What today’s Conservative environmentalists should learn from Margaret Thatcher

Green Tories are fond of reminding people that Thatcher was the first sitting global leader to warn about climate change. They must recover her spirit. 

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Environmentally-minded Conservatives are fond of reminding people that Margaret Thatcher was the first sitting head of government to deliver a speech about the existential threat of climate change. They do this for a number of reasons; one being that, as one green Tory once put it to me once, it is a good way to persuade Conservatives who aren’t preoccupied with the challenge of tackling the climate crisis “to shut up”. Another is as a way of asserting the party’s environmental credentials against rivals to its left.

Somewhat surprisingly, given that the speech itself is actually pretty good, it is very rarely quoted from. That’s a shame, because the government badly needs to recover the spirit both of that speech and the person who gave it, and not just as a rhetorical stick to beat internal and external opponents.

That holds for both policy and politics. To take the policy first, as Thatcher rightly noted, two of the pillars in tackling climate change are international aid and domestic nuclear power. The case for international aid remains unchanged since her speech: poorer countries can’t afford to tackle their own environmental problems and will seek to boost their economies using methods that only add to the world’s difficulties. The present-day preoccupation with using aid to boost our “soft power” is precisely wrong. If there’s a political imperative that our aid spending should have, it is about tackling climate change and preserving biodiversity. This is one of the most positive and exciting things about Zac Goldsmith’s role as both environment and international development minister.  

The nuclear question has changed somewhat since then. In 1989, nuclear power was the only viable low-emission power source, and the failure of Thatcher’s successors to match her commitment to it (she approved the construction of three nuclear power stations during her time in office – John Major and Tony Blair didn’t approve one between them) is a major and potentially devastating "what if" in the history of British efforts to fight climate change. Improvements in renewables may now mean that nuclear power doesn’t have as big a role to play in providing clean energy, but given the state of the UK’s existing nuclear power plants, many of which will be decommissioned at the end of the decade, Boris Johnson needs to recover some of Thatcher’s courage here.

But the Thatcher lessons aren’t solely about policy, and can’t just be found in her speech: they are also about politics and can be found in her broader approach. While it’s important to make sure that people who lose their jobs as the British economy changes in order to meet the challenge of the climate crisis are treated better than they were in the 1980s, that single-minded focus on building a new economy, rather than clinging to the old due to political expediency, is one that Johnson’s government visibly lacks: as shown by its decision to bail out the regional airline Flybe. The reality is that if the United Kingdom wants to meet its carbon commitments, a properly green government is going to have to be unafraid to make itself the enemy of old, carbon-intensive industries just as much as it is the ally of new, green ones.

But the biggest lesson is in understanding the UK’s global role in tackling climate change. While it’s true to say that the UK, as a well-developed economy, is well-placed to show climate leadership, it is also true to say that a country of its size cannot tackle the climate crisis alone. However, one blind alley that successive governments have gone down, and that this one is, rhetorically at least, doubling down on, is the idea that diplomacy will be a core part of the UK’s climate leadership.

We don’t pursue British trade policy, or security policy, or any other form of policy on the basis that the diplomatic service of a country the size of Britain can change or outweigh the political and economic pressures felt by larger democracies like the United States or India – yet a worrying amount of energy is spent on the idea that the UK can meaningfully shape US or Indian climate policy through diplomacy and soft power.

Thatcher did not spread successful new right or, if you prefer, “neoliberal” policies around the world through soft power, but through demonstration: she demonstrated to her fellow conservatives how parties in the democratic world could deregulate and privatise while retaining political power.

Now the challenge across the democratic world is: how do you decarbonise and retain political power? The inadvertent and troubling lesson of the last few years is: you don’t. Politicians have retreated or lost power after implementing taxes on carbon-heavy industries, and as a result many more have shown a general reluctance to do so. That’s the big thing that the British government can do: provide a pathway for larger economies to follow in decarbonising and retaining power. That may, in fact, be the best argument for more British nuclear power: not because it still represents the best low-emission energy source for the UK, but because showing faith in nuclear power in the UK boosts the argument for nuclear power everywhere else. That means not engaging in fantasies that “climate diplomacy” will be the main way that Britain persuades countries outside of it to help tackle the climate crisis.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.