Consensus on the need for clean energy is likely to be overturned when voters feel the economic realities kicking in.
Brexit, once fuzzy, is coming into focus. It will be clean, it will be hard, it will be red, white and blue. Will it, though, be green? The question is interesting because on October 31 many of the country’s environmental rules will cease to be. Environmentalists are fairly optimistic: there is enough global pressure, enough party consensus, they reckon, for the rules mostly to end up where they started. But they shouldn’t be so sure.
Here’s their logic. Party politics loom large, but the planet is considered larger, just about: the main parties are busy replicating each other’s promises on climate change. In his speech on the steps of Downing Street, Boris Johnson talked proudly of a country that liked animals and was “leading the world in the battery technology that will help cut CO2 and tackle climate change” and “produce green jobs for the next generation”.
True, the environmental zealot Michael Gove had been shuffled out of his job as environment secretary, but the super-greens Zac Goldsmith and Simon Clarke had been shuffled in, albeit to more junior positions. Much has been made, too, of Johnson’s girlfriend’s job as an environmental campaigner (his nickname for her is Little Otter). Carrie Symonds is due to give her first solo speech this evening at a birdwatching conference. “It’ll be interesting and inspiring to have someone in Downing Street who cares so much about wildlife,” the organisers said.
They shouldn’t count their chickens. Johnson is not necessarily heading in a green direction. He will note, for one thing, that there are few political gains in trying to please the liberal left and centre, the parts of the electorate that care most about the environment. He can throw all the energy-saving lightbulbs and 5p plastic bags at them he likes, he won’t win them round to the rest of his hard-Brexit, fill-up-the-prisons offer, aimed purely at the right.
There is the fact that the Tories anyway tend to be fair-weather greens, and with Brexit a harsher season is coming. Even the centrist David Cameron stopped talking about dolphins and foliage when recession hit, at which point he noticed that his base was unmoved by grand ideologies but did have strong feelings about wind farms near its back gardens. And amidst these financial straits, Johnson’s Brexiteers will be gasping for free trade opportunities. If they have to relax environmental rules to get an edge, they may well choose to do so.
Added to all this there may soon be another, even more pressing reason for the Tories to ditch green commitments. At present in Britain there is little advantage to be had in taking an anti-environmental stance. But that may soon change.
In Europe and in Australia a new cultural battleground is emerging. Where once countries were riven over immigration, now it is the environment that splits them, and into familiar slices. One side — young, urban, educated — wants pollution controls. The other — older, rural, socially conservative — argues that the ordinary voter should be allowed their cheap car and their annual foreign holiday and should not be made to pay to replace their boiler.
In Germany the flashpoint was the diesel bans of 2018. Cars, after this, divided the country. When for example Regine Günther, a Berlin senator for transport, called for people to dispose of their vehicles, she was pilloried as a “green communist” and a “car hater”. The populist right, meanwhile, has been quick to notice how easily the issue fits its narratives: anti-regulation, anti-political correctness and anti-elite.
And where populists go, the mainstream right follows, pitting itself against urban snobs who can afford to indulge in abstract moral ideas, unlike the hard workers whose daily costs they want to increase.