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16 July 2001

Don’t leave environment to Labour

Green issue - The Tories must give up saying the planet is safe, and show the right can sav

By Charles Clover

At the last general election, Friends of the Earth gave the Tory manifesto 6.5 points out of 50. Labour scored 23 and the Lib Dems 37.5. It was the least green Tory manifesto in roughly 20 years.

Yet, less than a week before the election, the Tories also published “Common Sense for the Environment”. Here, we learnt that the Tories would ratify the Kyoto treaty (although it is loathed by their intellectual ally George Bush), support organic farming, and use tax incentives to promote greener transport. William Hague invited us, in the introduction, to believe that “Conservation is inherent to Conservatism”. Here was a consistent blue-green agenda, alive and well in the party. Unfortunately, nobody read it. If anybody did, they might reasonably have assumed it was produced by an entirely different party.

What accounts for this Tory confusion? During the Hague era, the Conservatives were awful on environmental issues. Their opportunism was transparent. They cherry-picked issues, such as cheaper petrol and fewer houses in the countryside, that sounded consistent to Central Office. They appeared not to understand that these policies sent out contradictory messages to the environmentally literate voter.

Yet, in 1988, Margaret Thatcher was the first major British political leader to recognise the growing authority of the science behind fears of a greenhouse effect. It was Nicholas Ridley and Chris Patten who advocated green taxation. It was Kenneth Clarke, as Chancellor, who introduced the fuel-tax escalator.

Since then, it has been untrue to say that conservation has been inherent in Conservatism. This is largely because the pendulum has swung so far in favour of the updated Gladstonian liberals in the party, who are not really Conservatives at all. Their soulmates, the potty ultra-liberals of the Institute of Economic Affairs, spend their time trying to save global capitalism by proving that the greenhouse effect doesn’t exist – an argument their side has now lost – rather than demonstrating how markets can provide green (instead of brown) growth.

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The contrarian backlash of the mid-1990s, American Republican in origin and led by columnists such as the Telegraph‘s Matt Ridley, has forced the party back 20 years, to the verge of believing that green is the new red, instead of an area of turf over which all the parties should fight. The Tory traditions of stewardship, sound money (no subsidies for the coal industry), good governance (no daft aid projects, just building the capacity of developing countries to do things for themselves) and hatred of waste have been forgotten. As a result, the Tories do not campaign on environmental issues with what Michael Portillo, a new advocate of focusing on the environment and world poverty, calls a gleam in their eye.

If whoever emerges as the new Tory leader seriously wants to get the party elected, he will have to begin by overruling the ultra-liberal Petrolheads, and empowering the Blue-Greens. Green issues rate highly in terms of people’s general concerns, if not always among their personal preoccupations. In a country where more people belong to environmental groups than to political parties, politicians who do not take environmental issues seriously lack credibility as an alternative government, particularly for the young. Labour found that in the 1980s and early 1990s, when it barely engaged with one of the hot issues of the day.

The new leader will need to rebuild an intellectual case that reconciles a belief in freedom and choice with a belief that it is morally wrong to pollute the environment to the extent of changing the climate. He must also accept that there are some values, such as biodiversity, which cannot be measured in financial terms.

He should set up a Conservative commission on sustainable development, of the kind Labour set up in opposition. It must revalue the stewardship of the great Tory landowners, who kept their hedges while agribusinesses dispensed with theirs. It must defend the ecological point of fox-hunting, glory in the conservation of the countryside, champion recycling against incineration. But it must also grab back the intellectual leadership on global issues such as climate change, free trade and poverty.

The commission should look at the Kyoto Protocol and review, once and for all, the science of the greenhouse effect. It should examine how to bring forward new, cleaner technologies without wrecking economies, adversely affecting people’s lives, or setting loose an army of bureaucratic little Hitlers to tell everyone what to do. That is what Tories are for.

Thus rearmed, the Tories should go and bash the hell out of the government for not being green enough.

Charles Clover is the environment editor of the Daily Telegraph

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