This week seven members of the Shadow Cabinet – David Cameron, George Osborne, William Hague, Andrew Mitchell, Grant Shapps, Nick Herbert and myself – have made speeches showing how a Conservative government would bring a fresh and vigorous approach to protecting the global environment.
Each of the speeches is substantial and contains specific policy commitments. And all of them contain common threads that run through our thinking on the environment and beyond. I wanted to describe them here.
The first is that under a Conservative government, Britain will play a part of leadership in international efforts to protect our environment. At our best, Britain has always been a strong force for progressive change in the world. We have always been global in outlook and impatient for change for the better, whether in the zeal of Wilberforce or more recent achievements such as Margaret Thatcher’s role in securing a global deal to reverse the damage to the earth’s ozone layer caused by CFCs. In an age in which Britain’s power to compel others is not what it was in previous times, the power of our own example must become an ever more important way to influence and persuade, and our facility to make effective use of our networks of influence – such as the EU, the G8 and G20 and the Commonwealth – is critical. A Conservative Government will prosecute our international responsibilities with idealism and enthusiasm.
The second theme of the week that I believe we have shown is that if we are genuinely to live sustainably we need a richer model than one based only on government action. Many of the real changes in our economy and our society required by a low carbon world – and almost all of the investment – will be determined by the future choices of individuals, firms or communities. Over the last 12 years the Government has too often behaved as though it can organise and direct people and communities from above. Too much government policy has been based on an assumption that people won’t do the right thing without being ordered to through rules, penalties and downright hectoring.
We have shown this week that the government has a big role to play in helping people live sustainably – but its most powerful function can be to unlock the possibilities for people themselves to take action because they want to, and because it is in their interest to do so. For example, most householders would jump at the chance to live in more energy efficient homes, but many often lack access to the upfront capital needed to make the improvements. That’s where good policy can help – as our plan to allow people to bring forward the savings they will make from upgrading their homes to pay for the costs of the upgrade, and have plenty of savings left having done so. Similarly, by releasing to people the savings that they unleash by not sending rubbish to landfill, but by recycling instead, everyone can gain. And rather than the Government tell people who oppose a windfarm in their community that they should consider themselves immoral (as Ed Miliband has done), why not let communities who do their bit share in the benefits with cheap electricity and the business rates going direct to the community?
In green policies, as in others, the most powerful role the state can play is to empower rather than to direct.
The third theme that runs through this week’s speeches is a sense of optimism. There is a version of green politics that is penitential – mournfully requiring us to give up the things we enjoy and resign ourselves to leading more primitive lives.
Our approach is different. We are positively green. Rather than just stopping doing things, we want to start doing new and different things.
If we can accelerate the development of new technologies, we can generate power without polluting the atmosphere, and then we can use that power abundantly rather than meanly ration it. If our homes are more energy efficient they can be warmer, cheaper and less damaging to the environment. If we can be whisked from the centre of London to the centre of Manchester by high speed electric train, why would we want to fly? If we can mobilise an international agreement we can make a difference to levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, just as we made a difference to the levels of CFCs, and in earlier times, cleaned the air of our great cities. If we can act quickly to secure in a leading role for Britain in the low carbon economy towards which the world is converting, it can be a motor of job creation.
Our speeches this week have shown that for Conservatives under David Cameron, strong, vigorous action on the environment runs through our entire policy programme for government. It is central to the vision we have of a good future for Britain and the world.