For the Green Party, last week must have felt like all the leaves falling off a tree at once. They don’t usually get much media coverage, those Greens; but here, thanks to the election of their new party leader Natalie Bennett, they faced a relative deluge. Ms Bennett’s own speech to her party conference came complete with television cameras and autocue gizmos, and garnered some attention for how it ploughed into Labour. And, before that too, there had been her appearance on the Daily Politics show, which was attention of a less forgiving sort, but it was attention nevertheless. Would it ever stop?
Yes, actually. Only a few days later, that short autumnal burst is already settling into an early winter for the Greens. They may — and should, given the performance of their candidate in the London Mayoral elections — aspire to third party status, but that remains a gruelling task for an outfit that currently polls at 3 per cent nationally. It is truly a cold and harsh existence in that “Others” bracket.
So where, going off the headline to this article, does the “threat” come in? Not in terms of seats, unless we want to really overthink the calculus of local elections and marginal results; but, rather, in terms of ideology. You see, the Greens typify — and, I think, help perpetuate — the link between environmentalism and big, left-wing policies. It’s not just that they are several leagues to the left of Labour, what with their proposals for capping high salaries. It’s also that their ideas for helping the environment are generally huge in scope and state-led in design. Just looking at their manifesto from the last general election, their main proposal was to cut carbon emissions by 10 per cent a year until 2030, or 90 per cent overall. They also suggested raising fuel duty by at least 8 per cent a year, in real terms.
These immodest proposals wouldn’t matter so much were they just a niche pursuit. But the Green way of thinking has, in some respects, prevailed elsewhere. All the main parties now begin their environmental policy by considering climate change, and end it by fiddling with the tax system. Their targets may not be as grossly ambitious as the Green Party’s — for instance, the Coalition is aiming for a 34 per cent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 — but the emphases, where they occur, are similar. Indeed, it was telling that when David Cameron made the first significant statement on green issues of his premiership, in April this year, it was to a group of foreign ministers at a “world energy summit”. The occasion was big, and so were the solutions proffered.
This, I must stress, is not me attacking the climate change agenda. In fact, I tend to believe all that mushy anthropogenic stuff, if only because I’m not smart enough, scientifically, to do otherwise. But something is still being lost, submerged under all the talk of hockey stick graphs and inconvenient truths. Indeed, you’d barely realise that the Coalition actually has some smaller-scale environmental policies, such as a tree-planting programme. You’d be forgiven for forgetting that polar bears are actually animals, rather than political debating points on four paws.
The worry is not just that the emphasis on climate change is limiting the environmental debate, but also that it is poisoning it. Elsewhere on ConservativeHome this morning, Peter Lilley draws attention to the costs being imposed upon “families and firms” by the Government’s hasty efforts to decarbonise the economy — and, on that score, he’s not wrong. We all know by now how green taxes and other measures have trickled down to the average consumer, but as a reminder of the problem it’s worth considering a memo that leaked out of Downing Street last year. “DECC’s mid-case gas price scenario sees policies adding 30 per cent to consumer energy bills by 2020 compared to a world without policies,” it warned.
Some Green Party politicians might argue that that’s precisely the point: fossil fuels have to be made more expensive to discourage people from using them. But, in the meantime, we’re compensating some of those people with Winter Fuel Allowance payments that they don’t strictly need. The whole system of take-and-give is riddled with inconsistencies, and it could succeed only in turning people against green politics in general.
The strange thing is, alongside the Green Party’s recent activity, the opportunity for a reinvigorated Conservative green agenda has also arisen. Or, at the very least, there should now be a debate about it. Many of the political controversies of the past few weeks have an environmental aspect to them, even if it’s only implicit. Whether it is airport expansion, high-speed rail or paving over the greenbelt, there are now questions about hedgerows and nesting sites to go alongside the ones about growth and emissions. And there’s even Brian May rocking against the Coalition’s proposed badger cull on the sidelines.
Of course, not all of those debates will unwind in the environmentalists’ favour: trade-offs and sacrifices will be, and always have been, made in the pursuit of growth. But I’ll be glad if those debates are had anyway. Conservatism is a broad philosophy that contains many competing strands of thought, including this tension between conservation and industry. But, for all the husky-hugging, the current Tory leadership has never really done enough to resolve its own position between the two. Instead, it has allowed its environmental policy to be subsumed by Kyoto and Copenhagen and the fiscal policies of the last government. And then it has complained when that runs counter to growth.
One solution to these contradictions could be a renewed focus on what Greg Clark on called “a richer model than one based narrowly on government action,” which eschews the “assumption that people won’t do the right thing without being ordered to through rules, penalties and downright hectoring.” That was pre-election, but many of that model’s components — initiatives such as Recyclebank and The Big Tree Plant — have remained quietly in the background ever since. It’s just for Cameron & Co. to talk about them and encourage them, and demonstrate that there’s more to being green than the ideology of the Green Party.