Why is the environment still seen by many as a Left Wing issue? Why do so many Conservative minded people still distrust David Cameron for the stance he has taken on green issues? In the search for the answer to these questions it is necessary to confront a split within Conservative philosophy. It is a split which has its roots in the history of the environmental movement; and it is time that it was ended.
From Edmund Burke onwards, Conservatives have understood the profound relationship which exists between the dead, the living, and those yet to be born. We have always known that public duty involves a responsibility to future generations, as much as to our own. As the “country” Party, we have also inherited a sense of respect for Nature, for the wildlife that sustains us and which adds beauty as well as humility to our sense of existence.
In Government, the Conservative Party has never been afraid to intervene when it has sensed that these values have been threatened. Think of Disraeli’s work to rid London and our other great cities of pestilence and ill health, by passing laws to clean up the water systems. Think of Macmillan’s work to rid our cities of foul smelling and poisonous smogs. Think of the Wildlife and Countryside Act, passed under Margaret Thatcher, which continues to do so much to protect our indigenous animal and plant life and to support natural beauty. Think of the changes in fuel duty in the 1980’s which established unleaded petrol as the fuel of choice for almost all of us. Think of the very recent commitment by the new Tory Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman to protect the Green Belt.
Each of these examples reveals the deep relationship between Conservatism and Conservation. It is mainly because of this relationship that I am a Conservative. But there is another side to right of centre thinking. There is a view that all that really matters is the bottom line on a profit and loss account. That getting and making is the end-game of public policy. It is from this angle that the long tradition of the Tory Party’s commitment to environmental welfare comes under attack from a vociferous minority of Party supporters and commentators.
The modern history of this strand of Conservative hostility to all things green is readily understandable. When the Ecological movement got going in the 1970s it did so in protest against what it perceived to be rampant capitalism. It was, indeed, a Left-wing movement – with all the amusing accoutrements: beards, sandals, spliffs, sagging appendages, dodgy hair styles, intolerance, anger, smelly caravans, and solidarity with the Nicaraguan women’ s movement.
Whatever happened to the Nicaraguan women? I vividly remember, at some green rally in Battersea Park during the late1980s, being offered a badge which celebrated the Nicaraguan women; but I have to confess that I am not sure why, at the time, I owed them a particular solidarity. I do not doubt that they had a worthy cause. At the same event, the other badge I picked up simply said “Dennis Healey Is a Tory”. He wasn’t.
Not surprisingly, the capitalist establishment was unimpressed by the link between the extreme Left and environmentalists. The suits closed ranks and went on drilling for money. The battle lines were drawn. The resulting stand-off lasted for the best part of thirty years, during which economic recessions and booms came and went, and – with the noble exception of Margaret Thatcher – most of the world’s politicians treated the place where we live as an irrelevance.
Meanwhile, the scientific evidence of the damage which uncontrolled economic activity was doing to the world mounted yearly. Although the climate science was, and remains, like all science, uncertain, the statistics about species loss, habitat destruction, and the depletion of natural resources – including minerals – could not be refuted. The political stand-off meant that all these issues went largely ignored by people who might have made a difference.
The tragedy is that because sensible people allowed the environment to become the property of the Left, nothing was done. Absolutely nothing: including about energy supplies and our dependence on depleting reserves of fossil fuels, which, together with water have now become critical geopolitical issues.
What the Left, being anti-capitalist, and the capitalists, being hostile to the Left, both failed to understand is the simple truth that the interests of the environment are indistinguishable from those of the economy; the two are vital for human wellbeing, and are inter-dependent. The environment is where everything happens, including economic progress. It is a truth which was well understood by enlightened Victorian entrepreneurs but which appears to have been forgotten by, for example, BP. Some companies seem determined to learn the hard way that trashing the environment has costs attached.
It is a delusion that taking action to look after the environment necessitates being Left-wing. Look at the policy commitments published recently by the new UK coalition Government, an impressive number of which are concerned with green issues. They include support for measures to turn waste into energy (not by burning it); to help households install insulation to keep down their fuel bills; to reward people and communities who want to generate their own power supplies; to reduce our dependence on increasingly expensive, and strategically costly, imports of fossil fuels; to channel capital into new, clean technologies; and to help protect wildlife and green spaces.
All these commitments, and there are many more, seem to me to be entirely in keeping with traditional Conservative thinking. The announcement by Eric Pickles, at CLG, that Labour’s idea of penalising people who don’t recycle enough of their household waste is to be scrapped in favour of an incentive scheme for those who want to do the right thing is a classic example applying Conservative values to environmental issues. People will always respond better to incentives than to threats.
However, regulation does have its part to play as well. In 1993 it was thought idiosyncratic and rather controversial that I should introduce a Private Member’s Bill aimed at preventing the destruction of ancient hedgerows – a practice then rampant. Eventually, under the administration of John Major, the proposals in my Bill became law, by means of regulation. If anyone has suffered economic hardship as a result, I am sorry, but I have yet to hear from you. Meanwhile the demise of our network of hedgerows has been halted, and the wildlife and quintessentially British landscape which they sustain has been given a bit of help. There are greater goods than profit.