[This post has also been republished at The Ecologist]
Shakespeare’s The Tempest is a tale of strange happenings on an enchanted isle. It begins with a storm conjured by the magic of Prospero. His sorcery brings his enemies to him, and leaves them powerless. “At this hour” he tells his spirit-servant Ariel, “Lies at my mercy all mine enemies”.
Something similar, if less magical and more political, is happening right now in the strange little island of Britain. Here ‘green’ measures are being laid waste in the scorched-earth style once popular with England’s Norman Kings.
It’s not a would-be Duke of Milan who is calling the shots but George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer (Finance Minister). Osborne is a lifelong political animal, an aristocrat, and would-be next Conservative Prime Minister. Osborne is also seen by many as the deceiving wizard behind the Conservatives recent election triumph. One critic has called him, a ‘magician’, and a ‘genius at politics’ who now, is riding ‘in his pomp’.
Osborne’s political enemies really do lie powerless. The Conservatives came to power this May with a slim majority but there is no effective opposition. The Labour Party is leaderless, demoralized and punishing itself with an agonizing internal election which is further alienating the public.
The Conservative’s former coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats (the two parties were massively divided by values), were almost wiped out in the election. In Scotland, the Scottish National Party (SNP) won 50 British Parliamentary seats, while Labour lost 40 and the LibDems lost 10, leaving them with just one MP each ‘north of of the border’. As Labour and the SNP loathe one another, this helps rather than hinders Osborne. If and until there is another referendum (Scotland voted against independence in 2014), all that Scottish SNP support means little in practical terms. Finally, if Scotland splits away, the Conservatives are likely to be even more dominant in the rest of Britain.
Policies into Reverse
So Osborne finds himself unopposed and he is systematically putting Britain’s environmental protection policies into reverse.
The Conservative government has lifted a ban on bee-slaying neonicotinoid pesticides, and slashed support for wind, biomass and solar power, killed off its scheme for greening homes, cut incentives to chose cleaner cars, abandoned a plan for all new homes to be ‘zero carbon’, reversed a pledge to keep fracking out of nationally important nature sites, dropped plans for taxing environmental ‘bads’, announced it will start selling off its ‘green bank’, and is apparently casting around for more greenery to put to the axe. It’s also supporting a ‘review’ of two key European wildlife laws, the Habitats Directive and the Birds Directive.
Why ? Mainly because it is pay-back time for the Conservative base, donors and business lobbies. Only a few of these changes were put to the electorate (unlike the economic policies of Osborne’s recent budget) but amongst some British Conservatives, especially activists, there is a visceral dislike of environmental protections. Osborne’s political co-pilot, Prime Minister David Cameron, famously called it the “green crap”.
Former Friends of the Earth Director Tony Juniper recently said ‘the last few months mark the worst period for environmental policy that I have seen in my 30 years’ work in this field’ and I’d agree. He attributes it to ‘an anti-environment ideology based on the view that ecological goals interfere with the market, increase costs and are against the interests of people’. Again I agree with Tony but only up to a point because in the UK, a lot of the simmering resentment of pro-environmental action is not really ideological in an intellectual sense but social.
Strange as it may seem to foreigners, in class-ridden Britain one of the social fault lines is between the feudal land-owning classes and those who aspire to support them, and the rest. Even odder, the two symbolic issues that divide these tribes are blood-sports, especially fox-hunting, and bizarrely, wind turbines. (There is also some evidence that they probably also divide over climate scepticism).
Controls on fox hunting were introduced by the Labour government under Tony Blair (who later regretted it). David Cameron has pledged to allow a Parliamentary vote on changing the law back, to the disadvantage of foxes. Both he and Osborne would be likely to vote to allow more hunting and both move in social circles which are much more pro-fox-hunting than the population at large. The government tried to do this in July but pulled back because, ironically, of opposition from the SNP (the details are complicated) and will probably try again in the autumn.
Not all Conservatives or Conservative MPs support fox-hunting. Within the Conservative Party it comes close to dividing ’modernisers’ from traditionalists (and retros, neo-traditionalists). Right-wing journalist Matthew D’Ancona recently described it as part of the Conservative’s ‘gruesome past’. But by this instinctive emotional logic, renewable energy and even energy efficiency can get bundled with opposition to hunting foxes with hounds: it is about “us” and “them”. The nearest parallel that I can imagine for American readers, and it is not a very precise one, is gun control: in some ways the fox hunting lobby is Britain’s NRA (National Rifle Association) but associated with the liberty to enjoy inherited, rural, landed privilege rather than notions of self-made individualism.
To give you an example, a farmer I know of is a tenant of a very large, very aristocratic land-owner of the hunting-and-shooting variety. The tenancy still requires that the landowner has right of access to ride over his farm and use his farmhouse one day a year. And it is exercised: I’m told the landowner and his friends turn up on horseback, unannounced, stick their muddy boots up on the kitchen table and eat and drink as long as they like. It’s “a laugh” but it asserts a very feudal order.
While both Cameron and Osborne were members of the elite hyper-rich Bullingdon Club at Oxford University famous for anti-social behaviour, drink and drugs, Cameron comes from the landed gentry and has a foxhunting background, while Osborne’s background is more ‘metropolitan’.
Osborne is not as ideological as some assume. He is a clever, radical and calculating politician most interested in winning. His bonfire of green measures (and there is little doubt that the Treasury is behind the long-knives) may make little rational sense. Onshore wind and solar are cheap, and efficient and unlike nuclear, quick to deploy. Investment in energy efficiency is most cost-effective of all, and cleaner cars save the NHS money. There is no evidence that the Birds and Habitats Directives are impairing economic growth. In short, as many economists point out, environmental regulation tends to boost rather than reduce economic performance. The renewables industry and Britain’s many greener companies will be alarmed. Thoughtful greener Conservatives have expressed dismay and puzzlement at his actions.
But Osborne isn’t trying to appeal to the thinkers. He probably judges that a slash and burn of green policies makes short-term political sense on a dog-whistle basis. He is stealing UKIP’s clothes and positioning, and most of all, scoring points with Conservative Party loyalists, back-benchers and loyalists who he will need in future. He is also probably enjoying the moment. The Conservative Party, if not Osborne himself, are a bit drunk on the power to do what feels good. He must calculate that there is very little political risk: certainly not from opposition political parties, nor also from Britain’s environmental NGOs. And he’s about to go on holiday.
Most of the time Britain doesn’t matter much on the world stage but it does on climate change because of its finance of carbon, the communications influence of the BBC, and because it has so far stuck to Mrs Thatcher’s legacy of attempting international leadership. There has even been a cross-party agreement on the need to decarbonize the UK. Will that survive ?
The Paris climate summit is on the near horizon. Most of the rest of the world seems to be heading towards more effective climate action. To mention but a few, the Pope has issued his powerful Encyclical calling for more action; French MPs have voted to halve energy use by 2050 and increase renewables to 32% by 2030, Barack Obama plans to train 75,000 solar workers, Hilary Clinton wants enough renewable energy to power all the homes in the US within a decade, and China says it will ‘it will “work hard” to peak emissions earlier’ than 2030 target.
We don’t yet know how Osborne’s onslaught will affect Britain’s climate policy commitments but they are likely to increase its carbon emissions. Just some of wind and solar cuts are estimated to add 2.9-7.3mt to UK CO2 pollution each year.
Domestic and European Implications: Dirty Man of Europe ?
Is Britain heading back to the dark old days when it was known as the Dirty Man of Europe ? It’s more than possible. Germany is tightening controls on neonicotinoid pesticides, while Britain relaxes them. Britain ranks 18th out of 22 European countries for beach cleanliness and is facing two legal actions for sewage spills. It wasn’t just dire performance on water and air pollution which won Britain that title in the 1980s and 1990s but a state of mind, and Osborne seems to be talking up an anti-environmental mantra.
‘When energy secretary Amber Rudd announced in parliament that the government would cut off subsidies for new onshore wind she name-checked Conservative MPs in her speech. They then stood up in turn and called out for more, attacking offshore wind and solar power, with some calling for an end to all forms of renewable energy.’
It isn’t hard to imagine that an anti-environment drumbeat from London could be echoed in other Member States where it seems expedient to do things like continuing to burn coal. That is exactly what the Conservative’s right wing competitors UKIP want to do. They are pledged to to repeal Britain’s Climate Change Act, scrap the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), end solar subsidies, burn more coal and roll back emissions regulations for power plants. UKIP won just one seat at the General Election but got 13.6% of votes, against the Conservatives 36.9% of the vote and 331 seats.
Here perhaps is some of Osborne’s motivation: to out-UKIP UKIP before the referendum on continued membership of the European Union and minimise the damage from an inevitable Conservative split over Europe.
David Cameron promised to hold the referendum by 2017 but it could be as early as May 2016. Neither Cameron nor Osborne say they want to leave the EU but Osborne recently told the Daily Mail that UK membership should be based on ‘free trade’. The Mail explained that further Eurozone integration, which of course excludes Britain: ‘could provide an opportunity for the UK to start distancing itself from the EU and reset the terms of its membership’.
A common rightwing British view of Europe is of an interfering, socialist leaning superstate imposing rules and regulations. From this point of view, environmental regulation, renewable energy and ‘Europe’ are all rolled into one encumberance we are best shot of. Ditching environmental protection and policies associated with the EU, could therefore be part of a positioning exercise to “shoot UKIP’s fox” before the referendum. Or in a favourite phrase of the Conservative’s Australian election strategist Lynton Crosby, to “get the barnacles off the boat”.
Domestic: What Should Campaigners Do ?
Faced with the obvious threat to the Birds and Habitats Directive, 100 British NGOs got together earlier this year to ask people to respond to an EU consultation under the banner ‘Defend Nature’. 520,000 people responded, 100,000 from the UK. Not bad and three times higher than any other consultation response but it’s unlikely to have much affect on Operation Osborne. The European Commission responded that it ‘reaffirms support for EU role in protecting nature’ but what if that’s not what the UK Government wants to hear ?
Likewise on the day I’m writing this, a study found: ‘The Birds Directive has had a “demonstrably positive impact” on threatened species, according to research by European wildlife NGO BirdLife International and Durham University’. But if the intended Osborne UKIP-sidelining meta-narrative is less-Europe-good, more-Europe-bad, then evidence that Europe works, just like the evidence that renewables or energy efficiency work, is simply not welcome.
Pro-European advocacy is unlikely to change the UK Government’s mind until after it has what it wants from the referendum, unless it is forced into a rethink by some external reality such as the need to negotiate with a political opponent, and that seems unlikely.
Instead campaigns need to build bottom up, and to be realistic. UKIP and his Conservative base aside, what or who do Osborne or Cameron care about ? What might have to happen for some of them to begin to doubt that throwing environmental protections and investments overboard, was such a great idea after all ?
The first objective probably cannot be to reverse Osborne’s changes but simply to sow doubt. After that might, eventually, come regret, shame, disownment, even disengagement.
What if, for example, the oil seed rape farmers who lobbied to use neonicotinoid pesticides found that they were losing markets for their products in favour of suppliers (from elsewhere in Europe ?) who could guarantee that their product had not been sprayed with the bee slaying neonicotinoids ?
What if the staff, friends, families, company directors and investors of renewable energy companies in Britain, were to make their feelings felt to Conservative MPs ? According to the Renewable Energy Association, there are over 100,000 people employed in the UK renewables sector (against about 150,000 full time farmers).
What if some of those 100,000 who took part in the EU Habitats and Birds Directives were also members of the Conservative Party or voted Conservative ? If they now had reason to invite their MP to see what protection means on the ground, it might help reframe the question as about our land and our nature rather than ‘Europe’.
What if George Osborne was to hear from the City that the smoke signals from his green bonfire were sending unhelpful messages about inward investment to the UK ?
What if the UK found itself dealing with a series of embarrassing court actions that spoke to the title ‘Dirty Man of Europe’ ? Or if tourists and Londonders started seriously worrying about the quality of the capital’s air ?
What if home-owners or businesses found themselves affected by changing weather and climate, and started to demand political action at a local level to keep us safe ? Fracking so far comes closest to this since it impinges on houses and potentially on property values but sea level rise and inland flooding also pose a threat which has yet to crystallise as a real political issue.
In the end all politics is local, geographically or personally, or both. “Issues” do not make campaigns, only topics that are debated. Campaigns need to start with a group, however small, of people with an unshakeable conviction that their case needs to be heard. They need to put something at stake, to make a difference that matters to someone.
This will mean campaigns that resonate with people that George Osborne cares about, for example his MPs, and that in turn depends on involving those who they care about – their voters not their critics. The failed attempt to sell-off some of England’s state-owned forests back in 2011 led to a ‘shires revolt’ which showed that a Conservative government can be vulnerable on an environmental issue.
In recent decades UK environmentalists have got used to operating in a relatively benign environment. Many UK NGOs are herbivorous beasts, browsers not bruisers, posing little or no political threat to any interest, political or corporate. Some have grown used to ‘satisficing’, looking after visitors to their sites and tending to their supporters. Rarely do they really need to convince anyone outside their own ‘base’.
European funding for agri-environment schemes, the Landfill Tax, Lottery Funding, policies set through the EU on energy and climate, public-funded agencies working to monitor and enforce regulations, and the corporate-consumer-regulatory ratchet of sustainability have all reduced the requirement for NGOs to prove a need, or to demonstrate and mobilise a real-life constuituency. I hope I am wrong but this rather peaceful situation may be changing for the worse. Are Britain’s NGOs really ready for a fight ?
Chris Rose 29 7 15