As with membership of the EU, the political elite is imposing a revolution on the public without consent
Does the blob never learn? Voters don’t like being treated like naughty children, let alone apathetic imbeciles, by technocrats convinced that they know best. Much of the electorate is now in a permanently defiant, irritable mood. It has grown allergic to stitch-ups by the ruling class across Westminster, the City, the arts and academia, and is repelled by attempts to impose a single political vision as a fait accompli, with no debate and no consultation. This applies as much to radical environmentalism and net zero, the groupthink du jour, as it does to Brexit, the NHS, overseas wars, crime or immigration.
The universal franchise was hard-won. The electorate is deeply attached to its democratic rights, not just when it comes to form – elections being held, and results respected – but also in terms of ethos. It expects the great questions of the day to be carefully discussed, and for voters to have the ultimate choice between meaningfully different options. Decisions cannot be delegated to a self-anointed, conformist oligarchy.
Voters hate it when, as with the EU, they were told by Labour, Tories and Lib Dems alike that ever-closer union was the best of all possible worlds, that the only acceptable debate was about the speed of integration, and that only a racist would disagree. Ordinary folks’ revenge, when it came, was devastating.
It beggars belief, therefore, that a government of Brexiteers, in power only because they led a populist rebellion against another cross-party consensus, have forgotten this crucial lesson when it comes to net zero, and are seeking to enshrine a revolution without consulting the public. Yes, the vast majority, at least in wealthy nations, wants to improve the environment, reduce pollution, bolster biodiversity, treat animals better and prevent man-made catastrophes.
But that is where the near-universal consensus ends: the details of how to proceed are explosively contentious, and require democratic assent to be legitimate. The parallel with Brexit is clear: the fact that voters all agreed that another European war must be avoided didn’t mean they all wanted to fuse their countries into a superstate.
The Government has learnt the wrong lessons from Covid – in a genuine health or military emergency, the electorate temporarily gives its support to any government it believes is doing its best. Even in such cases, a minority will favour alternative solutions, such as a Swedish approach.
Decarbonisation is entirely different to the pandemic, whether or not you judge that we face a climate emergency. The public won’t automatically rally around whatever the government proposes. Many, perhaps most, will hate much of it. Net zero involves long-term, hugely significant measures that could drastically modify lifestyles and give the state immense, permanent powers to socially engineer as it sees fit.
Do you agree that all new petrol and diesel cars should be banned in just nine years’ time? Or that gas boilers should be replaced, at great cost, with heat pumps, a technology that doesn’t quite work yet? Are you willing to eat less meat and pay higher taxes? Do you disagree entirely, or accept some of these ideas but not others? Or would you prefer to take it more slowly given China’s reluctance to act?
The shocking reality is that how you answer is irrelevant. The public isn’t being given a choice. The fact of, and speed, scale and method of decarbonisation have been decided: Tories, Labour and Lib Dems all agree on all the essentials. It doesn’t matter who wins the next election: a new orthodoxy rules supreme. There is no functioning democracy, no mechanism by which outcomes might change. This is a disgrace and extremely dangerous.
One doesn’t have to disagree with everything the Government is planning to be concerned. I really like electric cars, though I can’t see how banning combustion engines so quickly in the absence of better, long-range batteries can work. Why not let capitalism continue to organically shift consumers over? It is great that Boris rejects the hair-shirt, neo-communist approach to greening Britain, and that he backs nuclear and hydrogen. But do I really trust a government that has waged war on the car, invented so-called low-traffic neighbourhoods and campaigned against Heathrow expansion not to revert to banning everything vaguely carbon-positive if it falls behind on its targets?
Why is its nudge unit advocating a tax on meat and producers and retailers of “high-carbon” food? The inflammatory document, disowned by the Government but commissioned by the Department for Business, demonises business travel and seeks to reduce international tourism and restrict airport expansion – goodbye, capitalist freedom. Can the Government guarantee that it would never impose extreme restrictions, rationing on homes and business or even mini eco-lockdowns? Or use a punitive form of road pricing to drastically reduce mobility (as opposed to ensuring motorists pay appropriately for road usage)? Will the courts start striking down high-carbon housebuilding or farming?
Net zero isn’t a technical issue: it is an inherently political question, one of the greatest choices we have ever been asked to make. In the sickening absence of disagreement between the parties, a massive, uncontrollable backlash is guaranteed, at least when the bills start to drop. The only question is who the new green-sceptic Nigel Farage will be, and the next Boris figure? What will Vote Leave II look like?
Johnson should preempt this war, which could destroy the Tories, and call a referendum on net zero today. His obligation, in doing so, would be to explain in exhaustive, costed detail how he proposes to achieve the changes he so fervently believes in. The No side would present its case, holding Johnson to account, proposing alternatives, with the public taken through the pros and cons and trade-offs. The results should be legally binding, with MPs compelled to implement the verdict, and the question tightly defined. The Government will have its work cut out: the Swiss have just rejected plans to slash their own emissions and to slap higher taxes on fossil fuels.
The green challenge is too important, its implications too dramatic, to be left to an establishment that has embraced net zero as if it were a new religion. The public must have the final say, and the only way this will happen is through another referendum.