Anthony Mangnall is an adviser to Lord Hague of Richmond, before which he worked in Singapore and London as a clean petroleum product broker in the shipping industry. He was the Conservative Candidate for Warley, Birmingham in the 2017 General Election.
Michael Gove, the rather unexpected DEFRA Secretary, has quietly become the champion of wildlife activists across the land. While DEFRA may not have been his natural habitat, over the last six months he has certainly made a home for himself: his comprehensive agenda has tackled issues such as microbeads, diesel cars, and plastic bottle deposit schemes. He has also, importantly, revived the Conservative Party’s commitment to end the UK’s domestic trade of ivory.
Host to one of the world’s largest domestic ivory markets, the UK also remains the largest exporter of legal ivory in the world. Our market is fuelling demand in the Far East for ivory coming from both legal and illegal sources. With poaching levels down and seizures of illegal ivory up, there is a mentality that the battle is being won. Yet this is likely an illusion: the fall in poaching levels, once the continued mass slaughter over the past five years is taken into account, may be merely reflecting the decline of the elephant population overall. Thus there is still a job to do to choke off demand, even here in Britain
The consultation Gove recently announced offers an opportunity for NGOs, wildlife experts, and members of the public to submit evidence and proposals as to how best we should achieve the closure of the domestic ivory market. Of course, this must come with exemptions for certain objects with either historical or artistic significance, museum pieces, and older musical instruments.
While the primary objective is to close the UK’s current unregulated domestic ivory market, the political implications of doing this are far more wide-ranging. As Brexit looms ever larger over a semi-fragile government, this is exactly the type of consensus-building policy that it should be pursuing.
Why? First, the current situation in Westminster means that consensus politics has become a necessity rather than a luxury. The Government should take advantage of this and find the common ground needed to induce cross party support.
We also know from the election this year that the exclusive focus on Brexit hampered our efforts at the polls; a wider and more varied legislative programme should help broaden our appeal. Furthermore, the removal from the Conservative manifesto of ending the ivory market attracted widespread condemnation – especially as Labour had introduced it into their manifesto – and this despite our pledge for a free vote on fox hunting. But the issue of ivory offers a unique and prominent example of how Parliament can actually work together and how cross-party cohesion can achieve sensible and necessary legislation. With more than 100,000 signatures on last year’s e-petition, and two Westminster Hall debates, the message is clear that both Westminster and the public are aligned in wanting something to be done. DEFRA’s work on this should be an example to all other government departments to seek out other opportunities for such creative and consensus-based policies.
While we often self-deprecatingly whisper that the UK punches far above its weight in the world, others proclaim it loudly: according to the Portland index of soft power for 2017, the UK sits in second place worldwide. This astonishing position in the ranking should be a cause for celebration. Yet in the present circumstances we must redouble our efforts to avoid complacency. Our transition out from the EU and into the wider world accordingly presents us with challenging opportunities to continue making our deservedly significant mark on the larger stage.
The elephants surely haven’t yet forgotten our earlier precedents for this kind of concerted global action on their behalf. In 2014, the UK hosted the first Illegal Wildlife Trade (IWT) Conference at Lancaster House. We convened 46 states to discuss the IWT situation and what could be done, addressing not only the environmental issues but also the criminal syndicates that thrive off the illicit trade. From this conference, the UK was able successfully to commit 15 African states to the Elephant Protection Initiative (EPI), requiring specific action plans in each state.
Our decisive action here suggests we can still use our influence both in Europe and around the world effectively and that we still have a role to play. It has furthermore been the UK’s action on this issue that has pushed China to begin closing its ivory workshops and its domestic market. They will be watching us closely as we deal with our own market, especially in the antiques trade. As the UK has once again offered to host the IWT conference in October 2018, we must have our house in order before that autumn.
For Gove, as well he knows, the ivory issue offers an opportunity to introduce a landmark piece of British legislation away from Brexit, and to demonstrate that as a free nation state we can still influence and promote issues of international importance. In pushing through primary legislation on ivory, the UK will also remind our European friends that we will continue to address important problems in a spirit of leadership and co-operation.
Until the next election in 2022 this parliament is likely to face far great challenges and upsets than we are presently seeing. However, policies like closing the domestic ivory market offer an opportunity to take the centre ground and to introduce much needed legislation while also continuing to show our global leadership and responsibility to future generations.