Brexit camp's nasty streak could see the environment caught in referendum fallout

James S Murray

The referendum campaign is fast descending into a political streetfight, and it is only serving to highlight the huge threat the green economy faces

How bad would a post-Brexit UK look for the environmental movement? Numerous reports and commentators have already raised concerns about how leaving the EU could lead to weakened environmental legislation, policy instability, reduced clean tech investment, and pretty much everything short of plagues of locusts.

But how would the green business community and wider environmental movement be regarded if the UK votes to stand alone on the fringes of Europe? How would the political culture, the national mood music, the tectonic plates of Whitehall shift with the Brexiteers suddenly in the ascendancy? It is a question green business types would be wise to keep in mind as the referendum campaign this week continues its inexorable descent towards the gutter.

The Out campaign has already flirted with racist insinuations about the US president and deeply dubious claims about NHS funding, even before they began to steer the debate towards the home ground territory of immigration. Now the paranoia, threats, and thinly veiled desire to overthrow the Prime Minister that lies at the heart of the Brexit camp has been laid bare in Wednesday night's remarkable response from Vote Leave to ITV's admittedly imperfect plans for a Referendum TV programme featuring David Cameron and Nigel Farage.

"The establishment has tried everything from spending taxpayers money on pro-EU propaganda to funding the In campaign via Goldman Sachs," the bizarre missive raged, sounding not unlike a standard issue Telegraph comments thread. "The polls have stayed fifty fifty. They're now fixing the debates to shut out the official campaign.

"ITV is led by people like Robert Peston who campaigned for Britain to join the euro," it continued. "ITV has lied to us in private while secretly stitching up a deal with Cameron to stop Boris Johnson or Michael Gove debating the issues properly. ITV has effectively joined the official In campaign and there will be consequences for its future - the people in No 10 won't be there for long."

Needless to say ITV and Peston wholeheartedly reject the absurd charges.

In one late night statement, Vote Leave confirms what many close observers have long suspected. The Brexit campaign is fuelled by a combination of paranoia, perceived victimhood, contempt for the "establishment", conspiracy theories, and an all-consuming desire to settle scores once victory is secured. As the peerless Nick Cohen argued in a must read column this week the mendacious populism of much of the Brexit campaign is characterised by a staggering level of paranoia and penchant for conspiracy theories, which results in a rather elastic relationship with the truth.

Why is any of this of concern to the green economy? Because if the UK does vote to leave the EU the culture war that will be unleashed will have potentially grave implications for many of those who regard themselves as environmentalists, both in the short, medium, and long term.

In the short term there is a very real fear the ominous warning targeted at ITV - "there will be consequences for its future - the people in No 10 won't be there for long" - could just as easily have been aimed at others who oppose Vote Leave, including green NGOs and blue chip firms.

Of course, threats such as this could yet prove hollow. The UK may vote to leave the EU, but it is not voting to change the government. There are no guarantees "the people in No 10" will be turfed out immediately, just as there are no guarantees they will be smoothly replaced with Vote Leave staffers impatiently flicking through their shit list. Even if Cameron does go you would hope an out campaign that majors on the primacy of democracy would put its policy programme before the electorate at a general election before trying to enact it.

But there is no doubt Brexit strengthens the hand of the Eurosceptic, and often climate sceptic, wing of the Conservative Party. As I've argued before, at a policy level Vote Leave's vague suggestion that Brexit will lead to lower energy bills implies they are keen to scrap renewables and climate goals, while its relative silence on environmental issues makes it clear they are anything but a priority.

Consequently, in the medium term Brexit brings with it the risk of massive environmental policy disruption and the increased chance that this disruption will culminate in weaker and less ambitious green legislation.

But it is not just the inevitable policy shake up and the prospect of post-referendum scores being settled that should give environmentalists pause for thought.

One of the rarely commented upon consequences of Brexit will be the slaying of Euro-sceptics' perennial Brussels bogeyman. Eventually, once the interminable exit negotiations are completed, the right wing of British politics will suddenly be shorn of the one institution it could always blame for pretty much any and all of the country's ills.

This will create a vacancy, because every populist political movement needs its scapegoats. This vacancy will have to be filled and looking at the track record of Vote Leave's leading lights it is clear who the prime candidates will be: anyone who can be characterised as part of an 'elite', any group you can apply the term 'blob' to, and anyone who can be spun as a threat to good old British values. In no particular order, blue chip firms, trade unions, immigrants, any dissenting ‘liberal' media, and anyone who can be characterised as part of ‘the establishment' can all expect to be in the firing line. And, of course, they will be joined by environmentalists - or ‘the Green Blob' as one leading Brexiteer looking for someone to blame for the badger-induced end of his ministerial career once memorably described them.

There are legitimate reasons to want to vote to leave the EU, but this increasingly nasty and now vindictive campaign demonstrates that Brexit would come with a raft of unpalatable consequences. On top of the economic disruption, the environmental policy uncertainty, and the likely investment hiatus, Brexit would reward the coarsening of UK political discourse, accelerate the Trumpification of our political campaigning, and likely land green organisations in the crosshairs of politicians nursing grievances and looking for scapegoats. How bad would a post-Brexit UK look for environmental movement? Pretty bad.

More on Politics

Queen's Speech: Government promises to 'build on the success of the COP26 Summit'

Queen's Speech: Government promises to 'build on the success of the COP26 Summit'

But Greenpeace accuses the Prime Minister of "throwing in the towel on some of the biggest challenges our country faces"

James Murray
clock 10 May 2022 • 9 min read
Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves Downing Street for the Queens Speech | Credit: Creative Commons / Number 10

'Thin gruel': The green economy reacts to the Queen's Speech

Green business figures, politicians, academics and campaign groups deliver give their verdict on the government's legislative agenda for the coming year

BusinessGreen staff
clock 10 May 2022 • 14 min read
The Queen's Speech is expected to set out plans for an Energy Bill to underpin the government's Energy Security Strategy

'Remove barriers': Opportunities and risks for green economy, as government preps Queen's Speech reboot

Queen's Speech expected to include new Energy Bill and latest wave of planning reforms, as Boris Johnson faces mounting pressure to tackle cost of living crisis

James Murray
clock 09 May 2022 • 8 min read