Peter Franklin: What colour does blue and yellow make?
When it comes to Lib-Con co-operation, the environment ought to provide fertile ground. Indeed, in last year’s Charity Champions awards, Friends of the Earth jointly nominated Oliver Letwin and Norman Baker – who were, at the time, their parties’ respective environment spokesmen. However, when Chris Huhne took over from Norman Baker, the Lib Dems made a point of breaking up a hitherto blossoming relationship. Whereas the idealistic Baker perceived that the future well-being planet might be more important than mere party politics, Huhne wasn’t going to have the Tories muscling in on traditional Lib Dem territory.
Of course, there are many Conservatives who are more than happy to leave the tree hugging to the original beard-and-sandals brigade. In part, their hostility stems from an antipathy to any sort of Lib-Con co-operation. To that, all I can say is grow up – we’re talking about the Lib Dems here, not the Socialist Workers Party. If the voters kick Labour out, but decline to give us a working majority what are we going to do? Sit in glorious isolation, while Gordon Brown cancels the removal van?
For other rejectionists the problem is not so much the Lib Dems, but environmentalism itself. I’m not sure what can be done to win such people over, I guess they’ve already been cut off by the tide of history – and will cling to their isolated position until it disappears beneath the waves.
So back on the political mainland, what
might Lib-Con co-operation on the environment look like? Well, don’t
expect much before the next election. Chris Huhne is right to be worried
about green Conservatism: it threatens to do a great deal of harm –
to Lib Dem electoral prospects, that is. With a slim majority in a southern
seat, he must hear the wolf at the door every time David Cameron hugs
a husky. The Lib Dems will do nothing to make us look greener – and
will try to undermine our credentials at every opportunity.
However, in the event of a hung parliament
everything changes. Someone will have to run the country. If that means
some sort of deal between Cameron and Campbell, then environment policy
– alongside localism – could provide the basis of a joint programme.
The biggest sticking point could be over nuclear power. The Lib Dems are implacably opposed, while a distressing number of Conservatives are inexplicably enamoured with the most statist form of energy generation ever devised by mankind. There is, however, an obvious compromise: The French nuclear industry (for it would be they) should be allowed to build new plants in Britain on the strict condition that it pays for all the clean-up costs and sorts out its own public liability insurance. That should settle the issue once and for all.
On green taxation, we’ll have much less difficulty agreeing with the Lib Dems, which is a shame because we really ought not to. Giving the Treasury effective control over environment policy is a seriously stupid idea. As I’ve argued elsewhere, taxing bad things isn’t good. If you give government a direct financial interest in perpetuating pollution then you might as well put on your gas mask now. Just ask yourself – given a choice between shoring up the tax base and encouraging investment in non-polluting technology, which one is a green-tax-dependent Chancellor going to go for?
However, the biggest danger with green
taxes isn’t the perverse incentives they create, but the lazy thinking
they encourage. Consider the twin challenges of combating climate change
and reducing our dependency on imported fossil fuels. To achieve clean,
green energy security we will have to advance on a bewildering number
of fronts. The witless simplicity of “build more windfarms” or “let’s
go nuclear” will not do. Furthermore, the complex changes that need
to occur must be sustained over decades – the market will not invest
in clean energy if five or ten years down the line politicians allow
the uncosted externalities of dirty energy to regain an unfair advantage.
Therefore, taxation is too blunt an instrument and too fickle an area
of policy to provide the combination of subtlety and stability required.
So when it comes to climate change, the green-tax-loving Lib Dems have got an awful lot of hard thinking to do – but then so have we.
To round off, a brief look at two other issues:
On planning policy, we’ve had an honourable tradition of protecting the countryside from John Prescott’s attentions. Now, for equally honourable motives, some within Conservative circles want to extend Milton Keynes up to Suffolk and down to Sussex (well, as good as). Quite apart from the fact that we could be providing more homes in a more sustainable manner, the loosening of the green belt would make for disastrous politics. The beleaguered Lib Dems of southern England would jump at the chance to present themselves as the sole obstacle between the countryside and the bulldozer.
By way of contrast, there’s an environmental issue on which it could be us putting pressure on the Lib Dems: Europe. In the two areas where the EU has the most power over us – the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy – the result has been environmental catastrophe. As the consequences become ever clearer, this is no time to go soft on either issue. In order to become wise stewards of both land and sea, we must repatriate powers over both. If the next election sends Conservative and Lib Dem negotiators into smoke filled rooms, then we must make sure that it isn’t just the Lib Dems who insist upon certain green conditions. We should confront our potential partners with the truth about the CAP and the CFP and ask them to choose between their love of the EU and the good of our environment.