Seven months of savage cuts leave coalition’s green hue fading

With the final nails hammered into the coffin of the Green Investment Bank, it’s time for a look bac

14 May: "This will be the greenest government ever", pledges David Cameron, three days after the formation of the coalition government. He announces his commitment to the 10:10 campaign, saying that all government departments will cut their greenhouse-gas emissions by 10 per cent before the end of 2010.

29 June: The government's Green Investment Bank Commission predicts that £550bn of investment will be needed to meet Britain's renewable energy targets under the Climate Change Act, and recommends the establishment of a Green Investment Bank to meet the challenge by providing finance for clean-power stations, windfarms and smart grids. Experts agree on a fundamental principle: to be capable of kick-starting private-sector investment in potentially risky renewable projects, the GIB must have the ability to issue government-backed "green bonds" to raise money. This kicks off a feud between the bank's backers – led by Chris Huhne – and the Treasury, in which there could only ever be one winner.

16 July: The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) announces a £34m cut to its low-carbon technology programme, including a £12m cut to the Carbon Trust, which provides funding to sustainable technology and businesses.

22 July: The Sustainable Development Commission is axed on the day of the first great quango cull. Environmentalists question the value of the move: the £3m per year it cost to run the SDC was a negligible saving, far outweighed by the estimated £70m the SDC saved the taxpayer annually by recommending green efficiency savings. Caroline Spelman, Secretary of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), says the decision was an easy one: because she is "personally dedicated to driving the sustainability agenda across government", there is no longer any need for external agencies.

8 August: More good news! All new homes will run on green power by 2016. That, at least, is the improbable but cheery-sounding claim of the housing minister Grant Shapps. Developers that fail to meet the target must pay a levy to fund local renewable energy projects. As Shapps pointed out, being so very green, the coalition government hardly had a choice in the matter. "We are committed to being the greenest government ever," said Shapps, "and an essential part of that is to ensure that all homes in the future will be built without emitting any carbon."

20 September: Two election pledges are struck from the list of things that the coalition might bring itself to do something about. The government will not carry out its proposal to make it an offence to possess illegally felled timber or to bring it into the country; nor will it extend the subsidy for small-scale solar production under the Feed-In Tariff.

20 October (the Spending Review): This is the point where it really starts to look bad for the greenest government ever, as George Osborne's axe falls hard on environmental spending.

  • The review includes proposals to sell off national nature reserves, privatise parts of the Forestry Commission and sell off the Met Office (which has contributed as much as any organisation to the public understanding of climate change).
  • The review cuts Defra's budget by 30 per cent, compared to a government average of 19 per cent, equating to efficiency savings of £700m by end of the four-year review period. Chris Huhne's tiny DECC gets away with an 18 per cent cut.
  • The Environment Agency will shed 5,000-8,000 out of 30,000 jobs, while Natural England's budget is cut by 30 per cent – about 800 full-time jobs. Flood defence spending will be cut by 27 per cent (though citizens of the "big society" are pleased to learn that they will be allowed to pitch in themselves).
  • Confusion about the GIB: Clegg writes to his party members telling them that £2bn has been set aside, but Osborne says £1bn.

21 October: Huhne tells the Guardian that the government may sell off one-third of Urenco, a company that makes enriched uranium for nuclear power – and that the money raised may fund the GIB. £1bn probably isn't enough for a proper bank, but still – better than nothing.

25 October: Caroline Spelman announces that 150,000 hectares of forest may be sold off by the government.

18 November: Chris Huhne signals his frustration with the Treasury, which is continuing to oppose the Green Investment Bank, preferring to repackage some existing green pledges in a sparkly new fund. An anonymous member of the GIB commission says: "Frankly, if it doesn't [have the ability to raise money by issuing government-backed bonds] there's no point in it existing. If we were only ever going to do one thing, the green bond is the thing we need to do . . ."

18 November (continued): Later that day, Cameron puts these fears to rest in a rare speech on the environment. The GIB will be a proper bank, he promises. The Labour MP Joan Walley asks whether it would really be a bank with the ability to issue money, whether a dispute was likely between the Department for Business and the Treasury, and whether he would take a personal interest. Cameron replies: "Yes, yes and yes, to all of those questions."

25 November: Oops! Grant Shapps messed up back in August when he said that all homes must be zero-carbon by 2016. What he meant to say was, "Some homes, but not all, will probably be zero-carbon by 2016."

19 November: Chris Huhne's frustrations in pursuit of his bank spill over into an open attack on the Treasury. He compares its obdurate opposition to the bank with the mistakes that led to the Great Depression.

15 December: The Treasury gets its wish: there will be no GIB. Huhne acknowledges that the "bank" will in fact be merely a green fund, and is also forced humiliatingly into repudiating his principles, saying that sustainability must not take precedence over cutting the deficit. The £550bn Britain needs to meet its emissions targets will have to come from somewhere else.

The greenest government ever – the seven-month summary: Forests for sale, a slashed green-tech budget, no green bank, flood defence budget hammered, no independent sustainability watchdog. But, looking on the bright side, developers will be allowed to build energy-inefficient houses for a few more years at least, and you can still import illegally logged timber if you like.

FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty
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Is Switzerland about to introduce a universal basic income?

A referendum on 5 June, triggered by a 100,000-strong petition, will determine whether the country transforms its welfare state with a monthly no-obligations cash handout available to all.

The Office Cantonal de l’Emploi (OCE), Geneva’s unemployment administration, is what you might expect of a modern bureaucracy. Not exactly Kafka-esque, it moves slowly but rationally: take a ticket, wait your turn, learn which paperwork is missing from your dossier, repeat. Located in a big complex of social administration behind the main train station, the office is busy for a region with an unemployment rate between 5 and 6 per cent, well below the European average. The staff, more like social workers than bureaucrats in dress and demeanour, work hard to reinsert people into the job market: officials can be responsible for over 40 dossiers at a time.

Objectively, Switzerland is a good place to be out of work. For a low-tax country the welfare system is robust. On condition of having worked and paid taxes in the state for over 12 months, a newly-unemployed is assured 70-80 per cent of his previous salary for a period up to 2 years: ample income in a country with some of the highest average wages in the world. In practice, the system is a hybrid between the OCE (which tries to get people back to work) and union-allied social insurance bodies (which take care of monthly payments) and is complex but effective. There are welfare trade-offs – easy firing, expensive healthcare – but Switzerland is far from a free market machine without a safety net.

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It seems strange that such a well-oiled system could soon be obsolete. On 5 June, Switzerland will hold a referendum on an initiative to introduce a universal basic income (UBI): a guaranteed, no-strings-attached, monthly payment of 2,500 Swiss francs (£1,784) for each legal resident. Driven by a popular initiative which collected the requisite 100,000 signatures, the UBI would revamp the welfare state by streamlining its core into this single monthly cash transfer. No more obligations to apply for a certain number of positions per month in order to “qualify” for your handout: you could choose to continue working and earning, or you could lead a life of leisure. The existential fear associated with finding, and maintaining, employment would disappear.

Last month, a “robot rally” was held in Zürich to drum up support for the initiative. Hundreds of badly-disguised campaigners paraded through the city advocating a futuristic social contract between man and machine: according to these robots, as they become more advanced, displacing more and more blue and white-collar jobs, the only solution is a UBI allowing for dignified coexistence. Robots must be our friends, not our foes, they claimed. This common refrain of digital disruption is a core tenet of the campaign and echoes a zeitgeist debate in Switzerland around the future of work and technology. The concept of a “Fourth Industrial Revolution”, championed by Klaus Schwab, Executive Chairman of the Geneva-based World Economic Forum, has risen from soundbite to serious topic. Schwab says that current shifts in AI and connected technologies amount to “nothing less than a transformation of humankind”, one which will need solutions guaranteeing some sort of a minimum-income for all.

A record-breakingly large poster in the Pleine de PlainPalais, Geneva. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty

But the ego of an epoch tends to historical self-aggrandisement. Hasn’t technological change always been an issue? In the opening scene of the 1986 Only Fools and Horses episode “Let Sleeping Dogs Lie”, Rodney complains about computers and mass unemployment in Thatcherite Britain: “How many people have been put on the dole by a robot what [sic] can build a car?” Digital advances aside, this is hardly the case in Switzerland, where the average unemployment rate is 3.7 per cent. Che Wagner, spokesman of Basic Income Switzerland, the organisation behind the popular initiative, concedes that the country is not suffering from any “emergency problem”. Yet it is precisely the triad of “political stability, economic wealth and a strong liberal culture of self-determination” which makes Switzerland an ideal testing ground for opening the debate. Whereas welfare politics have traditionally aimed to solve problems, this initiative is a more positive affirmation of how best to organise an affluent society of the future. The key goal is more philosophical than economic; he is determined to “decouple the concepts of labour and self-worth”.

In this sense the initiative is a radical departure from both “welfare-politics-as-usual” and neo-liberal proposals for basic incomes. Che and his colleagues make up an independently-funded, wilfully apolitical group which eschews traditional concepts of left and right. There are no Marxist hangovers in the proposal (“we don’t want to take anything from anybody to give it to somebody else”), yet there is also no indication that they support a radical rationalisation of taxation and wealth creation implied by liberal economists like Milton Friedman. The UBI would not negate certain benefits guaranteed under the current welfare system – disability allowances, for example – and is not Randian model of eradicating poverty to let the wealth creators run free. The core raison d’être is an individualistic, humanist empowerment; any socio-economic reorganisation which would be bound to arise is secondary.

This reflects the messy international debate, which has come on the agenda in recent years and attracted inputs from across the spectrum. Both Yanis Varoufakis and Joseph Stiglitz have voiced approval. Slavoj Žižek, the loud Slovene philosopher of the far left, wants a reconceptualisation of UBI to recognise that “in a knowledge-based economy, collective productivity of the ‘general intellect’ is the key source of wealth” – a similar idea to Paul Mason’s vision of a “post-capitalist” socialism for a digital age. Unsurprisingly, the companies and tech evangelists who reap the largest benefits from this data-based economy are also concerned. Some are researching liberating models of “seed money for everybody” which would have the dual-advantage of reducing annoying government bureaucracy and mitigating the possible backlash against future technological gains. In true internet-emancipatory fashion, they also want to liberate people’s latent creativity by replacing the obligation to work by the incentive to innovate.

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It is difficult to argue with the idea that people should work because they want to, not because they have to. But Swiss referendums are not won and lost on philosophical niceties. Direct democracy depends upon an engaged and pragmatic population which deliberates more earthly concerns: is our society ready for this? What would happen to the Swiss economy? Most importantly, how would it work in practice? Unfortunately for the “yes” side, these matters have proven more difficult to communicate.

One opinion poll conducted in January found that just 2 per cent of the population would quit their jobs if the measure came into effect. This is far from any imagined society of freeloading slackers which people seem to fear (ironically, one-third of the same respondents said that they expected that others would leave their jobs). But in a nation where, like elsewhere, the education system is designed to train people for specific professions and the social expectation is that you are what you work, it is difficult to see beyond a vanguard of creative or entrepreneurial youth who might embrace the freedom. Of course, those working part-time positions paid little more than 2,500 Swiss francs would have little incentive to keep working, but elsewhere it may be business as usual. My local kebab vendor told me that he had been working since he was 14, so he would see no reason to stop now.

What the experiment would do to Swiss GDP is also unclear. According to the initiators of the plan, the extra cost to the exchequer to pay a UBI to all those currently under the 2,500 Swiss franc level would be a meagre SFr18 billion (the federal government puts this at SFr25 billion). This shortfall could be met by imposing a small tax on financial transactions, they suggest. Savings could also be made through the rationalisation of the welfare system, and VAT hikes have also been mooted. Under current conditions, then, the scheme would be feasible. But this is without factoring in various known unknowns: possible outsourcing of some industries due to less competitive wages, or a global reduction in GDP due to many workers reducing - if not eliminating - the hours they work. “A step too far in the right direction2, was how economist Tobias Müller put it recently in the daily Le Temps, echoing the consensus of the Swiss political class.

At the practical individual level, finally, how it would affect the pockets of the Swiss middle class is unclear. For those earning more than the minimum amount, the only difference would be that the first SFr2,500 of their salaries would be “re-packaged” as UBI. Being presumably tax-exempt, the measure therefore would mean an incremental gain but ultimately a maintaining of the status quo. An employee in an international organisation complained to me about the lack of clarity communicated both by the campaign and the government on the initiative: the actual vote hinges on three short constitutional amendments to ensure a “dignified” minimum income for the population, but details are scarce. Although she is “of course in favour” of the suggestion, she will thus vote against it. The middle and upper classes of Swiss society simply haven’t been convinced of the need for such radical change, she said. Who benefits?

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Ultimately, at all levels of politics and society, the strength of the proposal is also its weakness. Its vague, normative nature has attracted interest, but the lack of clarity around how it would work concretely and how it would affect the income of the majority of Swiss people has undercut any chance of success. Current indicators suggest it will be roundly rejected. The always out-on-a-limb Greens are the only political party to announce support. A recent opinion poll found that 72 per cent of the population were opposed to the measure.

The amount of air-time and attention it has received will nevertheless be perceived as a success by proponents. The broad nature of the proposal and the sometimes flamboyant campaign (last week they unveiled the largest campaign poster in history in Geneva (see above); the Guinness Book of Records was on hand) highlighted that their major goal was not to meticulously rewrite Swiss legislation but to kickstart the debate on their terms. The first rule of negotiation theory is to bid high. That the direct democracy system here allows for such radical proposals (whether progressive or lamentable, like some previous votes on immigration) is a boon for the international efforts to raise awareness of this future reordering of welfare.

As referendum season continues elsewhere in Europe, there may be a lesson for campaign strategists. Emotive issues are sure to attract commentary and vocal support, but the silent majority is more pragmatic than they are often given credit. It is one thing to aim for Marx’s vision of an economic system allowing us to “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, and criticise after dinner”: voters want to know how the hunting rights and fish quotas would operate before signing up.