Can a conservative be an environmentalist, and win? I don’t know, but the only one with a chance is Michael Gove.
Can a conservative be an environmentalist? Of course. A conservative wishes to conserve. Such a person has a strong attachment to place. For such a person, the relationship between the past, the present and the future is vital. It is how we should understand life on earth. We are stewards. We enjoy a heritage and we must leave a legacy.
So Conservatives, with a big C, can be environmentalists, too. As Margaret Thatcher put it in her famous climate‑change speech to the Royal Society in 1988: “The core of Tory philosophy and the case for protecting the environment are the same. No generation has a freehold on this earth. All we have is a life tenancy – with a full repairing lease.”
Such thinking does not come so naturally to the Left. Socialism tends to repudiate the past as wicked. It ushers in a new and perfect age, sometimes by revolutionary violence. Nothing must stand in the way of equality. As Lenin put it: “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country.” He didn’t have much time for wildflower meadows.
Yet if you study green activism in modern times, you will find it coming most often from the Left. The mindset of many eco-activists contains several Leftist ingredients.
The first is an automatic dislike of business, and therefore of markets and consumption. The second is a belief that it is always government (plus protest activism) that can put matters right, by banning lots of things and directing what remains. The third is a suspicion of nations, and an insistence that only rightly guided global governance can bring salvation.
Related to the above – and found on the totalitarian Right as well – are two other unattractive tendencies. One is an obsession with catastrophe – a feeling, half-relished, half-dreaded, that we are about to destroy everything. Hence all that rhetoric (always untrue) about: “Only 10 years/months/days left to save the planet.”
The other is a puritan distaste for human beings, especially compared with the loveliness of the animal and vegetable kingdoms. People are cruel, stupid and dirty; they do not deserve choice; there are too many of them. People are seen as the problem.
Taken together, these tendencies are anti-freedom, poverty-inducing, misanthropic and life-denying. If they prevailed in the industrialised world, our civilisation would dramatically decline, and with it our capacity to right our own errors, including our environmental ones.
So, just as it was the task of conservatives, 40 years ago, to recover prosperity via liberty and the rule of law, now it is their task to reconcile the wealth of billions with the care for the natural world on which, ultimately, it depends. Someone has to disprove the old rhyme about colour co-ordination: “Blue and green should ne’er be seen unless there’s something in between.”
After these big thoughts, one comes down to earth with a bump to talk about the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in a wobbly minority Conservative Government. But Michael Gove is the only member of the Cabinet who was not one of Theresa May’s ministers before the ill-fated general election, and so is fresher and more optimistic than his colleagues. He is also virtually the only one with a record of having ideas of his own. So it is interesting to find him wrestling with this knottiest of subjects.
On Thursday, the Defra Secretary spoke twice. He first addressed the Oxford Farming Conference and then, a few hundred yards down the road, the Oxford Real Farming Conference. The self-righteous name of the latter (are non-organic farmers not real?) indicates the minefield here.
Yet Mr Gove is consciously reaching out to both sides (earlier major speeches have been to the World Worldlife Fund and the Country Landowners Association). He seems to have been welcomed by both on Thursday. A friend who attended both events describes Mr Gove’s presence as “genuinely transformational”.
Mr Gove’s most urgent task is to explain what Brexit might mean for the area for which he is responsible. I am glad he did not speak of farmers having been “feather-bedded” by subsidy. You often hear this said, but it is the most inapposite phrase for a life that is much harder than that endured by 90 per cent of the working population. He did well, instead, to explain how the Common Agricultural Policy, which we shall soon be leaving, has always discouraged innovation.
The independent British agricultural policy that Mr Gove is cogitating will favour technological change (the “hands-free” farm, gene editing), rather than chugging on with the same old methods. Instead of handing out just for land owned, it will pay “public money for public goods” – tree-planting, improved water quality, access, anti-Leninist wildflower meadows. He seeks to show that post-Brexit Britain can win the race to the quality top, not to the cheapskate bottom.
The intellectual underpinning for the Gove approach comes from Sir Roger Scruton, the conservative thinker. In his book, Green Philosophy, Sir Roger coins a grand word, “oikophilia”, which means the love of home. Instead of general theorising, says Sir Roger, conservatives work outwards from what they love. This is what they can share with environmentalists: “That common cause is territory – the object of a love that has found its strongest political expression in the nation state”.
Similar thoughts drive Mr Gove’s interest in “natural capital” and how this should be built into our thinking about land use. If there is such a thing as natural capital, there will also be plenty of natural capitalists. Farmers, for instance. Again, that feels like a good conservative idea, although, if I were a farmer, I would remain politely silent and wait to find out more (which Mr Gove promises for the spring) about what it might actually mean.
As a friendly observer, I feel lots of doubt, lots of admiration and a touch of cynicism.
The cynicism first. Mr Gove’s name became almost unmentionable in polite society because of the Brexit referendum. He blasphemed against metropolitan religion by campaigning for Leave. Then he damaged his Leave constituency by scuppering Boris Johnson’s leadership bid. Now he is back in office, he needs to rehabilitate himself. The Green Gove helps that process: he doesn’t want to make a fresh set of enemies.
Doubt next. I fear Mr Gove may be underestimating the political malice of significant numbers of green activists who will never be his friend, but will happily make him their prisoner. In courting them, he could alienate the “just about managing”, Brexit-voting classes who are rightly suspicious of green energy levies that do not save the planet but do pick their pockets, and of policies that first bribe them to buy diesel cars and later tell them to get rid of them. Such people need his voice.
But admiration, because Mr Gove is trying to answer a key question of our time. As he showed at Education, he is one of the very few in modern politics who can harness the power of ideas to achieve political success. It is his misfortune – or his opportunity – that the present Prime Minister has a positive distaste for ideas in any form. To reformulate the question with which I began: can a conservative be an environmentalist, and win? I don’t know, but the only one with a chance is Michael Gove.