Rebuilding Britain's Environment Outside the EU

The Environmental Case for Brexit

Book Review by Fawzi Ibrahim

Britain is and always has been a global leader in international environmental policy and law; and it can do even better now we are out of the EU. This is the striking message from Ben Pontin, author of The Environmental Case for Brexit, a non-polemic book whose purpose, says the author is to allay the fears of those who think that the EU is the only guarantor to environmental protection.

Taking ‘a broader socio-legal context’, Pontin explains the unique ‘British way’ of protecting the environment. He acknowledges the genuine concern expressed by environmentalists, concerns that have been manipulated and misrepresented by general media outlets during and after the 2016 referendum campaign, the purpose of which is to prove that that the UK is incapable of functioning as an independent sovereign nation. Though Brexit has been secured, attempts to undermine the British nation continues, the latest being the clamour for a second referendum on Scottish independence.

The ‘British way’ writes Pontin, distinguished the UK from those countries that invented the European Economic Community and embraced ‘some kind of supra-nationalism’. Whilst they too had their own ways of doing environmental law, they were more willing than Britain to treat environmental law as something new to be treated with suspicion.


Britain, by contrast, ‘empathised it embeddedness in national heritage’. This point was highlighted in the speech Peter Walker, the Secretary of State for the Environment gave at the Human Environment Conference in Stockholm in 1972. Britain, he said ‘had the world’s most established regulatory laws regarding industrial pollution control and nature conservation, the foundation of which were laid by Parliament at Westminster in Victorian times’.

These laws [gave] the expression to the ethics of “good stewardship” and the “good neighbour”. They constituted a ‘dynamic mix of “public law” and “private law”, written or unwritten’.

Pontin argues that ‘the British way is an evolutionary process that is rooted years, decades and even centuries prior to Britain’s entry to the European Community’. Conservation and protection of the environment did not depend on which party was in power. ‘Politics and laws in the 1970s would bear fruit in reduced waste in the future’.

Air quality is a case in point. ‘The smoke control areas under the Clean Air Act of 1956 were designed to be implemented incrementally over many decades as cleaner alternatives to the traditional open domestic fire became available.’ The seeds of that legislation, Pontin emphasises, ‘were the air Bills put forward before Parliament in Victorians times’.

Similarly, for water quality. The difficulty with the “EU good” water parameter, Pontin notes ‘is that it is unrealistically rigid’. In contrast, the “British good” yardstick is ‘more incremental and pragmatic’ and therefore more efficient. Nature preservation tells the same story.

Pontin questions the narrative that Britain was the “Dirty man of Europe” and needed its ways mended by the discipline of the EU. This he says, ‘does not withstand scrutiny’.


In conclusion, Pontin writes ‘my analysis leans towards the desirability of the British way independent of the EU’. His argument is based on four main points: simplicity, accountability, autonomy and the lack of a compelling reason for Britain to be part of a common environmental policy and law.

He ends the book with a question posed by Lord Diplock during a House of Lords Select Committee hearing back in 1979: ‘The environment is protected domestically. Why hand over, if only partly, to a new jurisdiction?

The Environmental Case for Brexit - Book Cover

The Environmental Case for Brexit,
Hart Publishing, 2019
by Ben Pontin