Tom Burke’s political commentary: From the greenest government ever… to our very own Tea Party

ENDS Report 441, p. 55, October 2011.

Cameron came to power amid a plethora of greenery that convinced many that the Tories are not the ‘nasty party’. But coalition policy shows every sign of a conviction that green gets in the way of growth, and markets must have their way.

Ian Fleming introduced the world to his arch villain Goldfinger in 1959. Into his mouth he put the now famous aphorism: “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it’s enemy action.”

Later, a more vulgar version of the same sentiment became popular in America. It was claimed that if something looked like a duck, walked like a duck and quacked like a duck, it was probably a duck.

The moral of this somewhat oblique introduction is that things often really are what they appear to be. If it looks like the coalition government has abandoned its effort to be the greenest government ever, that is because it has.

The evidence for this judgment is now so great as to defeat the last vestiges of hope in those of us that wished otherwise.

David Cameron used greenery effectively in his successful effort to convince voters that the Tories were no longer the nasty party. He may still be personally committed to this cause. But then he may also be personally committed to the cause of preserving the NHS while his government seems intent on its demolition.

Liam Fox resigned because he confused his personal and his political responsibilities. The prime minister does not seem likely to repeat that error. The level of panic in the government is now such that personal principle no longer has any place in determining its policies. As the chancellor told a recent meeting of the Cabinet: “Anything that gets in the way of growth will be flattened.”

The Tory press over the past few weeks has drummed home a clear message: green gets in the way of growth. There is no more evidence for this assertion than there is for growth itself, but the point is now so often repeated it has become a mantra in Whitehall.

I will come to why this might be happening in a moment. First we should look at a sample of the bill of particulars supporting the charge of abandonment. It is extensive.

The coalition began by abolishing the Sustainable Development Commission and the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. At a stroke it got rid of two of the most authoritative public institutions of any independence able to hold the government to account for its environmental actions.

It then tried to sell off the public forests, against the advice of its own environment secretary, and was only stopped by a massive public outcry. Its next trick was the Red Tape Challenge. This invited anyone who wished to propose the abolition of any piece of environmental legislation they did not like.

Then came the proposal to disembowel the planning system, which I wrote about last month (ENDS Report 440, p 54). This provoked a masterly campaign by the National Trust that has forced at least a pause for reflection. However, the prime minister’s emollient letter to the trust was written before the chancellor got into flattening those who disagree with him.

You would be a very naive environmentalist indeed if you thought that the battle to save the planning system was anywhere near over. This is especially true in the light of the rumours and – I imagine – papers floating around Whitehall about the coalition’s intention to mount a similar putsch against the need for environmental consents.

So what on earth is going on? Or more exactly, what is going on in the Treasury and the Cabinet Office, where most of these proposals to dismantle Britain’s environmental machinery emanate from? The short answer is that we are having our own Tea Party. One of the most strikingly unpleasant aspects of Congressional politics in the US is the declaration of war on the environment by right-wing Republicans.

Of course, that is not what they say they are doing. They claim they are removing the burden of over regulation on hard-pressed businesses to speed up growth.

What they are actually doing is taking advantage of the current economic circumstances to pursue a long-held ideological commitment. Their goal is simple. They want to take government away and let markets rip.

They know, however, that the American public would never stand for an overt attempt to repeal environmental laws. So what they are doing instead is to pass bill after bill to eliminate the funding for the agencies that are required to enforce those standards.

If the politics of repealing environmental laws are too difficult, then get rid of the institutions without which the law is no more than text on a piece of paper. If this sounds familiar, it is because it is.

It is not likely that we are facing a strategic effort funded by private interests such as the Koch brothers in the US. This is much more likely to be an example of a typical British muddle.

Start with a measure of Treasury reluctance to pay for anything here. A dash of libertarian ideology there. Mix well with some sparkling populist rhetoric and add a twist of small-business opportunism and, whether shaken or stirred, you have a cocktail that no one really wants to drink.

The reality is that environmental regulations more often stimulate growth than impede it. Weak businesses will always complain about having to do more to meet current standards. The Conservative Party knows very well that it does not improve its electoral prospects by reinventing the nasty party. The media will happily write both sides of the story as long as it sells papers.

If the coalition fails – as it will if it continues on its present course – to deliver the greenest government ever, it will be a cock-up rather than a conspiracy. In a way, that would be even sadder. Nevertheless, this would be a cock-up with consequences that business and the environment, as well as the coalition, would be better off without.

About tomburke

Tom Burke is the Chairman of E3G, Third Generation Environmentalism, and an Environmental Policy Adviser (part time) to Rio Tinto plc. He is a Visiting Professor at both Imperial and University Colleges, London. He is a member of the External Review Committee of Shell and the Sustainable Sourcing Advisory Board of Unilever and a Trustee of the Black-E Community Arts Project, Liverpool.
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