A conventional shade of green

Tony Blair's big environmental speech last night failed to address the underlying political problem, says Robin Grove-White; Environmental controversies signal a disturbing erosion of confidence in the alliances between regulators and scientists
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The environment continues to command more public passion, commitment and idealism than any other preoccupation on the political horizon. Recent rows as different as the Brent Spar, the Newbury bypass and the Sea Empress remind us that environmental concern is one of defining cultural phenomena of our time.

Last night, in a speech to the Royal Society, the Labour leader Tony Blair made a long-awaited bid to harness some of that energy to the cause of new Labour. I doubt he succeeded. His speech, though solid and workmanlike, is hard to read as more than a sequence of familiar, if well-intended platitudes.

These days, the environment presents acute difficulties of two distinct types for Westminster politicians such as Mr Blair.

First, at the most obvious level, the scope for inexpensive new policy ideas in conventional political terms is highly restricted. The limited agenda recognised as politically realistic in Westminster and Whitehall is already well colonised. Pollution controls, traffic restraints, tighter wildlife protection, green audits for industry, lower-intensity farm support, stimuli to greater energy efficiency - if these are not already elements in the present government's policy armoury, they are under scrutiny, or have already been rejected.

Mr Blair's speech mentioned all of these matters and more, but offered little compelling reason for believing that Labour would be able to deliver them with more energy or commitment than the present government (whose Secretary of State for the Environment, John Gummer, has recently attracted praise in print from Labour's own policy think-tank, the IPPR).

Indeed, a difficulty for Mr Blair was that in conventional political terms the present government's environmental record has been broadly progressive. Mrs Thatcher's 1988 Royal Society speech was a landmark for the crystallisation of a global environmental agenda. Its reverberations continue in Whitehall - reflected in an improved calibre of thinking and commitment among officials toward environmental priorities throughout the Nineties. Indeed, puzzling though it may seem to those outside the rarefied world of international environmental policy debate, John Gummer may well have been right to claim in Parliament yesterday that the UK is now a "leader" in sustainable development.

Mr Blair's speech claimed Labour's aspiration to marry a high-skill economy with high environmental standards. But he offered no additional insight into how the difficult trade-offs - between freedom to drive and enhanced public transport, for example - would be achieved. Moreover, despite widespread expectations, he had little to say about new patterns of environmental taxation. Labour's environmentally questionable performance on the VAT- on-fuel row two years ago provides a pointer to the understandable tensions within the party on such matters. But nettles of this kind will have to be grasped. Good intentions, yes - but little scope in the policy domain to set our souls alight.

So how else could Mr Blair have made the impact he was seeking? This brings us to the second problem arising from current political approaches towards the environment. Overwhelmingly, "the environment" is regarded within the political parties (and many non-governmental organisations) as a set of physical issues, ranging from the local to the global. All that is true, and Mr Blair was right to stress yesterday that such issues provoke profound public moral concern.

But the significance of environmental issues runs still deeper. The public identification they attract reflects their role as conduits of new and mounting cultural tensions in advanced industrial societies. New patterns of public unease and insecurity towards regulators and politicians are now being channelled through "environmental" controversies such as those on new roads or animal welfare issues. These controversies are sites of new patterns of shared moral and political engagement for many people disillusioned with conventional politics. They are pointers to inadequacies in the thinking of mainstream political parties, a matter on which Mr Blair's speech was silent.

They reflect also a further cultural phenomenon: the continuing erosion of the social authority of modern science. In brouhahas as different as the Brent Spar, BSE and emerging tensions surrounding the commercial release of genetically modified organisms, "environmental" controversies are signalling a disturbing erosion of public confidence in the formerly stable alliances between government regulators and applied scientists - alliances that have kept environmental policies on the road politically until now. Nothing in Mr Blair's speech signified awareness of the likely importance of such developments for the smooth running of a "stakeholder" society under a new Labour government. Yet these are the looming issues with which environment and a wider social politics will have to deal, as the millennium approaches.

A recent study by the think-tank Demos of the 19-34 generation has highlighted not only the fatalism and indifference towards orthodox politics characteristic of many young people today, but also the fact that " the environment" is one of their key new areas of shared concern. Other research reveals a similar pervasive mistrust of of politicians who imply that they know what environmental problems really are. This is consistent with the experience of the past two decades - environmental activism emerged as a DIY response to deeply felt limitations in the responsiveness of our conventional political frameworks.

Mr Blair's speech, while an important event in itself, will have had little to offer these deeper concerns, latent within the population at large. The environmental prize will go to the political leader who can sense the full depths of the contemporary cultural tensions embodied within environmentalism and then offer hope, based on such an understanding. Mr Blair has made a worthy attempt. But yesterday he only scratched the surface.

The writer is director of the Centre for the Study of Environmental Change, Lancaster University.