Whilst the 2017 General Election was an unusually dramatic contest by any standards, it was made even more significant by the near absence of one major policy point: the environment. The government’s capacity to protect the environment all but vanished from this year’s electoral campaigning. Aside from the odd flash point, green policy debate was nearly entirely consigned to the background.
In the months following Theresa May’s ill-judged announcement to call a snap election, the discourse surrounding the election made surprisingly few concessions to environmental policy. With the obvious exception of the Green Party, whose entire raison d’être is the continuation of the fight against global warming, most mainstream parties seemed content to let the environment languish amongst such policy areas as culture and sport.
The Conservatives were particularly keen to avoid broaching the subject, only briefly raising their heads when an outraged public attacked their decision to aid the reinstatement of both fox hunting and the ivory trade. Indeed, few people saw anything of Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom, whose one notable act since the start of the campaign was an attempt to delay a diesel pollution report. It would seem that despite their manifesto claim to make ‘the United Kingdom [lead] the world in environmental policies’, the Tories (and indeed much of the opposition) seemed eager to avoid getting their hands dirty.
There are numerous reasons for the sudden drop in environmental discourse. Perhaps the most obvious is Brexit - an ugly neologism which seems to penetrate every corner of politics, pushing every other policy area to the background.
The Conservatives set themselves out early on as the Brexit party, with Mrs May’s ‘strong and stable’ personality campaign being largely centred around her fictional negotiating capability and the tabloid-generated notion of ‘taking back control’. Labour, whilst commendably holding itself together despite the EU question dividing members down the middle, promised to deliver a Brexit ‘prioritising jobs and living standards’ over everything else. Meanwhile, the fiercely pro-Remain SNP knew that an independent Scotland would require oil and gas exploitation in order to keep its economy afloat, and so wisely kept quiet. Whichever way they looked at it, the three major parties knew that leaving the EU would mean prioritising the economy over the environment.
The other major issue standing in the way of environmental discourse was far more tragic. The attacks in Manchester and London brought the subject of security to the fore in the final weeks of campaigning, giving an emotional edge to an already strained election.
Policing, counter-terrorism measures and internet security became central to the run-up to the 8 June. Whether it was the Conservatives attacking Jeremy Corbyn over his past dialogue with IRA members, or Labour accusing the government of harmful police cuts, the war on terror joined Brexit as a headline debate. The environment, more justifiably this time, was quietly filed away.
All this does not mean that, outside of mainstream political discourse, there was no mention of green policymaking. The Green Party, true to its name, prioritised the environment throughout its manifesto. The hard-pressed Liberal Democrats remained committed to investing in renewable energy, although unwisely opted to fix their campaign on reversing Brexit. Even Labour and the SNP, despite prioritising industry and employment, made various commitments to environmental policies such as increasing the use of zero-carbon energy sources and improving home insulation.
However, the fact remained that the primary issues of the election rarely concerned the environment, which remained a grey background topic that could only be dragged into the spotlight by something as shocking as the proposed fox hunting vote. The parties who shouted the loudest about the environment were those small enough to have the luxury of concerning themselves with it.
Looking to the future, one might be forgiven for thinking that the desire to save the world was just a fad, something that seemed nice during the progressive years of Blair, Brown and Cameron but which fell into obscurity once 2016 hit. Yet all is not lost. Mrs May’s refusal to condemn Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Accord may have shown her preference for post-Brexit trade over everything else, but Mr Trump’s move was roundly criticised by other world leaders.
Protecting the environment remains a core belief of most democratic governments, something which has only been achieved with a gradual, but nonetheless monumental, rise in climate change awareness. Opposition parties may have been quiet on green policy this year, but there is no reason why they will be at the next election, nor the one after. Indeed, once global warming really begins to bite, environmental protection may find itself catapulted to the forefront of political debate.
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