(Bloomberg opinion) – The Conservative Party is an uncomfortable environmentalist.
The leadership of the British ruling party can boast of putting climate change at the center of their national and international concerns. CO2 reduction commitments are enshrined in law, and Boris Johnson’s government has set ambitious green goals for itself. At the beginning of November he is hosting the United Nations Climate Change Conference COP26 in Glasgow and plans to thwart the bill.
However, the compromises associated with achieving net zero are becoming difficult for the Prime Minister and his party. Many supporters are unwilling to pay the price for their ambitions in higher taxes.
In an unusually humid and cool week in London for the time of year, Tory-supporting newspapers have been busy reporting on Westminster. Instead of covering the impending ecological collapse, they introduced green taxes on kilometers of road and disposable diapers. “A tax on diapers is really a class war,” ranted the Daily Mail. The rich can afford household help with washing reusable diapers, it is said, but parents with little time and money will have a hard time.
Such social divisions are evident within the party. After all, conservatives should “save”, and many high-minded, wealthy members, like the Prime Minister’s father, Stanley Johnson, are staunch environmentalists. But middle-class Tory voters in the countryside, across much of the Midlands, and the north rely on fuel-guzzling cars rather than patchy public transport.
That tension was there from the start. In the 19th century, Tories were critics of rampant industrialism – they denounced the looting of nature, unhealthy factory conditions and the cruelty of child labor. But as the century went on, the Conservatives evolved into the Party of Commerce and Small Business, and priorities changed.
To this day, Margaret Thatcher is the prime example of the split in the Tory soul. She has never reconciled her own bellicose views on the environment.
A former research chemist, Thatcher was the first notable politician to “get” the evidence of man-made global warming. At the suggestion of Crispin Tickell, the British Ambassador to the United Nations in New York, and a green Tory brochure written by Andrew Sullivan – now a naturalized US citizen and expert – she gave two extraordinary speeches that made thinking about environmental protection in the in – and abroad revolutionized.
The first, addressed to the Royal Society on September 27, 1988, warned of the dangers of “unintentionally starting a massive experiment with the system of this planet itself” and establishing a domestic political consensus to combat climate change. Your second speech on the same subject at the UN General Assembly in November 1989 had international significance. She argued that universal cooperation among nations was required to save the planet.
But within years Thatcher had turned his back on that agenda. The regulatory impact of green policies on the economy is an anti-capitalist trap, she believed. Worse still, environmental protection invited Brussels-style bureaucratic interference. Ecological taxes harm “their people”.
Thatcher opened the world’s first climate prediction and research institute, Britain’s Hadley Center, but she did not attend the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio. In retirement, she rejected “doomist” predictions in her memoir.
Still, Thatcher left her Tory heirs a healthy green legacy. Their crushing victory over a miners’ strike enabled their successors to shut down coal-fired power plants and push for less CO2-emitting gas. In the years since it was phased out in 1991, the UK has cut its carbon emissions faster than any other rich country – they’re down a whopping 44%. That is 1.8 times more than the European Union average. In comparison, Germany still generates around a quarter of its electricity from coal-fired power plants and its emissions have only fallen by 29%.
But it turned out that reducing emissions was the easiest part. The conversion of the country to electric cars and the switch from gas to household heat pumps is associated with high, transparent costs for the voters. Going green is politically dangerous.
The objectors are not trumpet climate scientists, but hard-working families who balance pragmatism with idealism. According to polls by the UK Department of Commerce, only 1% of voters refuse to believe that global temperatures are rising, even though only 51% believe that climate change is mainly human-caused. 80% support renewable energies and 90% say that some of their activities are greener.
The righteously administrating classes want to do the environment good, but they are annoyed at paying for it and being verbally abused by rich do-gooders.
An anti-green backlash should not be dismissed. The biggest demonstrations against the otherwise impregnable Labor government of Tony Blair were sparked not by anti-Iraq war protesters, but by an alliance of truck drivers who opposed fuel tax hikes and a rural lobby group defending the right to foxes to hunt. This curious movement was the (largely peaceful) prototype for the militant “yellow vests” demonstrations against the fuel taxes of French President Emmanuel Macron.
Blair’s terrified Tory successors long ago abandoned fuel taxes in the face of this threat, even though they make fiscal conservative sense. David Cameron, elected a liberal environmentalist in 2010, scoffed at what he called “the green crap” when the political tide began to turn.
This is Boris Johnson’s challenge. As a protean politician with a keen sense for changes in public opinion, he can probably fight his way through COP26 without too much difficulty. After the Afghanistan debacle, President Joe Biden will want to polish up his international credentials by being helpful. But how will Johnson then reconcile his environmental ambitions with electoral pragmatism?
Conservatives fear that the next general election could be held because of the cost of living. The inflation rate, now averaging 2.5%, looks volatile. If the price of an active green conscience goes up in fuel, heating and travel bills, then expect Johnson to cut some of the “green crap” too. It will require unusual skill on this or any other prime minister to argue the necessary compromises between climate idealism and pennywise politics.
This column does not necessarily represent the views of the editors or Bloomberg LP or their owners.
Martin Ivens was editor of the Sunday Times from 2013 to 2020 and was previously its senior political commentator. He is the director of the Times Newspapers Board.