Opinion: A Green Brexit is possible

“Rebuilding local production is an action which will simultaneously make us less vulnerable to the ever-growing vicissitudes of the deteriorating global climate as global just-in-time supply chains are increasingly fragile.” Emma Dawnay and Rupert Read of think tank Green House argue, in a newly published report, that it is time for Britain to seek a Brexit that will really take back control.

Harvested apples in autumn
Harvested apples in autumn
Rupert Read and Emma Dawnay

The opinions expressed in this feature are solely those of the authors. We welcome readers’ responses to this feature.

The Cummings (aka Johnson) administration is probably deliberately seeking to drive the UK over a cliff into a ‘no deal’ Brexit. Wringing our hands about this is pointless. Since the general election, Brexit is actually happening. Our task now is to work towards it sooner or later being a good one, a green one.

This hard-Brexit, hard-right government is seeking to race to the bottom in making ‘trade treaties’ with far-flung nations around the world (most notably of course Trump's America) – tending to increase our ecological footprint (and cancel much-needed regulations that protect both our health and nature) at the very moment that that footprint desperately needs reducing.

Once this strategy has failed – and it likely won’t take long before we see both dire ecological and economic effects from the Brexit-trade farrago we are about to enter into – then the way will be clear for a better version of Brexit, which could be a key election issue in 2024. Or indeed, maybe much sooner than that.

The key to a green Brexit is the principle, central to our report, that rather than seeking to race to the bottom in a rush to ‘open Britain’ by throwing out regulations and selling off our public services like the NHS, we need to make being outside the EU work by seeking to relocalise. Taking, finally, the principle of subsidiarity seriously: bringing about a bioregional economy, and ensuring we have the strategic industries that we need. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has taught us plainly that our strategic industries are not those in which we have a comparative advantage (as wrongly expounded by neoclassical economic theory), but rather those that we need to supply us with essential goods in times of crises (which are likely to be most times, from now on).

Johnson has just said about a trade deal with Australia: "I want a world in which we send you Marmite and you send us Vegemite". We propose a Brexit in which British industries can supply our key workers with face masks, and our citizens with food (and toilet rolls), but not one in which Marmite and Vegemite pointlessly cross each other in travelling to the other side of the world.

Of course, we are not suggesting that we cut ourselves off from the world. As we have learnt from the coronavirus pandemic, we must help each other, internationally, especially in times of crisis. We must share scientific knowledge and engineering know-how, whether it be for vaccines or how to produce renewable energy. And we must help each other out when disaster strikes, in particular with food and medical support.

But the way we could be outside the EU and this not be an eco-disaster is if we use the opportunity to rebuild local production for local needs – in particular if we seek to achieve the crucial goal of food sovereignty – whilst drastically reducing imports. This is the opposite to the Johnson/Cummings ‘Global Britain’ in which global trade is always encouraged despite the fact that imported goods often only out-compete home produce because the climate ‘cost’ of carbon for shipping and aviation is not accounted for and goods are made in counties with lower environmental standards and fewer worker protections. 

Rebuilding local production is an action that will simultaneously make us less vulnerable to the ever-growing vicissitudes of the deteriorating global climate as global just-in-time supply chains become increasingly fragile.

This goal, of having a food system that is secure and within our own compass, will require us eating seasonally, eating lower on the food chain, drastically reducing food waste, and letting more people get back onto the land.

Then we’ll actually realise the promise of the otherwise ludicrously-misleading slogan: ‘Take back control’.

This is an agenda that makes clear and obvious eco-sense. It is a practicable way of pursuing the ideology our time so desperately needs, ecologism.

It is an agenda that can also appeal to the ‘Left’ by way of reducing our exploitation of the Global South and rebuilding our offshored industries (such as IT-manufacturing, medical supplies-production and even much recycling). And it can appeal to the ‘Right’ by way of actually being serious about ‘taking back control’, rather than allowing our country to be controlled by multinationals and unreliable foreign leaders.

To conclude, in the terrible situation we are in, of an imminent rubbish Brexit while public attention is still understandably preoccupied by the coronavirus crisis, it is no good Greens just sitting around being sad or expressing aimless anger; the situation makes action to secure our future against the threat of bad trade deals more urgent than ever. In other words, we have to switch attention to making Brexit work.

And this can be done. Johnson and Cummings won’t do it. But if we start propagandising now for a green Brexit – a Brexit that radically relocalises, gives us food sovereignty, reverses the harmful effects of the offshoring of our industry, and thereby reduces the incredibly-damaging effects (on communities and climate alike) of the mad torrent of global trade – then, in the next few years, or certainly later this decade, perhaps as food crises by way of climate chaos hit harder, we can implement a way of being outside the EU that works. One that stops us unsustainably draining food (and resources, and skilled labour, and ecological space) from the rest of the world. Another Brexit is possible. 

The report Another Brexit is Possible is available to be downloaded for free (or a hard copy can be ordered via the Green House website)

Rupert Read is former Chair of Green House, a former Councillor and national spokesperson for the Green Party, and an expert on the Precautionary Principle.

Emma Dawnay is a core member of Green House and an active Green Party member in Wiltshire.