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Leave voters didn't vote Brexit to see environmental protections undone

The country’s conservation watchdog, Natural England, has had its budget cut.

Thanks to Brexit, we are told, our political masters will all be accountable to us at the ballot box. No longer will we be governed by opaque bureaucracies manipulated by industrial lobbyists in Brussels. The will of the British people will once again be sovereign.

In abstract, this is all well and good, but when you start looking at what it could mean in practice, for example, for our environment, that’s where the utopia starts unravelling. I’ve been told by many Brexiters that the EU’s environmental regulations are flawed and give too much away to vested interests whilst imposing blanket controls over a diverse European continent where local knowledge should be respected. I have also been told that all of these flaws can be ironed out now that we have taken back control.  

And it’s that last bit that worries me. The UK government has a long and ignoble tradition of dragging its heels on environmental regulations, trying to block or water down new protection and generally siding with those industry lobbyists the EU has failed to resist. From the current conflicts over urban air pollution all the way back to sewage outflows on our beaches in the seventies, the UK had to be dragged kicking and screaming through the courts before we stopped poisoning ourselves. Does that reflect the views of the British people? Does Britain have a penchant for a bit more texture in our air? Are we, as a nation, quite happy to swim through shit if it helps boost water companies’ profits? 

Recent polling found that 5 per cent of Britons would like to see our environmental protection relaxed or weakened, whilst 51 per cent would like to see them strengthened. And yet last week, we discovered that the country’s conservation watchdog, Natural England, has had their budget cut, and will “make more proportionate use of our regulatory powers” and “provide advice to government that is politically aware”. In case you don’t speak quangolese, that means weakening environmental protection. Our government clearly thinks that it can do this and get away with it, regardless of what the majority of the public wants.

There have been warm words from ministers such as Secretary of State for the Environment Andrea Leadsom, promising that Brexit will bring no reduction in environmental protection. But then last week her department revealed that the 40 per cent of our EU contribution which goes on farming subsidies to rich landowners will not, as previously promised, go to the NHS, but continue to subsidise the same rich landowners until the next decade. Brexit promises are rarely worth the Boris buses they are written on.

During the Brexit debate, George Eustace, minister for farming, food and the marine environment, described EU green directives as "spirit crushing" and called for more flexibility. The spirit being crushed is presumably that of unbridled free enterprise. One of the main motivators of euro-sceptic Tories has always been a desire to deregulate and to take back control, not for the UK electorate but for the unaccountable free market. 

But the motivations of the Tory right were not necessarily the motivations of the average Leave voter. In fact deregulation and cutting red tape didn’t feature in the top reasons people gave for  voting leave, where the number one reason was to regain sovereignty – not to increase the power of multinationals and their lobbyists. 

And so any attempt to use Brexit to remove or relax environmental protection is anti-democratic in two respects. First because this is not what Britain voted for or, according to the polls, wants. Second because this moves power from politicians who are accountable to voters, to industry lobbyists who are not. It is vitally important that we do not allow the power Brexit takes from the EU to be handed to the industry lobbyists whose clutches we were trying to escape. That’s why Greenpeace UK have launched the Laws of Nature campaign, to protect our environment from those who would use the opportunity to improve EU regulations by removing them.

The truth is that, so far, we haven’t taken back control. We’ve created a power vacuum, which someone will step into to rearrange our relationship with nature. It could be the Brexiteers, it could be the lobbyists, it could, if we’re quick, still be us.

John Sauven is Greenpeace UK's executive director.

Ukip's Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall. Photo: Getty
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Is the general election 2017 the end of Ukip?

Ukip led the way to Brexit, but now the party is on less than 10 per cent in the polls. 

Ukip could be finished. Ukip has only ever had two MPs, but it held an outside influence on politics: without it, we’d probably never have had the EU referendum. But Brexit has turned Ukip into a single-issue party without an issue. Ukip’s sole remaining MP, Douglas Carswell, left the party in March 2017, and told Sky News’ Adam Boulton that there was “no point” to the party anymore. 

Not everyone in Ukip has given up, though: Nigel Farage told Peston on Sunday that Ukip “will survive”, and current leader Paul Nuttall will be contesting a seat this year. But Ukip is standing in fewer constituencies than last time thanks to a shortage of both money and people. Who benefits if Ukip is finished? It’s likely to be the Tories. 

Is Ukip finished? 

What are Ukip's poll ratings?

Ukip’s poll ratings peaked in June 2016 at 16 per cent. Since the leave campaign’s success, that has steadily declined so that Ukip is going into the 2017 general election on 4 per cent, according to the latest polls. If the polls can be trusted, that’s a serious collapse.

Can Ukip get anymore MPs?

In the 2015 general election Ukip contested nearly every seat and got 13 per cent of the vote, making it the third biggest party (although is only returned one MP). Now Ukip is reportedly struggling to find candidates and could stand in as few as 100 seats. Ukip leader Paul Nuttall will stand in Boston and Skegness, but both ex-leader Nigel Farage and donor Arron Banks have ruled themselves out of running this time.

How many members does Ukip have?

Ukip’s membership declined from 45,994 at the 2015 general election to 39,000 in 2016. That’s a worrying sign for any political party, which relies on grassroots memberships to put in the campaigning legwork.

What does Ukip's decline mean for Labour and the Conservatives? 

The rise of Ukip took votes from both the Conservatives and Labour, with a nationalist message that appealed to disaffected voters from both right and left. But the decline of Ukip only seems to be helping the Conservatives. Stephen Bush has written about how in Wales voting Ukip seems to have been a gateway drug for traditional Labour voters who are now backing the mainstream right; so the voters Ukip took from the Conservatives are reverting to the Conservatives, and the ones they took from Labour are transferring to the Conservatives too.

Ukip might be finished as an electoral force, but its influence on the rest of British politics will be felt for many years yet. 

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