Theme: Public Policy | Content Type: Digested Read

The Politics of the British Environment since 1945

Matthew Kelly



| 7 mins read

Does the environment have a political history? The snap answer is ‘yes’. The environmental activist immediately comes to mind: counter-cultural, middle class, moralising and scruffy. As with all clichés, there is some truth in this one, but it hardly does justice to how environmentalism has transformed British politics. Environmentalism has helped refashion the state and the relationship between government and citizen, generating new rights-based claims and expectations. Once we grasp the significance of environmental thinking to British politics since 1945, the question to ask is: what kind of politics will be produced by the success or failure of the current transition away from the carbon economy and towards a renewable future?

Emplacing ‘the Great Acceleration’

The publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 is generally cited as a catalyst for the new environmental politics, but it didn’t come out of the blue. The UK edition intensified an already lively debate over ‘the Second Agricultural Revolution’, while local or domestic perspectives were shaped by global concerns, including the consequences of atmospheric pollution and animal extinctions. This new environmental consciousness can be attributed to growing apprehension of ‘the Great Acceleration’, the term used to describe the exponential increase in the consumption of natural resources and pollution that was central to postwar economic growth.

Work is needed to unpick the impact North Sea oil and gas speculation had on this alarmist discourse, but ‘degrowthism’ has been a common theme for environmentalists. Domestic environmental disasters, with their ramifying consequences, also focused minds. The devastating consequences of the collapse of a coal waste tip at Aberfan in South Wales in 1966 highlighted the environmental vulnerability of minoritised communities. Adjacent fears about nuclear apocalypse were reinforced by accidents at Nine Mile Island (1979) and Chernobyl (1986), though the Windscale nuclear disaster in Cumbria (1957) deserves more historical attention.

These environmental disasters highlight how social democracy’s sponsorship of the infrastructure, technologies and practices required to deliver universalist provision has an environmental history that cannot be separated from our current crisis. The coal mined at Aberfan and the ‘cheap food’ policies that drove agricultural intensification were essential components of the commodity flows that enabled postwar improvements in the standard of living. Delivering universalist goals, including full employment, created a heavy dependence on the carbon economy, and the construction of much land and resource-hungry infrastructure. The growth of ‘carbon democracy’ made social democratic or liberal oil-importing countries like Britain complicit in the survival of authoritarian oil-producing states.

Landscape preservation and carbon democracy

To emplace carbon democracy historically, we must consider how the development of industrial modernity and modern citizenship saw the strengthening of the idea that the environment constituted a form of public goods. In postwar Britain, environmental management came to be seen as the duty of the government and agencies of the central state. This development was accelerated by the emergence of the ‘science of planning’ in the interwar years, which attested to faith in the state to improve living environments and industrial efficiencies. The Town and Country Planning Act of 1947 was the first of several postwar planning acts to empower local governments. Less noticed by historians of the ‘New Jerusalem’ was the passage of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act in 1949, which led to the establishment of the National Parks Commission which was responsible for designating National Parks. A generation later, the Heath government attempted to rationalise processes and structures that had caused a lot of political conflict, such as the siting of reservoirs, by creating arms-length bodies. It hoped the new National Park boards might minimise political conflict by producing five-year management plans based on public consultation, and new regional water boards could deliver water security through long-term planning at scale. These actions reflected and created new expectations of the state among the citizenry.

In the 1980s and 1990s, plans to cut roads through rural landscapes inspired a new generation of activists focused on ecological issues. It would be wrong, however, to imagine that ecological thinking had not been a component of the postwar state. In 1949 the Attlee government established the Nature Conservancy by Royal Charter, whose role was to commission research, advise the government on the implications of policy for the natural world, notify the planning authorities of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) under their jurisdiction and designate National Nature Reserves. Notifying SSSI became the principal tool at the disposal of the British nature state.

The environmental effectiveness of these statutory instruments and accompanying regulations depended on the sufficient resourcing of the agencies tasked with enforcing them. The Environment Agency and Natural England, the Nature Conservancy’s latest successor body, are often criticised by environmentalists, but their current failings partly reflect their lack of funding since the 2008 financial crash. Little SSSI notification or adequate monitoring has occurred since, nor have other obligations been met. In 2023, the Natural England become more interventionist, provoking a backlash from agricultural and landed vested interests.

A renewable democracy?

In recent years, the link between the politics of access and environmentalism has been renewed. The tactics of Extinction Rebellion have attracted most attention, but the post-Covid revival of access campaigning has touched a deeper, quieter seam of sentiment in British society. Common cause has been made with veteran campaigners like Kate Ashbrook and the Ramblers’ Association, but just as significant is the @Muslim_Hikers, founded by Haroon Mota, which has helped make the movement more diverse than ever.

At the same time, a new generation of environmentalists has been excited by the rewilding agenda, which provides radical solutions for those who have learned to see the harm done to human and more-than-human nature by industrial pollution, intensive agriculture and professional forestry. The enormity of climate change and the sixth great extinction means it is fast becoming scarcely meaningful to write about any aspect of contemporary British politics without centring the necessary imminence of a just transition from today’s ‘carbon democracy’ to, shall we say, tomorrow’s ‘renewable democracy’.

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    Matthew Kelly

    Matthew Kelly is Professor of Modern History in the Department of Humanities, Northumbria University.

    Articles by Matthew Kelly