Is Cameron brave enough to fight for the green economic consensus?

The Prime Minister stood up to the right wing of his party on gay marriage, but is he willing to do the same on the environment?

02 Aug 2012, 00:05

"I don't support gay marriage despite being a Conservative, I support gay marriage because I'm a Conservative." Deployed at last year's Conservative Party conference, it was one of the most effective and memorable turns of phrase deployed by Prime Minister David Cameron since he took office, eloquently cementing his modernising credentials and neatly highlighting that the traditionalist brand of conservatism is not the only strand of thought running through the Conservative Party.

In one simple sentence, Cameron not only reminded people that there is a form of liberal conservatism, which has always been in tension with the more reactionary wing of the party and believes instinctively in the freedom of the individual to pursue their life as they see fit, but also made it clear which side of this debate he stood on. It remains an admirable and principled stance, and even if Cameron is unlikely to ever bring the whole of his Party with him in support of gay marriage he can at least comfort himself that he is on the right side of history with this one.

What is really interesting about Cameron's speech from a rhetorical perspective is how easily it can be adapted to a range of different topics, including (and you probably saw where I was going with this one) the environment.

Imagine the resonance of the Prime Minister standing up at this year's Conservative Party audience and telling the assembled party members that "I don't support the green economy despite being a Conservative, I support the green economy because I'm a Conservative".

Politically such a statement would be seen as an attack on his chancellor, the apotheosis of the Prime Minister's decontamination strategy, and a Tony Blair-style attempt to distance himself from his own Party.

But it needn't be interpreted that way at all. Just as with the topic of gay marriage, the assumption that the Conservative Party stands broadly opposed to environmental legislation, clean technologies, and green investment is only made possible by the deliberate side-lining of reams of conservative thought on a vast array of topics that impact the green economy, ranging from the importance of home and hearth to a desire to create genuinely effective free markets.

It is the revival of this strand of green conservatism (for want of a better phrase) that provides the best short term means of delivering the depoliticisation of energy and environmental policies, which I last week argued was desperately required in the wake of the revelation Chancellor George Osborne wants to effectively tear up the country's carbon targets and turn the UK into a "gas hub".

In the long term, the political consensus on the green economy will inevitably return as the process of clean tech normalisation that is already well under way rapidly gathers pace. In the same way that the political debate around the internet is focused on how best to utilise it rather than whether or not to get rid of it, the debate on clean technologies will become far less politically hostile as they emerge as a part of everyday life. If the analysts are to be believed there will come a point within the next decade at which wind and solar energy, not to mention electric cars and recycling technologies, will become both more effective and more cost-effective than the polluting technologies they have been developed to replace. At that point the Chancellor and his acolytes will not only look like they are uninterested in nurturing growth and tackling climate change, they will look like luddites too.

But in the short term it is clear the green economy has a fight on its hand if it is to secure the political consensus and stable policy environment necessary for the UK to keep pace with the many other countries that are currently pursuing aggressive low carbon economic growth plans. And ultimately it is only the Conservative Party and David Cameron who can restore the consensus.

Which brings me back to Cameron's conference speech. It would be entirely possible for the Prime Minister to re-deploy his line on gay marriage to declare his support for the green economy (or alternatively environmentalism if he wished to keep things vague).

The argument for taking a progressive stance on the environment not despite, "but because I'm a Conservative" is an easy one to make. First, there's the deep-seated desire within many conservatives (with both a large and a small c) to conserve the environment for future generations, as evidence by the Telegraph's decision to lead the campaign against Osborne's attempts to tear up rural planning restrictions.

Then there is the belief in the absolute primacy of national security and the widespread acceptance among the security community that climate change and energy dependence are two of the most fundamental long-term threat multipliers to the UK. Some on the right might still resist the fact that manmade climate change is happening, but not many of them work at the Ministry of Defence.

The desire to give hard-working families and communities the power to generate their own energy and take responsibility for their own environments, freeing them from reliance on others, marries neatly with the push for more domestic and community renewable energy projects. Just as the desire to boost living standards and household incomes by holding down energy prices can be fulfilled far more effectively by the rapid reduction in the cost of renewables than by an increased reliance on highly volatile gas prices. Add the way in which the supposedly conservative virtue of thrift and good management informs energy efficiency efforts and you have a compelling narrative for how Green Conservative values could deliver autonomy and prosperity to households and businesses alike.

Even at the more in-depth policy level, similar arguments could be made by a Conservative Prime Minister who was really serious about tackling climate change and driving green growth. Large swathes of green policy are not about messing with markets, as right wing critics often claim, they are focused on fixing market failures, the most notable of many being the failure to put a price on polluting externalities that has resulted in climate change. Carbon trading and carbon pricing are centre-right, free market policies, just as subsidies and product standards are more likely to be seen as centre-left statist policies.

It could even be argued that the electricity market reforms that have so vexed Osborne through their attempt to drive investment in renewables, nuclear power, and carbon capture and storage (CCS), originally had at their heart a desire to correct the market failure that has left us reliant on high carbon and aging energy infrastructure and deliver a level playing field on which cleaner energy technologies could then compete (obviously the hugely variable costs faced by renewables, nuclear, and CCS meant this idea was always going to struggle, but it was originally meant to be a market-based solution to the problem).

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the majority of businesses want a more progressive and predictable green policy environment – a fact that should provide the self-styled "Party of Business" with all the cover it needs to deliver a more ambitious green growth strategy. The way in which Osborne has repeatedly ignored the CBI and countless multinational businesses in favour of pandering to a handful of gas firms and climate sceptic MPs remains one of the hardest to explain aspects of the current political landscape.

Come the autumn, Cameron could easily deploy any and all of these arguments to reassert both his commitment to the green economy and the primacy of the party's modernising elements over the reactionary wing that wants to take the UK back to the 1980s, only this time without even the economic growth to show for it.

It would be a bold and brave move, and it remains one that Cameron is highly unlikely to take. But even if the Prime Minister once again opts for the easy life and instead opts to pander to his party conference by side-lining environmental issues, it is time for his more enlightened colleagues to make it plain there is no contradiction between being a Conservative and supporting the green economy. Perhaps they could start by stealing the Prime Minister's line on gay marriage.

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Previously known as the BusinessGreen Blog, James' Blog features musings, observations and occasional rants from BusinessGreen editor James Murray

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