‘The sea is in my blood. My father made his living as a fish merchant, as did his father before him. Generations of Goves have gone to sea, harvested its riches and fed families with the healthiest — and most renewable — resource on the planet, our fish.‘
So begins Michael Gove’s passionate call to arms, inspired by Blue Planet II, to save the oceans from mankind. Gove is one of the most intellectually original people in politics, and a very likeable man. But if British politics is a box set series, he also has the best character arc of any politician – like Jaime Lannister after he loses his hand or Prez in The Wire when he becomes a teacher, Gove always seems to be developing and surprising the audience.
Maybe it’s all just PR but since his appointment in June he has transformed into a ‘full-throated environmentalist’, banning ivory sales, taking renewed action on plastic bottles, making plans for CCTV in slaughterhouses and increased penalties for animal cruelty.
Gove started out in government as a shrewd and determined education secretary, with Dominic Cummings as his chief of staff. After a spell as a reforming justice minister he then took a leading role in the Vote Leave campaign before famously stabbing Boris Johnson in the ninth episode of the series. At the time that struck me as demented, but in retrospect I think it was a genuine act of patriotism, sparring us from having as prime minister someone completely unworthy of high office.
And now he’s become a full-on green. I appreciate that environmental policy is littered with unintended consequences and it’s not simple, but allowing the Left to dominate the issue of saving the planet was one of the biggest mistakes conservatives made in the late 20th century. One of the central points of conservatism is future-orientation: it doesn’t matter how much the Twitterati despise you, what’s important is that your great-grandchildren admire and appreciate the labours that made their world. Indeed if fashionable opinion is on your side you’re probably doing it wrong.
And yet, compared to the health of our planet, all other issues of posterity are almost meaningless. Instead the Right has cultivated a petrolhead image that goes against everything we normally stand for, solely because cars are convenient for the demographic most likely to support conservatives – reasonably well-off men. Cars pollute the environment, they make cities ugly, encourage aggression and bad manners, and ruin community spirit by making the streets unsafe for children. Our road was closed off over the summer because of underwater pipe work and for a precious few weeks it belonged to the children; I felt so much like I was in the 1950s I was tempted to send my eight-year-old down to the shops to get me some Woodbines.
The one conservative benefit cars have is that they make a traditionally aristocratic lifestyle available to the masses, another quality shared by cheap air travel. I appreciate that, and approve of it, and also see that green taxes may increase the cost of living, and so disproportionately hurt the poor; but I also think this is a disingenuous argument for conservatives. If you’re really opposed to fuel duty or organic food because they reduce equality or harm the less well-off, you could offset them with a more progressive tax system or other forms of redistribution. If that was really your concern. Of course the rich are less affected by these costs, but then the rich are also less affected by environmental disaster, while the poor suffer most. Their children are less likely to be found in school playgrounds next to main roads choked with car pollution.
I agree with many conservatives that finger-wagging over the environment sometimes grates, but maybe this time the issue at hand actually matters. Really, really matters. Like the environment secretary, I was moved by Blue Planet II, perhaps the most powerful and disturbing nature documentary ever made; if we don’t respond with all our collective effort and energy to man-made environmental catastrophe our great-grandchildren will never forgive us, cursing their forebears with every strained breath.