What follows is a portrait of Michael Gove - the methods, the man, the mango - through three news stories in 2018.
It's grouse shooting season, and though most of us will not have bagged any grice, a lucrative industry exists around the hobby, which sees an estimated 700, 000 of the birds shot each year. The practice has a range of environmental consequences, from the collateral shooting of other wildlife to habitat damage, decline in species such as mountain hares and hen harriers, and massive carbon dioxide emission from burning heather.
A campaign group's FOI request revealed that Gove met with owners of grouse moors and encouraged them to make a voluntary (non-binding) "commitment" (yes I'm doing plenty with my punctuation, enjoy) to end heather-burning, so the government could fend off a compulsory ban on the back of an EC investigation into its potential infraction of european environment law. Two of those attending the meeting were Tory donors.
This chat between friends was the scene of a particularly blantant statement of intent from a government which, with reverse performativity, will "demonstrate its intent" to act, to ensure that action will never take place.
This early stage in the portrait reveals a politician of impervious dishonesty, barely bothering to cover his tracks, but I can't think of a time when members of this government have faced consequences for telling lies.
2. He sold us a pup*
"a)The definition of “sentience”;
b)The definition of “animal”;
c)The definition of “welfare needs of animals”;
d)The definition of the phrase, “Ministers of the Crown should have regard to”;
e)The scope of the legislation, i.e. whether it should apply to all policy areas;"
meaning that if passed it could have led to a chaos of unproductive legal challenges of literally anything on animal welfare grounds, all without offering meaningful protection to animals.
The committee noted that while Gove had at one point made headlines by talking big about how leaving the EU would allow us to reform the breeding and trade of puppies, the proposed bill didn't include any measures pertaining to these "professed objectives." Its limited scope and lack of accountability mechanisms were criticised, and it was added that the "symbolic" intention of the Bill "to reinforce that the government recognises sentience in(some) animals was probably unnecessary," as precedent for this already exists in British law.
Now I see a former Minister for Education lacking in the most basic academic or ministerial competence, and a windbag bloated with empty promises and specious justifications. But I also wonder to what extent Gove's ineptitude is a deliberate form of planned obsolescence in his own laws, and how much comes down to laziness and indifference.
3. Promises, promises
As the boss at DEFRA, Gove has a significant role to play in warding off the apocalypse, which bodes well. At the start of this year the Government put out a 25 year environment plan, setting out policies on sustainable farming, landscape preservation, increased efficiency, reduced waste, marine and global environmental protection, amidst a rhetoric of nationalist schmaltz.
In January Gove promised to reform the current system of agricultural subsidies for landowners (including grouse moor owners), payments which are primarily based on the amount of land owned rather than the use made of it. This is an area where leaving the EU is an opportunity for massive improvement. By June he was rowing back, suggesting that he would reduce subsidies for all farmers rather than put caps on payments to large landowners. If Gove was in any way committed to reform - to redirecting subsidies towards environmental good practice, to protecting and restoring wildlife - it's not clear why he's cronying up with large landowners who gain most from dysfunctional subsidies, and scheming to protect heather-burning.
Perhaps it's not the hottest take to suggest that Gove is systematically disingenuous, or that his stupidities merge seamlessly with his cunning. These three stories from this year show a consistent strategy of using vague language in the service of anti-feasance. Gove isn't the first to use words about the environment and animal welfare to make himself more palatable. This practice is yet another way of treating animals and the natural world as an exploitable resource, not just for profit but for soothing ideas and vacuous, consoling lies.