Conservative Party Modernisation 3: David Cameron, the Conservatives and the environmenton 8 April 2015
By Neil Carter and Ben Clements
Remember David Cameron driving a team of huskies across a Norwegian glacier? Cycling to work (whilst being followed by a car bringing his bag)? Installing a wind turbine on his London home? He even replaced the Conservative Party’s red, white and blue ‘torch of freedom’ slogan with an oak tree with green foliage and a blue trunk. In opposition, the environment was one of Cameron’s signature issues within the broader strategy of detoxifying the ‘nasty party’ image. In addition to the symbolic gestures, newsworthy speeches and contesting every local election on a 'Vote Blue, Go Green' slogan, there was real policy substance and, furthermore, real impact, which is perhaps rare for an opposition leader. Thus, amongst other contributory factors, the ‘Cameron effect’ played a key role in the Labour government’s decision to support a Climate Change Act. Cameron adopted other high-profile pro-green positions, notably opposing a third runway at Heathrow and a new coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth. A three-party Con-Lab-Lib Dem ‘competitive consensus’ over the environment saw a raft of progressive measures enacted between 2006 and 2010. In a diffuse way, the focus on green issues may have played a part in improving the popular image of the Conservatives in opposition. But having prioritised environmental issues, in the context of economic crisis – which typically leads to the marginalising of green concerns - and ‘climategate’, there were growing signs of discontent on the Tory backbenches in run-up to 2010 election.
In government, the environment proved a relatively straightforward area in which secure agreement with the (traditionally green) Lib Dems - prompting Cameron’s ‘greenest government ever’ pledge. The coalition government has more or less implemented the environmental parts of its programme. And yet the Tories have arguably gained little credit for it. Why? Because they seemed to have done so either in a rather grudging way (for example, the 4th carbon budget and the Green Bank) or in a rather incompetent way (for example, the Green Deal). Whilst they have also supported a range of measures often perceived by expert opinion, the public and parts of the media as damaging to the environment – closing environmental quangos, the debacle of the forestry sell-off, pushing ahead with HS2, being supportive of fracking. Moreover, the wider Conservative Party has become increasingly hostile to wind power.
While the environment was a valence issue in the period of opposition, in government climate change – in particular – has increasingly become a partisan issue: there is no longer such a solid cross-party consensus. Instead, there seem to be clear points of disagreement on climate change between, on the one hand, the Conservatives and UKIP and, on the other, Labour and the Lib Dems. There is good evidence that climate change is now more of a positional issue within the Conservative Party - both for pragmatic ‘austerity’ reasons and for ideological reasons. In relation to the latter, the Conservative right has developed a hostility to climate policy by framing it, as Matthew Lockwood has observed, as ‘variously as a “green tax”, as “subsidies”, as an unwarranted intervention by the state, and sometimes as associated with Europe’.
There are also clear differences of viewpoint amongst party supporters. Our analysis of data from surveys conducted by YouGov in recent years shows marked divisions over climate change between supporters of UKIP and the Conservatives and supporters of Labour and the Lib Dems. Conservative supporters and Ukippers are more likely to think that global warming is not happening or at least is not caused by human activity and more likely to think that the impacts are being exaggerated. Ukippers tend be even more sceptical than Conservative supporters. There are also divisions on the issue of wind power, with Ukippers and Conservatives less likely to support this form of energy, and a fair few Conservative backbench MPs think that wind farms are not worth government subsidies or investment and are a blot on the green and pleasant landscape.
It is does seem reasonable to conclude that Cameron’s approach to green issues in office was influenced by the pressures and dissent from within his own parliamentary party, egged on by the right wing press, and underpinned by a more sceptical Conservative-supporting base. It is not clear whether Cameron’s promise to be the ‘greenest government ever’ represented a serious intention to restore the environment to the forefront of the modernisation project or was simply a rash moment of bravado, which has come back to haunt him – particularly when he was reported to have demanded that officials ‘get rid of all the green crap’ (green levies and regulations) that he regarded as responsible for pushing up energy prices. Certainly, opinion polling testing Cameron’s ‘greenest government ever’ claim and the sincerity of his support for green issues has showed generally unfavourable evaluations on the part of the wider public. Rather than demonstrating how far the party has changed, in office the environment has shown the Conservatives to be somewhat internally divided and rebellious (as well as bickering with their Liberal Democrat coalition partners), and more inclined to support producer interests (oil and gas companies, energy utilities, farmers) rather than environmentalists.
This is the third in a series of blogs on Conservative Party modernisation, based on a selection of papers from the forthcoming special issue of British Politics on 'Conservative Modernisation From Opposition to Government'. The issue, which is edited by Peter Kerr, Steve Kettell and Richard Hayton, was the product of the 'Whatever Happened to Conservative Modernisation' workshop event hosted by the University of Leeds in September 2014, and organised jointly by the PSA Conservatives and Conservatism Specialist Group and British Politics'.
Image: Number 10 CC BY-NC-ND