Green is the new Blue (again — for now)
It is almost twelve years ago when hugging was big in the Conservative party. For a while, neither huskies nor hoodies could resist snuggling up to David Cameron and his modernising ways. Green was the new blue. The Tory torch replaced with the gentle oak tree. Cuddly Conservativism was in. This all came to a juddering halt when the recession hit. Since then, environmental issues have been put on the backburner with more politically pressing issues taking centre stage.
However, the Tories’ focus has recently returned to the environment. Whether it has been outlawing the ivory trade, banning microbeads from cosmetic and personal hygiene products, making CCTV in slaughterhouses mandatory, or the plan to ban neonicotinoids (a pesticide harmful to bees and other insects), the chances are that if you’ve recently read a positive news story about the government that it has originated from DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs). All of these moves are positive steps and should be applauded. The question is why, after years of relative quiet on the environment front, are they happening now?
There are several key reasons. First, arguably for the first time since the Tories returned to power, there is a dynamic and talented Environment Secretary in office. Secondly, a series of political and environmental events have given such news stories a far greater impact on the news cycle. Finally, the economy is thought to be in a strong enough state to allow for time to be spent on green issues.
For all the ire he drew from teachers, Michael Gove is one of the most capable Conservative ministers of his generation as well as one of the leading lights of the party’s liberal wing. This was demonstrated during his time as Lord Chancellor where he removed the limit on how many books prisoners could have and scrapped the courts fee. He has since entered a brief that is usually given little regard and has appeared determined to make the most of it. The proliferation of popular policies that have poured out of DEFRA under Gove far surpasses the policy output of any other department under May’s premiership. It should be noted that not all of these headlines are down to Gove specifically (for example, Rebecca Pow deserves significant credit for her campaign against microbeads), but it is noteworthy that he has arguably generated more positive headlines in his first six months than any other Conservative Environment Secretary this century managed over their entire ministry.
It is particularly impressive that this has been achieved at a time when the news cycle is dominated by Brexit. Despite this, or perhaps precisely because people are tiring of hearing about Brexit, environmental stories have been having an impact in the national discussion. Erratic weather, the tsunami of plastics covering Bali’s beaches, and the latest series of Blue Planet have all made waves in the public consciousness and created greater political capital in environmental policies, as well as increased the media’s interest.
Political circumstances have been just as important. Theresa May enjoyed humiliating the old guard when she became Prime Minister; Gove’s return to cabinet served as a stark example of how far she had fallen. As her position has weakened and positive news stories have been thin on the ground, easy to promote policies are particularly welcome — regardless of who it comes from. Gove’s fit the bill perfectly: seen as morally good, almost no negative impact on most voters, and can be publicised as free. While many environmental issues are held back by their need for large amounts of funding, the cost of most of these bills will be on companies. Some will slightly increase the amount consumers pay, but, with no headline cost that can be reliably attached to them, they will largely be viewed through a non-economic lens.
This is a substantial benefit as the main inhibitor on environmental policies is cost. Consequently, when the economy is perceived to be doing poorly, voters shy away from green policy. As George Osborne spent most of his time as Chancellor stressing the need to eliminate the deficit and tighten government spending, environmental policies were seen as a luxury that could not be afforded.
However, with Philip Hammond abandoning the ambition to eliminate the deficit, there is no longer a feeling of tight purse strings. Whether it’s Boris Johnson proposing a bridge across the Channel or Jeremy Corbyn wanting to renationalise the railways, political debate has refocused onto how to spend money as opposed to how to save it. While this does allow for such grand ideas, it also allows for departments to start asking for more money (see Williamson’s bid to increase military funding and Johnson’s push to give the NHS more money). On the environmental front, this had provided space for green initiatives such as the Woodland Trust’s Northern Forest project which has just received funds of £5.7 million from the government. While this higher level of spending may not see the return of wind farm subsidies, we could see other less costly and divisive subsidies considered in a bid to buy more permanent green credentials.
Trust on environmental issues is not dominated by any single party. Circumstance, opportunity, and personality have led the Conservatives into making a play for the mantle, but it remains to be seen how far they will chase it. I wouldn’t bet on them chasing it past the next recession.