Don’t let the faux greens sell off our environment

People like Chris Huhne are willing to talk the talk while in office, but they will usually capitulate to business interests.

In February 2012, the BBC’s then environment correspondent, Richard Black, described Chris Huhne’s departure from the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC)as “the exit of a minister ... generally regarded as having fought tenaciously for ‘green’ policies”. It was a view echoed by many mainstream, business-friendly “greens”, who were presumably impressed by Huhne’s readiness to talk the talk while in office.

“One abiding set of values that all Liberal Democrats share is a respect for our environment, natural systems and sustainability,” he told the Lib Dem conference in 2011, adding that, with its backing, “We will hold course to be the greenest government ever.” Some may have been less impressed by his promise, a month later, that: “Renewable energy technologies will deliver a third industrial revolution. Its impact will be every bit as profound as the first two.” Apparently it had not occurred to this champion of natural systems that it was the fallout from those previous industrial revolutions that got us where we are in the first place; or, as Robert Burns noted, on a visit to the Carron iron works in 1787: 

We cam na here to view your warks 
In hopes to be mair wise, 
But only, lest we gang to Hell, 
It may be nae surprise.

Still, compared to many of his coalition colleagues, Huhne was at least pro-renewables – well, maybe not solar – so his heart seemed to be in the right place. But was it?

After the DECC, Huhne seems to have had second thoughts about our natural systems. Now we all know about his lucrative consultancy post with the Texas-based company Zilkha Biomass Energy, whose website contains such priceless (if rather alarming) comments as: “Today we let much valuable forest resource go unmanaged. A managed forest, compared to an unmanaged forest, is able to sequester much more CO2, making trees better solar batteries.” And recently, unburdened by the need for conference-friendly rhetoric, Huhne seems to be letting his true colours shine through.

He has never opposed fracking (“Shale gas may be significant,” he wrote in 2011; “If it comes good, we must be ready to take advantage of it”), but talking to John Humphrys on the Today programme last September, he came over as something of an enthusiast, at least for importing cheap, US-produced shale gas.

His disregard for natural systems became most apparent on 19 January, when he called for more greenfield sites to be given over to development. “The brave political promise would be to recognise that the supply of housing land and sites – brownfield or greenfield – is ultimately the government’s responsibility,” he wrote in the Guardian. “The tougher the planning controls, the higher are house prices.”

Huhne’s words were carefully chosen – we cannot help but agree that people need houses – but history teaches us that calls for the relaxation of planning laws are never about homes, as such; they are always about development – and the consequence, always, has been the loss of woodland, meadow and wetland habitats: “our” natural systems.

As Fiona Reynolds remarked in 2011, when she was director general of the National Trust, what little we have left of those systems “has all been protected through good planning and the moment you let good planning go, it’s lost forever”. Recent developments, such as the Trump Organisation’s Scottish government-backed destruction of the dunes at Menie, in Aberdeenshire, show that what our environment needs is more protection, not less.

But then, that wouldn’t be business-friendly. And, as every politician knows – faux greens such as Chris Huhne included – to be business-friendly is everything.

Paradise lost: Menie in Aberdeenshire in 2007, where Donald Trump recently built a golf course. Photo Jeff J Mitchell/Getty.

This article first appeared in the 29 January 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The seven per cent problem

Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Show Hide image

What Donald Trump could learn from Ronald Reagan

Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement.

“No one remembers who came in second.” That wisdom, frequently dispensed by the US presidential candidate Donald Trump, came back to haunt him this week. Trump’s loss in the Iowa Republican caucuses to the Texas senator Ted Cruz, barely beating Senator Marco Rubio of Florida for second place, was the first crack in a campaign that has defied all expectations.

It has been a campaign built on Trump’s celebrity. Over the past eight months, his broad name recognition, larger-than-life personality and media savvy have produced a theatrical candidacy that has transfixed even those he repels. The question now is whether that celebrity will be enough – whether a man so obsessed with being “Number One” can bounce back from defeat.

Iowa isn’t everything, after all. It didn’t back the eventual Republican nominee in 2008 or 2012. Nor, for that matter, in 1980, when another “celebrity” candidate was in the mix. That was the year Iowa picked George H W Bush over Ronald Reagan – the former actor whom seasoned journalists dismissed as much for his right-wing views as for his “B-movie” repertoire. But Reagan regrouped, romped to victory in the New Hampshire primary and rode a wave of popular support all the way to the White House.

Trump might hope to replicate that success and has made a point of pushing the Reagan analogy more generally. Yet it is a comparison that exposes Trump’s weaknesses and his strengths.

Both men were once Democrats who came later in life to the Republican Party, projecting toughness, certainty and unabashed patriotism. Trump has even adopted Reagan’s 1980 campaign promise to “make America great again”. Like Reagan, he has shown he can appeal to evangelicals despite question marks over his religious conviction and divorces. In his ability to deflect criticism, too, Trump has shown himself as adept as Reagan – if by defiance rather than by charm – and redefined what it means to be “Teflon” in the age of Twitter.

That defiance, however, points to a huge difference in tone between Reagan’s candidacy and Trump’s. Reagan’s vision was a positive, optimistic one, even as he castigated “big government” and the perceived decline of US power. Reagan’s America was meant to be “a city upon a hill” offering a shining example of liberty to the world – in rhetoric at least. Trump’s vision is of an America closed off from the world. His rhetoric invokes fear as often as it does freedom.

On a personal level, Reagan avoided the vituperative attacks that have been the hallmark of Trump’s campaign, even as he took on the then“establishment” of the Republican Party – a moderate, urban, east coast elite. In his first run for the nomination, in 1976, Reagan even challenged an incumbent Republican president, Gerald Ford, and came close to defeating him. But he mounted the challenge on policy grounds, advocating the so-called “Eleventh Commandment”: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Trump, as the TV debates between the Republican presidential candidates made clear, does not subscribe to the same precept.

More importantly, Reagan in 1976 and 1980 was the leader of a resurgent conservative movement, with deep wells of political experience. He had been president of the Screen Actors Guild in the late 1940s, waging a campaign to root out communist infiltrators. He had gone on to work for General Electric in the 1950s as a TV pitchman and after-dinner speaker, honing a business message that resonated beyond the “rubber chicken circuit”.

In 1964 he grabbed headlines with a televised speech on behalf of the Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater – a bright spot in Goldwater’s otherwise ignominious campaign. Two years later he was elected governor of California – serving for eight years as chief executive of the nation’s most populous state. He built a conservative record on welfare reform, law and order, and business regulation that he pushed on to the federal agenda when he ran for president.

All this is to say that Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. By contrast, Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement – which enhanced his “outsider” status, perhaps, but not his ground game. So far, he has run on opportunism, tapping in to popular frustration, channelled through a media megaphone.

In Iowa, this wasn’t enough. To win the nomination he will have to do much more to build his organisation. He will be hoping that in the primaries to come, voters do remember who came in second. 

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war