The accidental activist? Michael Gove makes surprising moves

Earlier this month, Action for Elephants held a silent vigil for elephants and rhinos in Parliament Square. Picture: Bel Jacobs.

Earlier this month, Action for Elephants held a silent vigil for elephants and rhinos in Parliament Square. Picture: Bel Jacobs.


Four months after being appointed environment secretary, Michael Gove MP has become an unexpected environmental activist. Yes, you heard right. And, no, this is not a parallel universe.

We share your scepticism. This is, after all, the man who, as education secretary, tried to remove climate change from the curriculum in 2013 (amongst other things, including taking the country to an ill-judged Brexit referendum).

At the time of his appointment, Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas said it was hard to “think of many politicians as ill-equipped for the role of environment secretary”.

Nonetheless, since July, Mr Gove’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has been turning things over - in a positive way - with plans to cut down on plastic waste in the oceans; to install CCTV into all slaughterhouses to prevent the seemingly ritual abuse of animals who die for their meat and to increase maximum sentences for animal cruelty from six months to five years.

He paved the way for reform with a speech in July this year.

Speaking at an event hosted by conservation charity WWF, the MP for Surrey Heath criticised US President Donald Trump for pulling out of the Paris agreement on climate change and name-checked Pulitzer Prize-winning academic Jared Diamond’s forces that lead to civilisational destruction: “deforestation and habitat destruction; soil problems such as erosion, salinization and soil fertility losses; water management problems; overhunting; overfishing; and the effects of introduced species on native species."

Gove and his dog Snowy. Picture: David Parry/PA Wire

Gove and his dog Snowy. Picture: David Parry/PA Wire

He said: “I am an environmentalist first because I care about the fate of fellow animals, and I draw inspiration from nature and I believe that we need beauty in our lives as much as we need food and shelter.”

“I am also an environmentalist because of hard calculation . . . We need to maintain and enhance the natural world around us, or find ourselves facing disaster.”

On animal welfare, Gove, added: "I want to see higher standards across the board of animal welfare. We need to take action to tackle the trade in illegal ivory, improve scrutiny of what happens in our abattoirs, move on circus animals and examine the future of live animal exports. Cruelty towards animals driven by man’s worst exploitative instincts needs to be met with the full force of the law.”

And here, finally, was Gove’s view of a ‘Green Brexit’: “When we speak as a Government of Global Britain, it is not just as a leader in security or an advocate for freer trade that we should conceive of our global role but also a champion of sustainable development, an advocate for global social justice, a leader in environmental science, a setter of gold standards in protecting and growing natural capital, an innovator in clean, green, growth and an upholder of the moral imperative to hand over our planet to the next generation in a better condition than we inherited it.”

Initial responses were cynical, along the lines of ‘talk is cheap’ - or, as John Sauven, head of Greenpeace UK put it: “The key issue will be how much Gove is able to translate his positive overtures into concrete outcomes.”

The government’s air quality plan, published in July, went down like a lead balloon; “little more than a shabby rewrite of previous draft plans,” said ClientEarth, the law firm that has taken the government to court over the issue.

Nonetheless, with the announcement of a ban on the sale of ivory on October 5th - a major breakthrough for the beleaguered pachyderm - Gove has pretty much done what he said he’d do in that July speech.

Stop the suffering: ban live exports.

Stop the suffering: ban live exports.

There is, of course, so, so much more, not least banning live exports and reforming the sticky post-Brexit stew that is the Common Agricultural Policy.

In the meantime, could Michael Gove, son of an Aberdeenshire fish merchant, be the radical voice everyone has been hoping for? For now - on behalf of the beaten pigs, the slaughtered elephants, the tortured puppies and the oceans roiling in plastic waste - he will have to be.