Can Britain go green?

Margaret Thatcher never reconciled her warring beliefs on the environment

Published : 04 Sep 2021 09:30 PM | Updated : 04 Sep 2021 11:34 PM

The leadership of the U.K.’s party of power can take credit for placing climate change at the forefront of its domestic and international concerns. Carbon-reduction commitments are enshrined in law and Boris Johnson’s government has set ambitious green targets. He hosts the COP26 United Nations climate conference in Glasgow in early November and plans to cut a dash.

However, the trade-offs involved in achieving net zero are becoming fraught for the prime minister and his party. Many supporters are unwilling to pay the price of his ambitions in higher taxes.

In an unseasonably damp and chilly week in London, Tory-supporting newspapers have been bilious in their coverage of Westminster. Rather than covering the threat of ecological collapse, they have featured green taxes on road mileage and disposable diapers. “A tax on nappies is really class war,” the Daily Mail fulminated. The rich can afford domestic help to wash reusable diapers, the argument goes, but time- and cash-poor parents will struggle.

Such social divisions are apparent within the party. After all, Conservatives should “conserve,” and many high-minded, affluent members, like the prime minister’s father, Stanley Johnson, are staunch environmentalists. But middle-class Tory voters in the countryside, large swathes of the Midlands and the north rely on gas-guzzling cars, not patchy public transport services.

This tension has been there from the beginning. In the 19th century, Tories were critics of rampant industrialism - they decried the despoiling of nature, unhealthy factory conditions and the cruelty of child labor. But as the century progressed, Conservatives evolved into the party of commerce and small business, and priorities shifted. 

The leadership of the U.K.’s party of power can take credit for 

placing climate change at the forefront of its domestic and 

international concerns. Carbon-reduction commitments are 

enshrined in law and Boris Johnson’s government has set 

ambitious green targets

To this day, Margaret Thatcher best exemplifies the split in the Tory soul. She never reconciled her own warring beliefs on the environment.

As a former research chemist, Thatcher was the first politician of any stature to “get” the evidence for man-made global warming. Prompted by Crispin Tickell, British ambassador to the UN in New York and a green Tory pamphlet authored by Andrew Sullivan — now a naturalized U.S. citizen and pundit — she made two extraordinary speeches that revolutionized thinking about environmentalism at home and abroad.

The first, to the Royal Society on Sept. 27, 1988, warned of the dangers of having “unwittingly begun a massive experiment with the system of this planet itself” and established a domestic political consensus to combat climate change. Her second speech on the same theme to the UN General Assembly, in Nov. 1989, had international impact. She argued that universal cooperation among nations was needed to save the planet.

Yet within years Thatcher had turned her back on this agenda. The regulatory impact of green policies on business was an anti-capitalist trap, she came to believe. Worse, environmentalism invited Brussels-style bureaucratic interference. Green taxes hurt “her people.”

Thatcher opened the first climate prediction and research institute in the world, the U.K.’s Hadley Centre, but she did not attend the Rio Earth summit in 1992. In retirement, she rejected “doomist” predictions in her memoirs.

Still, Thatcher left her Tory heirs a sound green legacy. Her crushing victory over a coal miners’ strike allowed her successors to close coal-burning power stations and push for lower CO2-emitting gas. In the years since her ouster in 1991, Britain has cut its carbon emissions faster than any other rich country — they’ve fallen by a hefty 44%. That’s 1.8 times greater than the European Union average. In comparison, Germany still generates about a quarter of its electricity from coal-fired plants and its emissions are only down by 29%. 

But cutting emissions, it turns out, was the easy part. Converting the country to electric car and switching from gas to domestic heat pumps comes with large, transparent costs to voters. Going green is politically perilous.

The objectors are not climate-science deniers but hard-working families balancing pragmatism with idealism. A mere 1% of voters refuse to believe that global temperatures are rising, according to the U.K. Business Department’s polling, though only 51% think that climate change is mostly man made. Meanwhile, 80% support renewable energy, and 90% say they have changed some of their activities to be more eco-friendly.

The just-managing classes want to do right by the environment, but they resent paying for it and being told off by rich do-gooders.

An anti-green backlash shouldn’t be dismissed. The largest demonstrations against Tony Blair’s otherwise impregnable Labour government were generated not by anti-Iraq war protesters but by an alliance of truck drivers objecting to tax hikes on fuel and a rural lobby group that defended the right to hunt foxes. This curious movement was the (largely pacific) prototype for the militant “Yellow Vest” demonstrations against French President Emmanuel Macron’s fuel taxes. 

Blair’s fearful Tory successors abandoned fuel duty rises long ago in the face of this threat, despite the fact that they make fiscal conservative sense. David Cameron who was elected as a liberal environmentalist in 2010 came to sneer at what he called “the green crap” when the political winds began to change.

This is Boris Johnson’s challenge. A protean politician with a keen nose for changes in public opinion, he can probably busk his way through COP26 without too much difficulty. After the Afghanistan debacle, President Joe Biden will want to burnish his international credentials by being helpful. But after that, how will Johnson balance his environmental ambitions with electoral pragmatism? 

Conservatives fear that the next general election could be fought on cost-of-living issues. The rate of inflation, now averaging 2.5%, looks volatile. If the price of an active green conscience is rising fuel, heating and travel bills, then expect Johnson to cut some of “the green crap” too. It will take unusual skill for this prime minister, or any other, to argue the necessary trade-offs between climate idealism and pennywise politics.

Martin Ivens was editor of the Sunday Times from 2013 to 2020 and was formerly its chief political commentator. He is a director of the Times Newspapers board. 

Source: Bloomberg