Sam Hall is a senior researcher at Bright Blue and author of Green conservatives? Understanding how conservatives think about the environment.
Concern for the environment should be at the heart of conservative thinking. Central to the philosophy of Edmund Burke, widely regarded as one of the fathers of modern conservatism, is the idea that society is a partnership between the generations: the dead, the living, and the yet to born owe to each other a responsibility. Careful stewardship of our environment is one of the principal realisations of this intergenerational debt: the need to preserve the environment that we inherit and pass it on to the future.
And for decades, Conservative leaders in the UK have consistently applied this principle: Margaret Thatcher become one of the first world leaders to talk about climate change with her 1989 speech to the UN; John Major’s Government created a new national forest in the Midlands; and David Cameron’s Conservatives announced the closure of Britain’s remaining coal-fired power stations. But despite this, there are some high-profile conservative voices that are sceptical of environmental policies, particularly those that seek to mitigate emissions that cause climate change.
Today, Bright Blue has published a new report which unearths and analyses in detail the views of British Conservative voters on the environment. Protecting the environment is rarely going to be people’s most pressing political issue. Indeed only ten per cent of Conservatives say it is one of the top three issues facing them and their family. But, if you scratch beneath the surface, there is in fact a deep underlying concern about environmental issues. We found 70 per cent of Conservatives are concerned about the impacts of climate change, with a roughly similar proportion (71 per cent) worried about the state of the UK’s natural environment (forests, rivers, wildlife, and so on).
At a time when there’s a climate-sceptic Republican President in the White House reversing American climate action, our polling reveals most British Conservatives (60 per cent) accept the scientific consensus that climate change is happening and is mostly caused by human activity. Indeed, this was the majority position of all types of Conservatives: young and old, Remain-voting and Leave-voting, men and women. Actually, 71 per cent of Conservatives express pride in the UK being a leader on tackling climate change with our world-first 2008 Climate Change Act, which was passed on a cross-party basis.
Under the Coalition Government, the share of Britain’s power that comes from renewable energy has increased from nine per cent in 2011 to 25 per cent in 2015. Conservatives in our polling strongly endorse this shift. In fact, around half put increasing renewable energy in their top three environmental priorities. Conservatives have a more positive view of renewable energy forms like solar, tidal, offshore and onshore wind, and biomass, than they do of nuclear and fossil fuels. Even more remarkably, new onshore wind developments, which the last Conservative manifesto pledged to halt, are supported by a majority (59 per cent) of Conservatives, provided they did not receive any subsidy.
One of the reasons many high-profile conservative opinion formers are critical of environmental policy is because of instinctive opposition to government regulation. But our polling found consistently strong support among Conservatives for targeted regulations that protect the environment. An overwhelming majority of Conservatives want to see all the main EU environmental regulations at least maintained after Brexit, and in some cases strengthened. Further, they support policies such as the closure of the remaining coal-fired power stations (66 per cent), a requirement that homes must meet a minimum energy performance standard before being sold (70 per cent), and regulation to mandate that all major home renovations include energy efficiency measures (80 per cent).
The UK faces multiple environmental challenges. To meet them, the Government needs to implement policies that command the support of the public. Our report shows the Government has a strong mandate from its own voters to be ambitious about protecting the environment. Far from being sceptics, most Conservative voters want to make good on Burke’s intergenerational partnership.