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September 14, 2007

Radical, serious and coherent - more like mainstream, trivial and patchy: Richard D. North reviews the Gummer-Goldsmith report to the Conservatives on the environment - Blueprint for a Green Economy - and is left distinctly under-whelmed

Posted by Richard D. North

Blueprint for a Green Economy: Submission to the Shadow Cabinet
Quality of Life Policy Group
Chairman, Rt Hon John Gummer MP
Vice-Chairman, Zac Goldsmith
September 2007

Richard D. North reviews the Gummer-Goldsmith report for the Conservatives on the environment - and is left distinctly under-whelmed.

Wow. The Gummer-Goldsmith doorstopper on green conservatism is certainly big and comprehensive. It is even neat in places, as when it suggests "One Planet" conservatism as a successor to the One Nation variety. Early on, it plugs into the wisdom or at any rate the authenticity of Roger Scruton [Page 16]:

Conservatism and conservation are in fact two aspects of a single long-term policy, which is that of husbanding resources … It is as obvious to a conservative that our reckless pursuit of individual gratification jeopardises the social order as that it jeopardises the planet.
From supermarkets (brilliant but suspect) to nuclear power (a necessary evil), this mighty tome covers all the bases. It has been widely remarked upon as radical, serious and coherent. Actually, it is quite mainstream (by being conventionally green), quite trivial (by indulging in most available green clichés) and very patchy (by being as silly in some places as it is serious in others).

In practical terms, the more bold the document's proposals (unspecified taxes on short haul air travel for example [Page 355]), the less likely they are to happen. There is no sign whatever that the nation is ready for radical change in anything. Incrementalism and gradualism are surely inevitable, and the report's vaunted "green revolution" will have to be downgraded to green reform if it is to happen at all.

The difficulty with green reform is that it could not begin to scratch the two itches - affluenza and climate change - which are upsetting John Gummer and Zac Goldsmith.

Let's begin with the report's three main themes. One is the "enough is enough" mantra which is so popular with the media and its cod-psychologists. This argues that Western voters are tired of their affluence, see it as competing with their real quality of life and also as creating a "broken society". (It slots into a great deal of nonsense about "ecological footprint", which the report swallows wholesale [page 56].) Actually, people seem mostly to want to get richer, like their lifestyle and think that the lack of parental discipline rather than foreign holidays have damaged our social fabric. So the report's proposal that we move from economic domestic product toward some well-being indicator seems unlikely really to convince people, even if they could be persuaded that we can create meaningful indices of things like tranquillity.

All that is good wishy-washy territory and it may be quite neat if a tad dishonest or disingenuous for Tories to plant a flag on it. It's feel-good stuff and does little harm except to the rigour of political discourse.

It's the second big theme where real silliness creeps in. On climate change the new document somehow maintains a straight face when it says that the country should assert its commitment to a much lower concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than anyone who knows anything about the subject suggests is possible. The usual right-on view is that we'd be very lucky to reduce our emissions by 60 percent by 2050 (the government’s stated aim), whilst this document says we should aim at 80 per cent [Page 276]. In one sense, it doesn't matter: the measures proposed by the document are both more draconian than are likely to happen and less likely to make a blind bit of difference granted that the wider world won't begin to match our earnestness.

For another thing, the proposed carbon taxes are billed as fiscally-neutral, which is to say that they will leave people rich enough to pay for the artificially expensive energy which will be on offer. So the document is welcome to be true to the official science on the subject, since the rest of us can be pretty sure the politics won't allow anything much to happen. If that means disaster for future generations (it may well not), so be it.

Surely the radicals are right. If we want to halt or even much limit climate change at source, the whole world would have to opt for some degree - perhaps quite a large degree - of voluntary poverty, and there's no sign whatever that they want to, let alone that they should.

There is a third big theme in the report: localism [Page 34]. This is a class of tosh as old and as beguiling as any "Bright New Dawn" rhetoric we've ever had. The idea that it would be good if parishes were more powerful, or counties, or anywhere rather than Whitehall and Westminster, is periodically doled out. Again, it isn't very likely to happen and might not be a good thing if it did. Especially in planning matters, handing power to locals means stasis. Locals hate change, but the nation needs it. Politics is very often a matter of getting larger interests to over-ride Nimby-ish conservatism, and it is crucial to overcoming the nasty populist bigotry which is never far away when we deal with communities. We should by now have realised that community politics is almost always bad politics. End of.

None of this is to say that the report is all bad. One section, on the details of the planning system, may actually be quite serious and useful. Stripped of its localism, it may be sound. But this is a terribly odd area - more recondite than any theology - and I shall happily wait for the considered view of panning experts before chucking my own smidgeon of criticism or praise. Almost all the sections have moments of welcome reality. At one point, the authors note that food miles are not quite the brilliant desiderata they're proclaimed to be. Nuclear power is given a cautious welcome. But then we hear the voice of convention when we are told that the state should buy green and local for its patients and scholars, not least in food, as though the state should not put value first [Page 27].

It is worth wondering whether there is anything conservative in this report. It does bravely argue that the Conservatives are natural conservers, and it quotes Roger Scruton usefully to that effect. There is or ought to be something to this. The political problem, however, is the old one that Conservatives are supposed to be economic and political realists, whose only romantic tendencies are confined to a certain dreaminess about the flag, the monarchy and British greatness. British greatness, for conservatives, can promiscuously include the rural idyll and the Industrial Revolution. (John Gummer roots his green-ness in guilt about the latter. Indeed, it is moot whether the Conservatives have a better claim to being "Progressive" than Labour. I suppose the really tense issue is whether "green-ness" is going to be the coming thing. Will it be the new "Progress"?

My guess is that in some form - probably a form which combines very powerful technology with very plausible rhetoric - green-ness will be centre stage. The proper Conservative has to go along with this tide, since that is the pragmatic thing to do. But realism will also have to feature. This report is more passionate than is consistent with its being technically sensible. It is downright silly in places. But politically, it may play very well. Naturally, much of it will have to be celebrated whilst also being ignored.

What is perhaps most remarkable is that Zac Goldsmith has managed to persuade himself that he can go along with this stuff, and especially the nuclear stance. Having Zac on board is worth millions of votes, whether or not he becomes an MP. He is political Viagra. He is Boris without the occasional elitism. It is also pretty remarkable - but less remarked - that John Gummer has stayed in something like the real world in his chairmanship. He left government, rather as Michael Meacher did, a committed Friends of the Earth radical, at least on climate change. Having a nuclear power station in his Suffolk constituency may have helped there, though Gummer was not in practice much of a friend to the industry when in office. It may well be his hand which made the planning section interesting: he is one of the few people who knows or cares about the subject.

Perhaps it did not matter that the conclusions and recommendations, let alone the report's material, were not corralled in an executive summary. Still, one cannot help feeling that leaving the nitty-gritty buried in the undergrowth betrays what may be the awful truth: there is less of real value here than meets the eye.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free.

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Has Zac Goldsmith really conceded as much on Nuclear Power as Richard North suggests? Blueprint for a Green Economy says that there should be a "level playing field" with nuclear enargy having to compete on "fair terms" with other forms of energy generation. Under the proposals nuclear power would not receive any government subsidies, nor would the government fund research on nuclear energy. Of course nuclear power would not be subject to the new carbon charges/taxes proposed by the policy group - but is it not more likely that Zac Goldsmith went along with the recommendations on nuclear power not because he has had any change of mind, but because he believes that no new nuclear power stations would be built under the framework proposed by the report.

Posted by: Michael Mosbacher at September 20, 2007 01:46 PM
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