Today’s launch of the government’s ’red tape’ consultation is a classic. There are three types of consultation. One is where the government is obliged to hold such an exercise, knows the likely result, but has not the slightest intention of taking account of it (e.g. on GM or nuclear). A second is where the results are mixed, the government adopts what it’s already committed to, and ignores the rest. The third, of which the ‘red tape’ consultation is a good example, is a sort of agent provocateur exercise where the government wants to do something extremely controversial, but needs to incite sections of the population (in this case farmers and businesses) to get the backing to override strong anticipated resistance. Having said before the election that this would be the greenest government ever, Cameron after the election obviously wants to show to his supporters that it will actually be the brownest.
Two things stand out about this consultation. Laws and regulations designed to protect the ecosphere, on which human life depends, are regarded by Cameron and (to his shame) Cable as ‘red tape’. And even if environmental regulation is one of the main targets, the most important and essential environmental Acts – like the Climate Change Act, the Clean Air Act, the National Parks Acts, and the Wildlife and Countryside Act (passed in 1981 by the Thatcher government) – could well have been omitted as non-negotiable. That they were not shows how far-reaching this attack on the environment is intended to be.
Whatever the surface rhetoric to gain votes, Tories have always deep-down regarded the environment as an opportunity for profitable exploitation, not as a heritage to be safeguarded by proper stewardship for the benefit of all. Where was DEFRA in all this? The Secretary of State, Caroline Spelman, surely the feeblest member of the Cabinet, has already shown herself unfit for purpose by campaigning for the sell-off of Britain’s forests, a crass misjudgement for which a Cameron U-turn was necessary to rescue her from herself (or as we may find in the reshuffle after the local elections, enough to sink her).
After Clegg on tuition fees and the VAT rise, and Osborne on winter fuel allowances for the elderly, a Cameron-Cable imitation of Bush-Cheney on environmental degradation is surely the last word on political betrayal.