Michael McCarthy: Will voters accept the politics of sacrifice?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

A famous Whitehall anecdote tells of an incoming minister asking his permanent secretary what Government policy is on a particular issue. "Actually, Minister," the official replies, "our policy on that, is to have no policy."

This approach has served David Cameron and his Conservative Party pretty well over the Past couple of years. Policymaking has been farmed out to a series of in-house, ad hoc think-tanks which have been rethinking the Tory stance from start to finish on everything from social justice to economic competitiveness; in the meantime, silence. While the primary purpose of these policy groups has been to think things through and get it right, there's no denying that the Tories have also enjoyed a political breathing space by not having, until recently, policy targets that can be attacked by their opponents.

As Sir Arnold, the cabinet secretary predecessor of Sir Humphrey Appleby in Yes, Minister remarks, in the course of defending secrecy in Government: "If nobody knows what you're doing, nobody knows what you're doing wrong."

Sooner or later, however, the moment of truth arrives, and it is rapidly approaching for the Tories on the most difficult policy area of all: the environment. The environment is difficult because the subject has changed profoundly in the 35 years since it first appeared on the political agenda (at the UN's Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, in 1972).

Then, the issue was Quality of Life: did we want a world of dirty rivers and polluted seas, cut-down forests, pesticide-poisoned wildlife and perhaps even pesticide-poisoned food? Of course we didn't! The issue was consensual. Who could object to society passing laws that restricted pollution and preserved the countryside? No lost votes in that.

But over the past two decades, the environment has gone from being about Quality of Life, to something even more urgent: Life or Death. The issue of climate change is what has made the difference. It is increasingly clear to a vast body of scientists and to a growing body of politicians that, left unchecked, global warming caused by the waste gases of human activities (energy generation, industry and transport) will seriously threaten the very habitability of the Earth in the decades to come. But to check it involves something quite new, in political terms: asking people to make sacrifices. To give things up.

This is not consensual at all – yet. It runs entirely counter to the principle on which British politics has hitherto been based, which is to give voters as much as possible of what they want. The Conservative politician Nicholas Ridley once said that all politics ultimately boils down to how big a house and how big a garden a person can get for themselves. That is an ugly and unconscionably cynical way of putting it, but its sheer brutality encapsulates a truth acknowledged by experienced politicians (at least in private) right across the spectrum: the behaviour of the electorate is based on self-interest.

So political parties seek to satisfy voters' immediate concerns, first, on the pound in their pockets, secondly on healthcare arrangements, and thirdly, on arrangements to educate their children. They compete to offer more satisfaction on these three issues above all, with everything else – defence, the arts, the environment – following way behind. Very rare are initiatives that involve trying to take things away from people. But the issue of environment, as it now stands, involves just that.

You may lose your freedom to drive, your freedom to fly, your freedom to behave in a hundred different ways – your freedom to have more of things.

Yesterday, the Liberal Democrats launched their environment policy. Zero-Carbon Britain is an impressive document, concentrating on the overriding issue of getting Britain's emissions of greenhouse gases down by some eye-catching pledges, such as the phasing-out of all petrol-driven cars by 2040 and a boost for rail paid for by more taxes on lorries. But let us hope the Liberal Democrats will forgive us if we say its publication had a side-effect that was even more interesting: the flushing-out of the environment policy of the Tories.

The Conservatives' green policy group is not due to report officially for some time, but yesterday a little blue bird whispered some of its conclusions in the ear of the London Evening Standard, doubtless to take the shine off the Liberal Democrats launch. Terrible sneaky, backbiting business, politics, isn't it? But never mind. The most important thing about the Tory proposals – if ultimately they are signed off by David Cameron, an important caveat – is that they are radical. They abandon voter comfort.

They address head-on, for example, the really difficult issue of rising greenhouse gases from aviation: a Conservative government would stop airport expansion dead, jack up the taxes on flights and make you go to Newcastle by train instead of by plane. Your freedom to fly – a freedom millions have been enjoying more and more – will eventually be severely curtailed. Will you be happy with this, when your holiday soars in price?

What the leak indicates is that the Tories are grasping the nettle on the environment, and what the issue has become, and accepting that if policy is to be serious, it has to involve – for the first time – asking for sacrifices from the electorate. But that's the policy. What about the politics? Will this approach win votes? Or lose them?

Well, it may put blue water between the Tories and Labour, who under Gordon Brown seem to be much less seized of the environment as an issue than under Tony Blair. That making the Tories distinctive, that "brand discrimination" might be a help at the ballot box. It might not.

But ultimately, it is a bet on the future. The non-habitability of the Earth is surely a bigger concern for us all even than money, health and education, but it is not yet perceived as such by the electorate because, uniquely among political issues, it resides in the future. The time is coming, however, when the electorate will at last see what the real and truly terrifying danger is, just as climate scientists and some politicians do now, and then a vigorous climate change policy will be top of people's wish lists, sacrifices or not.

How far away is it, that tipping-point? Maybe sooner than you think. And the bet the Cameron Tories are making – in political, not just policy terms – is that they can get ahead of the curve, and be there with the appropriate measures, and arms stretched out in welcome, when the electorate opens its eyes.