Those on the left tend to think that British Conservatism is a derivative of US Republicanism. But environmental policy shows that it’s a far more pragmatic mix. The latest Conservative manifesto encompasses George W Bush’s marine conservation ambition and Obama’s selective interventions to raise the pace of clean technology innovation. This partly reflects the fact that the environment is still a largely non-partisan issue in British politics, but also that Cameron has protected discreet space for Conservative modernisers to bring forward new green ideas. As one of them I’m pleased with the progress we’ve been able to make. The manifesto commits our party to making ‘almost every car a zero emissions vehicle by 2050’, it reconfirms support for the Climate Change Act and promises to set up a ‘blue belt’ of massive international marine reserves.
Cameron has explicitly rejected the climate denial of many of his conservative counterparts in the US, Australia and Canada. He has not accepted their lazy assumption that tackling big environmental challenges requires big government. Indeed, when Tony Abbott and Stephen Harper invited Cameron to join an alliance of like-minded nations to limit climate action, he not only rejected their advances but went on to side with Obama against Abbott to get climate change onto the G20 agenda last December.
It was Cameron’s support which was critical to getting ambitious climate targets and funding agreed in the last parliament. It’s not recognised enough, but on the big directional climate decisions, the Prime Minister has been consistent and strong. His biggest achievement to date came during the EU 2030 negotiation last autumn, where he persuaded 27 European nations to agree to adopt the same emissions reduction direction as the UK. This means that our early domestic leadership is now replicated across the world’s biggest economic block.
There are a number of reasons why Cameronism has not been given credit for its environmental values but the biggest is that its chief proponent has barely talked about his green beliefs. Having made it a signature tune in opposition, since becoming PM he has only talked about his commitment privately or when abroad. This left a vacuum to be filled by those in the media and his party who were not happy with the direction of the last government. The bizarre implication which emerged from some commentators is that it was un-conservative to care publicly about conserving the world we live in. Because Cameron lost control of the narrative it meant that he didn’t have the space to refute the ‘green crap’ line, even though everyone in Number 10 knew it was one of his ministers who made the comment. It also means that, five years on, most of the public doesn’t think he cares.
So, having emerged triumphant from the election, he now has an opportunity to redefine the narrative and reclaim pragmatic greenery for conservatism. His husky-hugging days may be over, but he has the chance to make environmental stewardship part of his plan for better lives and a stronger economy. The question is whether he will take it. He could build it into his story of how strong leadership can lead to a more secure future, or he could stay quiet for fear of frightening the horses on the hard right.
This is the familiar choice between governing as a rounded one-nation Conservative or as a tactician responding to changes in the political weather. He has made a good first step by appointing Liz Truss and Amber Rudd to the top posts on environment and climate. Truss has the opportunity to re-establish the party’s nature conservation credentials. She can supercharge the work of the Natural Capital Committee, under the inspired chairmanship of Dieter Helm, but she must also make sure that the party stands up for Britain’s natural heritage – the everyday wonder of hearing a cuckoo, or encountering a hedgehog in your garden.
Rudd has a bigger challenge because she has to find a way of catalysing big new investment in low-carbon energy infrastructure after a couple of years of contradictory Conservative energy policy. Here, she has the opportunity to re-establish the ‘all of the above’ technology neutral approach of former energy minister Charles Hendry, and reassure the private sector and the Treasury that energy technologies will be judged against rigorous and transparent cost-performance criteria. She is lucky that the accelerating pace of technology innovation and cost reduction will help her more than her predecessors like Greg Barker, whose early political investment in clean tech is now starting to produce returns for the economy. The UK low carbon business sector is now five times bigger than the aerospace sector and twice the size of the chemicals sector. She is also fortunate to land her role in a huge year for climate negotiations. It should culminate in a deal in Paris in December, and it’s a big chance for Cameron to stamp his mark on the negotiations. A joint initiative with Obama to end public subsidy to coal power stations at the G7 in June is one option where US and UK interests are well aligned.
As we saw in the election Cameron is always at his best when he expresses moral conviction, and it’s in channelling his conservation ethic, to leave the world a better place than he found it, that he can counter the widespread view that the Conservative Party has given up on the environment. If he emerges at the end of this year with a decent international climate deal, UK electricity decarbonisation still on track and the beginnings of a plan to recover the health of the country’s natural environment, he can not only claim to have made the world a safer and more beautiful place, but he may also have shaped the course of modern Conservatism.
Ben Goldsmith is the founder of green investment business WHEB and Chairman of the Conservative Environment Network