

The centrality of regulation was largely underreported in the media, but not totally ignored. Perhaps the best example is the following from the Economist, under the headline “Regulation is perhaps the Eurosceptics’ biggest bugbear”. 

Stick to Most of the Rules

“When trying to show how much Britain might gain from leaving the EU, they tot up all the costs of EU regulation, assert that there are no benefits from it and assume that, after Brexit, the whole lot could be scrapped.”

And. Yet. “The OECD club of mostly rich countries has compared the extent of regulation in product and labour markets among its members and finds that Britain is among the least regulated countries in Europe. Indeed, Britain compares favourably with non-EU countries such as America, Australia and Canada.

“And there is little to suggest that, if it were to leave the EU, it would tear up many rules. Moreover, if a post-Brexit Britain wanted to retain full access to the single European market, it would almost certainly have to stick with most of the accompanying rules.”

Greater Anxiety is Yet to Come

The most unpopular claim you can make is that the public has been deceived. The idea that you have been deceived creates too much shame and anxiety to bring into consciousness. It is almost as hard to say publicly that you have changed your mind, you may have been wrong.

This is what makes Lawson’s law of election campaigning so powerful, and so insidious and cruel. The public voted because they do need a “strong and stable” society: security at work, support through hospitals and social care.

We were told that immigrants were taking away those services. That Brexit would stop immigration. That we would have jobs, schools, hospitals. The reality is Brexit means ever greater economic and environmental instability. So far greater anxiety is yet to come. Unless of course...

This Author

Brendan Montague is the new contributing editor of The Ecologist and can be reached at

He is also is a regular columnist for openDemocracy in its 'Brexit Inc: the environment and corporate power in the new Britain' series.

Related Articles by Brendan Montague

This article
was first published by openDemocracy under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence.

Creative Commons License

More from this author