Britain: a laggard that could be a leader in tackling climate change

This will be a long slog, and will require ingenuity and determination in the face of a relentless a

What is the role of our government and what is its relationship with the citizen? These questions have acquired a new resonance. Ten years into the life of this Labour government, politicians appear to have convinced themselves that their task has changed. Gordon Brown, as he contemplates his moment, talks now of communities taking the lead for elected representatives to follow. Who could fail to be reassured by the notion that our MPs wish to act only in accordance with our wishes? And yet, in one area in particular, we require our politicians to take risks, to lead rather than follow the debate. That area is the environment.

The climate-change bill, published in draft on 13 March, marks an important moment in our national life. For sure, there are aspects of it that fall short. But as Mark Lynas points out (page 12), it has the potential to transform the UK, for so long one of Europe's laggards, into the only major nation to commit to legally binding cuts in CO2. It also sets in motion individual and corporate carbon rationing without the need for future primary legislation.

The response in the media has been predictable. Conservative papers that were swift to denounce David Cameron's call for tougher aviation taxes are pleading that voters cannot take any more. They cannot explain their position beyond bleating about nanny states and toying with, or endorsing, the claims of climate-change deniers. Broadcasters act even more irresponsibly, with Channel 4 airing a documentary that flew in the face of all the evidence and with the BBC misreading its requirement to "balance" by encouraging debate between the two sides, as if they represent equal bodies of evidence.

Brown has seized on the assault on Cameron from the right as an opportunity. But whatever the many contradictions in his position (hostility to Europe precludes co-operation on the environment), whatever his motives (to make his party more electable), whatever the practicability of his proposals, Cameron is making an important contribution to the debate. All the main parties should welcome the apparent consensus and help drive that debate.

Britain finds itself, if more by accident than design, in a relatively fortuitous place. Brown was right to emphasise the global challenge of climate change in his speech of 12 March, and to point out that ultimately it is only by recasting institutions such as the United Nations, G8 and European Union, bringing fast-developing (and fast-polluting) countries into the fold, that real progress can be made.

But this should not be a smokescreen for action at home. Ministers will be watched for any moves to water down the climate-change bill. The legislation must also be set against political cowardice in the face of continued airport expansion and continued underinvestment in public transport. Which is where the role of government and the governed comes in. Brown and Cameron have seemingly adopted the idea of the enabling state. It is good, as Martin Bright points out on page 10, that Brown is thinking hard about the need to cast politics more broadly as conventional party membership declines.

Yet a new politics requires courage and candour, too. It is an abrogation of responsibility to future generations to pander to the present one. It is a natural instinct to resent taxation, even more to resent exhortations to change lifestyles. As Peter Kellner shows (page 13; and see our website for full details), many Labour members and even more trade unionists remain to be convinced.

Caution and scepticism will have to be overcome by strong argument, and by fiscal incentives as much as punishment. This will be a long slog, and will require ingenuity and determination in the face of what has been a relentless assault by vested interests in the media and business.

A week that will be remembered for the dangerous and costly decision to modernise Trident may also have changed the nature of the environmental debate in the UK. A government with a seeming determination to enrage has shown that it can still invigorate. The hard part has only just begun.

A European's right to roam

Hard to believe, but there was once a time when people did not have mobile phones. We are reminded of this only rarely, for instance when a pre-1990s film is replayed on television and the hero or heroine inexplicably runs to a telephone box to make a call that never ever begins "I'm on the train . . .". Now, though, mobiles are as indispensable as a right arm, and so news of reductions in the cost of using them makes front-page news.

The EU commissioner for information, Viviane Reding, has told mobile-phone operators to stop extortionate charges to customers "roaming" overseas. The operators, who make almost a fifth of their income from such charges, are naturally reluctant in turn to concede the need for regulation. The European Council is insistent. Heads of state are involved.

This speaks of something greater even than mobiles. Fifty years ago, the Treaty of Rome established the European Economic Community which, with a couple of changes of name, has created prosperity and security across the continent, developed a currency that challenges the dollar as the world standard and given the Daily Mail a million "whatever next?" stories (straight bananas, bureaucrats who measure waves, officials who ban British light bulbs).

Those who question whether Europe is losing its way should relax. The right to tell friends which train we are on, anywhere in Europe, comes in the nick of time. May the next 50 years be as effulgent.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Trident: Why Brown went to war with Labour