Christopher Booker: New Environment Minister Has A Fight On His Hands
Congratulations to all those green campaigners who were quick to spot what could turn out to be the most significant of all the new appointments in last week’s ministerial reshuffle. While media attention was largely focused elsewhere, all the usual suspects, from the BBC to The Guardian, were seething with indignation over David Cameron’s surprising choice of Owen Paterson, the “unknown Cabinet minister”, to head the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
As the greenies noted that Paterson had been outspokenly critical of wind farms and renewable energy subsidies, and equally keen to speak up for shale gas, GM crops and badger culling, The Guardian’s George Monbiot, at his moonbattiest, decreed that his promotion was “a declaration of war on the environment”.
As usual, however, the greenies missed the wider picture. The reason why for years Paterson has been off the political radar is that he was tucked away in Northern Ireland, where, as a trenchant Eurosceptic, he was kept quiet with a brief as unconnected with the EU as possible. But his new ministry is at the opposite extreme. In almost all it does, from agriculture and fisheries to waste management and water, Defra has long been little more than a front office for Brussels.
The point about Paterson is that he is in fact uniquely qualified for his new post. Not only is he a countryman heavily involved in the rural scene, he is also one of the few senior politicians with experience of the real world outside the Westminster bubble (he was formerly a leading figure in the European leather trade). If he is sceptical, he is a pragmatic sceptic. He looks carefully at how something works in practice, and if he concludes that it doesn’t justify the fashionable claims being made by those blinded by ideology into promoting it, he does not hesitate to say so.
Years ago, Mr Paterson featured regularly in this column because he was the most diligently effective shadow spokesman on farming and fisheries the Tory party had had for decades. When he broke a parliamentary record by putting down 600 carefully researched questions on the link between badgers and the bovine TB that was decimating our dairy industry, it was because he wanted to establish the scientific facts being obscured by the spin of a Government in thrall to the sentimental animal rights lobby. When he produced a paper on what might practically be done to rescue fishermen and fish stocks from the ecological disaster being created by the Common Fisheries Policy, even environmentalists hailed it as the most sensible study of the subject ever written.
It is the same attention to hard evidence that has led him to be sceptical about almost every aspect of the Brussels-led policies which for years have emasculated Defra into dutiful compliance with measures that make no practical sense, from the damage they have done to British agriculture and the obsession with “renewable energy” to the absurd way we mismanage our waste and our water resources (it was his predecessor Caroline Spelman who meekly went along with the EU’s urging that we should meet the prospect of climate change-induced droughts by not building any more reservoirs).
The brief Mr Paterson has been given, according to Downing Street, is to revive Britain’s hard-pressed rural economy. What he is determined to do is push for a wholesale return to policies that make practical common sense, in light of the facts rather than misguided ideology. If he tries to do that in all the directions his pragmatic instincts lead him to, he will inevitably find himself up against opposition and constraints on all sides – not just from the EU and its house-trained acolytes in his own department but also from other ministers, notably those in the Department of Energy and Climate Change. Nowhere is this battle likely to be fiercer than over those useless wind farms and the vast reserves of cheap shale gas, which could offer Britain an even brighter energy future than that promised in the 1970s by the North Sea, as Paterson has been well-briefed to grasp, not least by his brother-in-law Matt Ridley. Thanks to the fact that the regulation of shale gas was given to the Environment Agency, answering to Defra, he can now call the shots on this issue in a way that those who hoped it could thus be parked on the back burner never imagined.
Mr Paterson has indeed got a fight on his hands. If he fails in his drive to bring about the most radical shake-up in Defra’s orientation for decades, he will at least have demonstrated where those problems lie, which are in so many ways constraining the lives of all those affected by its vast range of activities. He – and the rest of us – are in for what promises to be an exhilarating, if unnerving, ride.