Confessions of a Political Animal

August 26, 2008

Is Environmentalism compatible with representative democracy?

Filed under: Environment,London Politics — Political Animal @ 3:51 pm
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Iceberg in Belsund, Spitsbergen (c) The Political Animal

Iceberg in Belsund, Spitsbergen (c) The Political Animal

If you or I, dear reader, stick with this thing long enough, we’ll both come to realise that when I put a question in the title of a post, it will invariably mean I don’t have an answer. It will also probably mean that I don’t expect anyone else to have an answer either, because if they did, well I’d just Google it, wouldn’t I?

I’ve been thinking quite a lot this summer about how the climate change and broader environmental agendas fit into the British political context. Partially this is due to a trip to the Arctic revealling to me, unsurprisingly, that shrinking glaciers and changing animal behaviour are a very real occurance; partially because of the results of the London elections in May; and in large part because I have a nagging feeling that environmental policy is about to take a back foot in the political sphere.

Perhaps the greatest setback for the cause of environmentalism was when it somehow, in the eyes of the Daily Mail and assorted other organs of the right, became ‘PC’. So-called political correctness is one of the great strawmen of our time: invented, promoted and blown out of all proportion by the losing side of the post-60s culture wars. Sadly, the myth of PC has had some success in building up and sustaining revanchists in the social sphere – to such an extent that it has managed to attach a stigma to the causes of equality and justice.

Until recently, the PC strawman was deployed only within the cultural-social sphere. The right felt it had won the war of economic ideology and was content to rest on its free-market laurels. But the arrival of environmentalism within mainstream politics challenged that. To the economic right, this seemed to be a Trojan horse which would smuggle the defeated doctrines of market failure, regulation and intervention back into the political sphere. Its response was to use the same tactics that had been so succesful before. By labelling environmentalism as a PC concern, the right sought to neutralise it through its portrayal as a fringe concern, of interest only to a few Hampstead liberals. And if your council wants to introduce a recycling scheme that, heaven forbid, will mean you have to sort your rubbish? It’s PC gone mad, I tell you.

Has this strategy of the right been succesful? The picture is still mixed. Just last month, ICM released a poll suggesting that 52% of the country wanted the environment to be the government’s main priority, compared to 44% citing the economy. However, there are plenty of polls pointing the other way – towards growing scepticism and fatigue, particularly in relation to climate change. And in what was occasionally touted as Britain’s first ‘climate change election’, the fight for City Hall in May, the politician who placed tackling climate change as a key plank of his election manifesto was defeated by the one for whom environmentalism means reducing the amount of litter.

Was the defeat of Livingstone in May partially due to an anti-environmental backlash? Or is it simply that issues such as crime and percieved value-for-money will always trounce ecological concerns? Or, and this is my real concern, that for all their professed environmental awareness, voters will quickly revolt against the agenda as soon as it looks like hitting them in the pocket? If this is the case, then I think we can give up now on democratic politics saving the planet – after all, Livingstone’s environmental policies (emissions-based congestion charging, the low emissions zone, public transport improvements, sustainability requirements for new housing etc), courageous and worthwhile though they were, were a mere starting point for the huge changes that will be necessary. But in the light of the result in May, will any aspirant UK politician outside the Green Party dare to run on a heavily environmental manifesto again? Can a politician whose mind is on an election in a few years time be expected to implement a potentially unpopular policy whose positive effects will not be felt for decades?

But there is another side to this coin – what we might call the ‘burdens of office’ effect. Politicians who barely gave lip service to climate change in oppostion suddenly become advocates of action, including significant government intervention, once in office. The right-wing politician who would have shrugged off a question on the environment with a glib platitutde exhorting support for a technological solution to climate change transforms into some sort of Eco the Dolphin. The names of Schwarzanegger and Merkel spring to mind. Is this simply the age-old paradox of ‘small state’ politicians being those most keen to seize greater powers once their feet are under the desk? Or is the realisation of the urgent and potentially catastrophic nature of climate change much more frightening when its social and economic effects might be affecting your opinion poll ratings in a few years?

Will the British right react in the same way when (if? please let it be if…) gets its mitts back on the levers of power? After all, the Tories are now the party of voting Blue and going Green – allegedly. We have our own little petri dish in London, and thus far the signs aren’t so good. Nearly four months in to the Johnson administration, and still no sign of an environmental advisor being appointed*. The previous administration’s objections to an energy-guzzling desalination plant dropped, the western congestion charge extension under threat, proposals for a fleet of hydrogen powered vehicles abandoned, Porsche handsomly paid off and emissions-based congestion charging scrapped and London effectively dropping out of the C40 group of cities, founded by Livingstone to co-ordinate joint action by the world’s largest cities to tackle climate change.

But…let’s give Johnson one last chance. The real world has just landed on his doorstep in the form of a letter from the government seeking an urgent meeting on how London is going to avoid breaking the EU’s air quality guidelines and the ensuing unlimited fines. I’d love to be a fly on the wall on City Hall’s 8th floor when that meeting happens. Will this be the moment that the next right wing politician realises that being ‘pro-motorist’ and ‘anti-pc’ works fine in opposition but doesn’t work quite as well in the cold light of government?

There is, as they say, more rejoicing in heaven over a sinner that repenteth…

* I have it on good authority that the Mayor approached a certain Green London Assembly member (there’s only two – you work it out) to ask them to become his ‘informal’ environment advisor. The response was allegedly that s/he had no interest in taking on a job that was both unpaid and un-listened to.


1 Comment »

  1. […] Partially, it’s a symptom of the anti-environmentalist backlash I discussed in my first ever post, and partially its that good old suspicion that recycling is this weird continental thing that goes […]

    Pingback by A Week Decision « Confessions of a Political Animal — March 31, 2009 @ 10:56 am | Reply

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