Nick Hargrave is a former Downing Street special adviser, where he worked under both David Cameron and Theresa May. He now works at Portland, the communications consultancy.
As much as politicians like to pretend that they are visionary masters of a country’s destiny, the truth is that most politics is really a response to events.
In my adult life, politics has arced around three unexpected moments that shaped national discussion for the years that followed; transforming the attendant issues from second order concerns for the back end of manifestos to questions that defined Prime Ministerial priorities and shaped elections.
First, the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001, where the dreadful results fuelled a reappraisal of our vulnerability to extremism and moved the subject from thoughtful Chatham House debates to front page news.
Second, the largely unpredicted global financial crisis of 2008-09, which took the politics of deficits from dry economic thinking to an argument that sustained the Conservative Party for the best part of a decade.
Third, the Brexit referendum (which cannot be compared with the first two), which brought to the boil a discussion about identity and pride in the nation state that continues today.
It is foolish to predict the next ‘big thing’ precisely; there are several that you could choose. From tax transparency and the obligations on multinational companies to the demographic timebomb of an ageing society coupled with low levels of household saving.
It is pretty likely, though, that the politics of the environment – and more precisely climate change – is going to come to the centre of debate during many of our lifetimes. If we accept this premise, then Conservatives should make sure we are at least forearmed and on the right side of the argument.
Let us not pretend that the country at large shares the intensity of the Extinction Rebellion. And let us also remember that the United Kingdom has a solid record on reducing its own greenhouse gas emissions.
But there are some structural factors bubbling away which should trouble Conservatives:
- Taken as a demographic group, under 35s are more intense in their concern about climate change than previous generations; although there are plenty of individual older voters who also care. Recent research by Onward puts the importance placed on the environment amongst under 35s in roughly the same category as housing and education. This is striking, given that the latter two will currently be felt much more as tangible issues in their daily lives. I do not think this attitude is going to change as we get older, because it is a product of values and world-view shaped by 30 years of pitch-rolling by our cultural icons, fuelled by the way in it has been discussed on social media in the past 10 years – and given oomph by recent documentaries such as those by David Attenborough that have worked their way into the generational zeitgeist. More research needs to be done, but I suspect that these concerns are currently more keenly felt by the economically mobile and those who have had the privilege of getting on in life with higher education. But we are missing a trick if we do not believe these voters are important parts of a future Conservative coalition.
- There is plenty of potential in the century ahead for an ‘extreme’ global warming event that brings this underlying concern to a more dramatic head. The growing body of scientific evidence points to the consequence of global warming in the years to come. The effects in other countries – only as far away as the low-lying Netherlands – could be crushing. But the United Kingdom is not built to withstand the greater regularity of heatwaves, floods, droughts and rising sea-levels that are projected either. These things do not sound particularly threatening written down as abstract concepts. They are significantly more problematic when the practical consequences are spelled out: imagine Skegness being lost to the sea and much of the rest of the farming county of Lincolnshire turning to marsh as Sir James Bevan, chief executive of the Environment Agency, suggested recently in a hypothetical scenario.
- This direction on climate change is only going to continue unless the modern superpowers of the United States and China take the issue seriously. There has been incremental progress on the part of the Chinese in recent years although arguably not enough – while the US has gone the other way. This is concerning because while the UK is somewhere in the order of 40 per cent down on greenhouse gas emissions compared to 1990, global emissions are continuing to rise.
- Despite our creditable record on reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the UK since 2010, we are being a little disingenuous as Conservatives if we suggest that we have made it part of our recent identity. We should also have the courage to recognise that the policy impetus for some of the progress predates the 2010 election and was often pushed more aggressively by the Liberal Democrats between 2010 and 2015 than us. A lot of this is rooted in an inherent Conservative scepticism at being preached to by the spotty student left. But of course it is coupled with the competing economic priority of keeping the cost of energy down for hard-pressed families. We should not beat ourselves up about this but be keenly aware of its potential to put us on the wrong side of debate in the future.
It is important to be realistic. I am not suggesting that the next Tory leadership race can or should be conducted entirely through the prism of the environment. We are still working our way as a country through the last ‘big thing’; the politics of Brexit will continue to spin until the nation makes a strategic choice.
But future Conservative leaders must keep this issue on their list of first order concerns in terms of both policy and communication.
It is critical that tonally we are seen to appreciate the scale of the challenge ahead and talk like we ‘get it’; it is after all inherently Tory to preserve the things we value for future generations.
It is fundamental that policy momentum is not lost in the 2020s and 2030s as we go through the UK’s fourth and fifth carbon budget rounds; we are not on track to meet them. What is more, tackling climate change and rebalancing the economy through new green jobs can be two sides of the same coin. We must not cede this ground to the left.
And it is essential that we use our diplomatic power as far as we can – although the business of striking independent free trade deals would make this more difficult – to make the case on emissions to Washington and Beijing.
The next contest for the Conservative crown will be upon us at some point. It is the responsibility of everyone in the Tory family to demand that the candidates have a credible position on these questions. Events will drive the moment this all comes to a head. But a leader of first rank should at least have the ability to see round the corner.