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Is he really green?

Is David Cameron a shallow salesman, or does he mean what he says?

The Guardian, 18th June 2008

First David Davis, then David Cameron. Twice in a week now, leading members of the Conservative Party have said things which I find myself not only agreeing with but almost cheering. It’s beginning to make me nervous.

For more than fifteen years, I have been an environmentalist. This means that I can remember the days when nobody knew what ‘organic’ meant, there was no such thing as a ‘carbon coach’, climate change was an outré theory rather than front page news, and the only people who talked about peak oil and the end of consumer society were the road protesters who were hoping it would turn up before the bulldozers did.

How times change. These days, you can read things on the Tory party’s website which might have come straight from the pages of The Ecologist. On Monday, for example, David Cameron gave a speech in which he argued that environmentalism was just as important during a recession as it was during a boom. It contained plenty that environmentalists would have a hard time trying to disagree with.

For example, Cameron declared that ‘the era of cheap oil is well and truly over’ and that we must ‘wean ourselves off our dependence on fossil fuels.’ He talked about achieving ‘the most radical technological and social shifts for generations.’ And then he made some actual commitments: ‘aggressive’ targets for reducing emissions from cars; green taxes; a decentralised energy network; a ‘long term national transport plan’ that was not simply a list of new roads to be built. Most interestingly of all, he set himself firmly against two of the current government’s most controversial – and deeply stupid – environmental white elephants: the third runway at Heathrow, and the new coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth in Kent (no relation).

At this stage, of course, I am expected to step back, gather my thoughts and provide a long list of reasons why the Tories would be a horrible disaster for Britain . I’m sure readers of this paper would have no problem providing me with such a list. Perhaps you’re already composing your email to the letters editor. I can save you the trouble. I have my own.

On my little list are the facts that Tories tend to govern in the interests of big business and the uber-wealthy. They are market fundamentalists, with a razor-sharp keenness to privatise (sorry, ‘modernise’) every aspect of the welfare state. Whenever they are in government, inequality rises. They will tag happily along with whatever disastrous foreign policy adventure the US Republican party comes up with.

Environmentally, of course, they are political Neanderthals. Once handed the reins of power they can be expected to build thousands of miles of new roads, and draw up plans for new generations of airports and nuclear plants, all the time paying token, stultifying lip service to the idea of ’sustainable development’. They might, if feeling particularly bold, even attempt to destroy (sorry, ‘reform’) the planning system, to make it virtually impossible for the public to oppose such destructive mega-projects. That’s just the sort of thing a Tory would do.

You can probably see where I’m going with this. That’s right: every one of these positions has been adopted enthusiastically by the Labour government – so much so that is becoming hard to care whether or not they are replaced by a Tory government. In fact, if the Tories are going to be significantly greener than Labour and Labour is achingly rightwing on everything from inequality to corporate power … why should an environmentalist care if this lot become that lot after the next election?

Don’t get me wrong: my cynicism about politicians is extreme – particularly after eleven years of government by a bunch of neoliberal shills disguised as social democrats. Cameron may well be, in Gordon Brown’s words, simply a ‘shallow salesman’. But, as with David Davis last week, there is another possibility which, amongst all the media blah about shadow cabinet rows, Westminster positioning and ‘ego trips’, we should perhaps give a bit of thought to – that he actually means what he says. It is, after all, either brave or reckless to make a green speech, studded with environmental commitments which will be hard to wriggle out of, in the middle of an oil shock and an economic downturn. The vote-winning thing to do right now would be to call for lower fuel taxes, not fewer runways.

George Orwell famously pointed out to his fellow travellers that the communist brutalities of the Spanish civil war did not become any less brutal just because the Daily Telegraph chose to highlight them. Similarly, just because the self-declared environmentalist on the platform is also the leader of the Conservative party, it doesn’t necessarily follow that he isn’t an environmentalist. Personally, I have no way of knowing whether he is or not. Only time – and the apparently inevitable Tory government – will tell. But, precisely because my real concern is the state of the natural world and not which gang of suits happens to be in charge at Westminster, I’m at least willing to open my mind to the possibility that, on this crucial issue at least, the leader of the opposition could turn out to be one of the good guys.