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Margaret Thatcher's Focus on Environmental Issues that LED to a Major Change in UK's Agenda

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In office, 1979-1992, a major change came with Margaret Thatcher´s `conversion´ following her reading of a paper on global warming and a major speech in September 1988 to the Royal Society. She followed this with an address to the UN General Assembly in November 1989, when she called for protocols on ozone depletion, climate change and the preservation of plant species. She wanted half of Britain´s waste recycled by the end of the century and urged international cooperation based on free trade. The Prime minister was clearly out to claim a leading role, as a scientist as well as a world leader, and in 1989 invited representatives of 120 countries to London to discuss depletion of the ozone layer.

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The Tories would claim environmental credentials they campaigned against whaling, favored lead free petrol and began to clamp down on Sellafield emissions and subsidies for intensive farming. It was reported later, after the Green´s success in the 1989 European elections, the Prime Minister had `secretly instructed three ministers-Chris Patten, Lynda Chalker and David Trippier to get green issues off the agenda by the next general election; they did it with a judicious blend of fair words, personal decency, and small (but well hyped) policy changes´ (Geoffrey Lean in The Independent, 23 May 1995).

Thatcher´s claims came under scrutiny: Britain´s earlier blocking of CFC bans, its worsening rivers, toxic waste imports and the lack of action on acid rain. Like most pressure groups in this period, the environmental ones were excluded from policy making and were not invited to her seminars, still less the cabinet committee she chaired on green issues. Doubts were expressed about her belief that privatization of electricity would assist cleansing and after a year the environmentalists contrasted progress on one and a half issues against failure on twenty-seven from sea dumping, toxic waste imports (up 50 %) and aid to developing countries. The seemingly easy `free market´ solution that the polluter should pay, embraced by Environment Secretary Chris Patten, began to become unstuck. Condemned as `socialism by the back door´ and the ministers responsible for privatizing water and electricity realized the financial and political costs for passing on the price of a clean up to the consumer.

Initiatives on energy efficiency were scrapped. The Prime Minister´s UK 2000 project, launched with film of her picking up litter and intended to stimulate green thinking, ended after a year. An attempt to have Whitehall use recycled paper was dropped because it would triple prices, and when the white paper Our Common Inheritance appeared, it was condemned as platitudes based on encouragement, with the ideas of Professor Pearce about tax polluting dropped. The120-clause Environmental Protection Bill gave new powers to councils to control pollution in their areas. After a year the pressure groups could point to an absence of resources, targets and results.

After a blunder by John Gummer, the Agricultural secretary, which implied that he would inherit pollution powers, John Major announced in 1991 that a new green `police´ would exist when regulation was consolidated. But the threat had gone from the green impetus of 1989, when Michael Heseltine condemned the government´s lack of urgency. In the 1992 election, Heseltine, now Environment Secretary, was claiming a world lead on the subject, with the 1990 Act and the addition of £36 million to recycling and protection forming `a green revolution in government´. But shortly after, the Transport Secretary was saying new roads were good for the environment, Baroness Chalker expressed her anger at the decline in the aid budget of 0.27% of gross national product, the Treasury cut out key specific jobs on conservation, and the Green Bill, with its news agency, was dropped from the Queen´s speech at the opening of Parliament.

In economic and political trouble in the autumn of 1992, the Conservative government began to backtrack on promises made at the Rio Summit on its aid budget, on `green farming´, on the work of the Renewable Energy Advisory Group and on energy conservation; in October the government was being threatened by the European Court again over pollution. Their white paper that month looked to `market forces´ to work for the environment, and John Major´s pledge to keep the Forestry Commission in the public sector was explained away as incorrect, `hurried´ election draft. While John Gummer at the Department of the Environment was increasingly enthusiastic and Kenneth Clarke introduced a genuinely green tax, on landfill, the Treasury and DTI and big Business lobbyists were stronger in their non-interventionism.

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