A generation ago, social democrats saw environmentalism as a threat to the interests of working people. In capitulating to environmentalism, the modern left has given up on socialism.
Tony Blair’s billet-doux as premier to Britain’s energy consumers was committing the UK to deriving 15 per cent of its total energy from renewables by 2020. In its characteristic lack of attention to detail, the announcement was vintage Blair. The rest of his government thought Blair was going to agree to commit to 15 per cent of electricity from renewables, not of its total energy use – including transport and heating – a goal they reckoned totally unrealistic.
But beyond its immediate policy implications, Blair’s decision is emblematic of the modern left. To borrow from the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner, author of The Fanaticism Of The Apocalypse, in adopting environmentalism, the left abandoned its ideals. Renewables, particularly wind and solar, contribute very little to cutting greenhouse gas emissions. They are hugely inefficient, requiring back up from fossil fuel or nuclear power stations.
Renewables embody everything socialism opposed. Substituting an efficient source of energy for a less efficient one reduces the productive potential of the economy. A brilliant tweet at the time of the Thatcher funeral encapsulates the left’s ideological confusion—being in favour of coal miners and against what they mined. Coal-fired power stations are being converted to burn imported wood. Policies favouring renewables are a classic case of taking wealth from the many and transferring it to the few—landowners and energy companies.
In Britain between the world wars, rural nostalgia and hostility to industry tended to be preoccupations on the right. The sounds of Stanley Baldwin’s England were the tinkle of hammer on anvil and the scythe against the whetstone, the Conservative leader told a St George’s Day meeting in 1924 after his first stint as prime minister. For George Orwell, it was the clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns, the to-and-fro of lorries on the Great North Road and the rattle of pintables in the Soho pubs. Labour was the champion of urban living and the interests of the industrial working class. Above all, socialism was meant to be about progress.
True, there were some voices on the left eeking a return to a rural past. The distributists, prominent among them Hilaire Belloc and GK Chesterton, advocated expropriating land owners and giving every family three acres and a cow. The Green Shirts, a movement marrying return-to-nature sentiments and crank economics, marched through London in the 1930s, but by 1944 were being written off by Labour MP Tom Driberg as a “small, fantastic cult of nature worshippers.”
The most articulate opponents of post-war environmentalism were on the left. Experience of working with scientists alarmed by the supposed incompatibility of industrial civilisation and environmental limits led the economist, Wilfred Beckerman, to criticise them as having a minimal understanding of the way that the world of human beings works.
Beckerman was an adviser to Tony Crosland in the first Wilson government, the one that was going to forge a new Britain in the white heat of technological revolution. As social democrats, they opposed environmentalism because collective policies to improve quality of life favoured the better off. Crosland attacked environmentalists for being hostile to economic growth and indifferent to the needs of ordinary people. He mocked them as “kindly and dedicated” people who subconsciously wanted to kick the ladder down from people beneath them.
Nothing better illustrates the intellectual bankruptcy of their modern day successors than their belief in the intellectual fraud of “green growth” and its subordination of economic analysis to the delusion that there are no trade-offs between aggressive decarbonisation targets and raising living standards. Tackling climate change, Tony Blair once nonsensically claimed, was ‘the pro-growth strategy.’
A generation ago, social democrats saw environmentalism as a threat to the interests of working people. In capitulating to environmentalism, the modern left has given up on socialism. Two things flow from this. First, the left abandoned intellectual rigour. Second, in relegating the interests of working people and the less well-off to saving the planet, the left leaves a vast swathe of voters up for grabs. One day, it will awake from its green dream and find they’ve been taken.
Rupert Darwall is the author of The Age of Global Warming – A History (Quartet Books, 2013)