The fracking war shows how the Tory party has been captured by a recession-proof old guard

This is more than just a spot of local difficulty for the Conservatives. It is an existential challenge.

It could be a fete on a village green: the tea stall with home-baked cakes, the children’s play area, mellow music wafting over the rolling West Sussex countryside. In a shady spot, a group yoga session is under way.
 
This is Upper-Middle England relaxing on a bright Sunday afternoon in August – but with a difference. The scene is framed by placards and police vans. The green is really a narrow verge on the B2036 just outside the village of Balcombe. The main attraction is a gate that was inconspicuous until the land behind it was identified as a potential site for “fracking” – extracting natural gas by breaking sediments of rock with water and chemicals. Now the gate is guarded by a line of police officers. One of them tells me the festive mood is a weekend thing. “The atmosphere changes when there’s machinery going in.”
 
The Balcombe protest is an odd hybrid. The villagers don’t want fracking on their doorstep. Their cause has been taken up by itinerant eco-warriors. Along the road, the tents and battered camper vans of full-time activists are punctuated by the Land Rovers and Audis of local Sussex day-trippers. By the guarded gate, a retired villager in mustardcoloured corduroy trousers and burgundy sweater is chatting to a woman in psychedelic tie-dye. “We have to stop it here,” he says. “Otherwise it will spread. There are lots of places on the list for fracking. They’re saying it will go all the way to Tunbridge Wells.”
 
Tory England liked fracking a lot more before the discovery that it could happen in sedate southern Shires. The point was made with accidentally satirical candour by David Howell, a Conservative peer and former minister, when he suggested that environmental disruption should be reserved for “desolate” northern provinces.
 
The gaffe had added pungency because Howell’s son-in-law is George Osborne, the government’s main cheerleader for fracking. The Chancellor is persuaded that there is a pent-up energy boom waiting to be released from beneath the British soil. As a lifelong Londoner, he also carries a strain of metropolitan impatience with rural protectionism. Osborne is desperate to show that Britain’s economy is on the move. He wants cranes on the horizon, diggers in the fields and the smellof fresh asphalt in the air. David Cameron has a more instinctive feel for the countryside Tories’ dread of concrete.
 
What both men know is that there aren’t enough seats in the stockbroker belt to deliver a Conservative majority and that the party needs to woo a new generation if it is not to slip into terminal decline. It has no more than 170,000 members and their average age is 68.
 
It is an old conundrum. Conservatism atrophies when it becomes just about conserving things or, worse, wishing things would return to a fantasy of the way they are supposed to have been. Sensible Tories know that their party’s future will only be secured with a credible invitation to young people who aren’t well-off to join the affluent classes. They also know that the economy no longer works as an engine to reward the efforts of people on modest incomes with growing levels of comfort and security. Wages are stagnant, prices are rising, housing is unaffordable, saving is impossible.
 
The holy grail of Tory policy is some replica of the 1980 “Right to Buy” council houses, a scheme credited in Conservative lore with turning swaths of working-class Labour voters into proudly propertied Thatcherites. There is a reverential nod to that legacy in “Help to Buy”, Osborne’s scheme to boost home ownership with government- backed mortgages.
 
It is a pitiful tribute – its main impact is likely to be inflating prices, putting a house even further beyond the reach of families on low incomes. The intention is that new houses will be developed to meet the demand stoked by cheaper credit. That only works if there is somewhere to build. Since the greatest need is in the south-east, that means pouring more concrete into Tory backyards.
 
MPs for leafy constituencies say they are mired in frenzied local battles over new developments. The government’s efforts to relax planning regulations earlier this year provoked backbench fury. With Ukip poised to mop up Tory discontent, No 10 is sensitive to the charge of spraying bricks and mortar indiscriminately across the party’s electoral heartland. Once fracking is added to the mix, Cameron and Osborne are easily depicted in a conspiracy against all that is green and pleasant in England.
 
This is more than just a spot of local difficulty for the Conservatives. It is an existential challenge. For all the veneration of Thatcher, the Tories are miles away from repeating the Iron Lady’s record of throwing open the doors of stuffy Conservatism to new recruits.
 
The party has been captured by those who already have everything they need and whose main demand from politics is to be left to enjoy it in peace. Privately, senior Tories concede that many of their most stalwart supporters have been relatively untroubled by the economic turbulence of recent years. To the retired officer in his Kentish conservatory or the Surrey banker commuting into the City, it hardly felt like there was a crisis at all – at least, until Osborne’s diggers appeared at the bottom of the garden.
 
Those who avoided the pain are also very receptive to premature declarations (mostly by comfortably housed, well-paid commentators) that the ordeal is over, that lefty bleating about cuts was overblown and that normal service has been resumed. What they mean is that, for the lucky few, normal service was never really interrupted.
 
Yet elsewhere in Britain millions of people are being priced out of the middle-class dream. If they see Cameron taking the side of the minority who dodged the recession, they will feel priced out of ever being Tory voters, too.
Placards at the entrance of a drill site in Balcombe. Photo: Getty

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

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Donald Trump wants to terminate the Environmental Protection Agency - can he?

"Epa, Epa, Eeeepaaaaa" – Grampa Simpson.

 

There have been countless jokes about US President Donald Trump’s aversion to academic work, with many comparing him to an infant. The Daily Show created a browser extension aptly named “Make Trump Tweets Eight Again” that converts the font of Potus’ tweets to crayon scrawlings. Indeed, it is absurd that – even without the childish font – one particular bill that was introduced within the first month of Trump taking office looked just as puerile. Proposed by Matt Gaetz, a Republican who had been in Congress for barely a month, “H.R. 861” was only one sentence long:

“The Environmental Protection Agency shall terminate on December 31, 2018”.

If this seems like a stunt, that is because Gaetz is unlikely to actually achieve his stated aim. Drafting such a short bill without any co-sponsors – and leaving it to a novice Congressman to present – is hardly the best strategy to ensure a bill will pass. 

Still, Republicans' distrust for environmental protections is well-known - long-running cartoon show The Simpsons even did a send up of the Epa where the agency had its own private army. So what else makes H.R. 861 implausible?

Well, the 10-word-long statement neglects to address the fact that many federal environmental laws assume the existence of or defer to the Epa. In the event that the Epa was abolished, all of these laws – from the 1946 Atomic Energy Act to the 2016 Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act – would need to be amended. Preferably, a way of doing this would be included in the bill itself.

Additionally, for the bill to be accepted in the Senate there would have to be eight Democratic senators who agreed with its premise. This is an awkward demand when not even all Republicans back Trump. The man Trum appointed to the helm of the Epa, Scott Pruitt, is particularly divisive because of his long opposition to the agency. Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine said that she was hostile to the appointment of a man who was “so manifestly opposed to the mission of the agency” that he had sued the Epa 14 times. Polls from 2016 and 2017 suggests that most Americans would be also be opposed to the agency’s termination.

But if Trump is incapable of entirely eliminating the Epa, he has other ways of rendering it futile. In January, Potus banned the Epa and National Park Services from “providing updates on social media or to reporters”, and this Friday, Trump plans to “switch off” the government’s largest citizen-linked data site – the Epa’s Open Data Web Service. This is vital not just for storing and displaying information on climate change, but also as an accessible way of civilians viewing details of local environmental changes – such as chemical spills. Given the administration’s recent announcement of his intention to repeal existing safeguards, such as those to stabilise the climate and protect the environment, defunding this public data tool is possibly an attempt to decrease awareness of Trump’s forthcoming actions.

There was also a recent update to the webpage of the Epa's Office of Science and Technology, which saw all references to “science-based” work removed, in favour of an emphasis on “national economically and technologically achievable standards”. 

Trump’s reshuffle of the Epa's priorities puts the onus on economic activity at the expense of public health and environmental safety. Pruitt, who is also eager to #MakeAmericaGreatAgain, spoke in an interview of his desire to “exit” the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. He was led to this conclusion because of his belief that the agreement means “contracting our economy to serve and really satisfy Europe, and China, and India”.

 

Rather than outright closure of the Epa, its influence and funding are being leached away. H.R. 861 might be a subtle version of one of Potus’ Twitter taunts – empty and outrageous – but it is by no means the only way to drastically alter the Epa’s landscape. With Pruitt as Epa Administrator, the organisation may become a caricature of itself – as in The Simpsons Movie. Let us hope that the #resistance movements started by “Rogue” Epa and National Parks social media accounts are able to stave off the vultures until there is “Hope” once more.

 

Anjuli R. K. Shere is a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman

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