Is Brown really green?

Is Gordon Brown, he of the stealthy taxation and the stealthy redistribution, also a stealthy environmentalist? At first sight, his pre-Budget statement looks decidedly ungreen, since it abandons the fuel tax escalator (whereby petrol tax was to rise annually by 6 per cent above the rate of inflation) and reduces the proposed climate change levy (a tax on industrial users of coal and gas) by 25 per cent. The green lobby was predictably outraged. But it is one of the faults of the green lobby that, fixated on ultimate doom, it takes no real interest in the intricacies of day-to-day politics. The climate change levy will still raise £1 billion a year, to be recycled to business through reductions in National Insurance contributions, and that was almost precisely the figure that many green economists advocated when Labour took office. Mr Brown, it may be argued, deliberately set his initial proposal very high, knowing that business would mount a fierce campaign to which he would need to make concessions. The principle - that companies have an incentive to employ human labour rather than fuel-guzzling machines - remains. It is one that the left should applaud.

Likewise, the end of the fuel tax escalator may be defended as a simple recognition of political reality. A government that continued to price people out of their cars before achieving significant improvements in public transport (the congestion of the nation's roads is now exceeded only by the congestion of its railways) was recklessly courting unpopularity. Mr Brown's promise that future annual fuel tax rises will go directly to transport is surely more important than the precise level of the rise. He has embraced the principle of hypothecation (earmarking of tax for particular spending purposes), which generations of chancellors and Treasury mandarins have resisted, and it could raise as much as £4 billion extra for transport in three years. (The hypothecation principle will also be used to channel rises in tobacco duty to the health service.) Labour's problem has long been that the public's appetite for spending on good causes such as health, education and the environment exceeds its appetite for paying the taxes to support them. Here is an open invitation to the two million members of green bodies to allow their money to be put where their mouths are.

Is this good enough? In the very short term, probably yes; but not in any longer term in which, some scientists warn, we shall be very hot or very wet, if not actually dead. Just as Mr Brown's stealthy taxation fails to convey to voters that, if they want better schools and hospitals and a more equal society, they will have to pay up, so his stealthy approach to the environment ignores the enormous amount of public education required if the most alarming predictions for the global climate are to be avoided. All the eloquence and passion of his pre-Budget statement are reserved for his catchy "enterprise for all" slogan; energy taxes are just a matter of "cutting the deficit" and "meeting our commitments". Reading of Mr Brown's "retreat" on energy taxation, many voters may think that alarms about global warming have receded. Yet if anything, scientists are becoming more concerned, warning that the kind of cyclone that has just hit India will become ever more common or (to bring the threats nearer home) that malaria will soon become endemic in northern Europe. Some say that greenhouse gas emissions will have to be reduced by as much as 80 per cent if catastrophe is to be averted next century. Yet the Kyoto agreement of 1997 commits world governments to a mere 5 per cent reduction by 2010 and there is every reason to doubt that this target can now be reached.

New Labour, however, remains uncomfortable with the environmentalist agenda, as Michael Jacobs, general secretary of the Fabian Society, points out in his excellent new pamphlet on the subject (Environmental Modernisation, Fabian pamphlet 591). Jacobs argues that new Labour "doesn't seem to know what to think on the subject". This may be over-generous, as anybody who has heard No 10's bright young things talk about the green lobby (not always in terms printable in a family paper) will know. As they see it, the greens, with their anti-materialist, anti-aspirational, anti-modernist rhetoric, echo many of the old Labour ghosts that they want to lay to rest. That is understandable, and there is no need for ministers to subscribe to the more hair-shirted varieties of greenery. But a government that prides itself on its modernity should recognise that the environment, almost certainly, will be the biggest public issue of the 21st century.

This article first appeared in the 15 November 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Guns and the Dome