Tom Burke’s political commentary: Cameron’s green gambit – true hue or camouflage?

ENDS Report 436, p. 48, May 2011.

One year on and a string of government missteps have left many questioning its true commitment to the environment and genuine reform

The collision between the simplicities of politics and the complexities of government is often a brutal experience for ministers. Politics is the art of managing prejudices. Give people what they think they want and they will elect you. Then comes the reckoning.

It turns out that the public votes, as it has every right to do, for one thing with the left hand and its exact opposite with the right. There is no requirement for consistency in politics. But there is a requirement for clear emphatic statements of purpose.

Government is different. Governments have a limited toolkit at their disposal with which to deliver their promises. They can spend money, write laws or make speeches. Making speeches rarely makes a difference. To spend money you first have to raise it. This has become an ever more unpopular and difficult task. That leaves making laws – or in this government’s case, removing them – as the tool of choice.

Making laws is much more difficult than making speeches. The interests of diverse and vocal groups must be painstakingly reconciled. The law must command the acquiescence, if not the consent, of a significant proportion of the professional elites that actually deliver the political promises. This does require consistency of argument. At least some evidence is expected. Legions of devils lurk in the detail just waiting to offend someone. Seamlessly, in the mouths of ministers, emphatic clarity becomes resounding opacity.

The resulting fog makes it much more difficult to determine intentions. It is often impossible to tell whether what happens in government is the result of a cock-up or some carefully contrived plan. The trouble is they often look the same from the outside and ministers have been known to seize on serendipity as proof of omniscience.

There is a great deal of debate among the political commentariat about the real David Cameron. Is he a genuine moderniser with a strong personal commitment to green issues (and the NHS) who has battled skilfully to contain his nasty right wing? Or is he simply a superior PR man who has successfully cloaked his – and his party’s – unreconstructed Thatcherism in a soft green miasma? Then again, perhaps he is just our third prime minister in a row to be better at managing the press than the country, lurching from side to side with every headline.

There is no shortage of evidence that the pledge to make this the “greenest government ever” was no more than part of the camouflage for the real Thatcherite. The wholly misjudged attempt to sell the nation’s forests was an odd way to begin fulfilling his promise. The unnecessarily cruel way in which his environment secretary was humiliated in the subsequent u-turn showed the Tories still have some nastiness left.

These events threw a bright light on the Public Bodies Bill, originally a government bid to seize the power to axe any public body it wished by writ. It would have allowed the government to gut any statute it did not like by an obscure parliamentary man¬oeuvre. Its reception in the Lords was robust to the point of hostility. In particular, the offensive schedule 7, which would have allowed the government to abolish or change the powers of all the main environmental public bodies at will, was removed. But it could always be reattached when the bill receives its second reading in the Commons in the near future.

Then there is the Red Tape Challenge (ENDS Report 435, pp 48-49). This business department (BIS) initiative has invited the public to say which of 278 regulations on the environment “should stay, which can be merged, which can be scrapped”. It promises: “Ministers will have three months to work out which regulations they want to keep and why… the default presumption will be that burdensome regulations will go. If ministers want to keep them, they have to make a very good case for them to stay.”

Either this is nothing more than a cheap populist gimmick or the government really does mean to review the value of six decades of environmental law in three months. So far, about 90% of respondents on the website have opposed the idea. Governments often indulge in policy cannibalism – seeking to drive down the price of energy to reduce fuel poverty at the same time as driving up the price of carbon to tackle climate change, for instance – but this scales new heights.

In July, DEFRA will publish a white paper on the natural environment. This is welcome, considering that 13 years of Labour government passed without a single statement of its environmental policy. If the Red Tape Challenge is for real, any regulations it proposed in July could be scrapped in August.

Put all this in the context of aircraft carriers without planes, public consultations on legislation already in Parliament and a host of lesser missteps and the impression is more Keystone Kops than nasty Thatcherite conspiracy. Nevertheless, clowns do hurt themselves for real sometimes. No one should underestimate the potential of the Public Bodies Bill and the Red Tape Challenge to irreversibly damage the environment – even if by accident.

Friends of the Earth recently published a thoughtful examination of the government’s green record to date.1 It found that out of the 75 policies studied, only six were wholly successful and progress had been made on 14. Performance on the rest ranged from “moribund” to “limited”.

But they have not yet given up hope. They, along with 14 other NGOs, signed a letter to the prime minister in mid-May, expressing the belief that “there is still scope for your government to be the greenest ever, but it will require both urgency and resolve”.2 A little competence would help too.

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