Too green, and the voters will see red

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The Independent Online
NOTHING, surely, is as warming on a cold British morning as the hypocrisy of our rulers. What scumbags] What oily ratfinks, what incompetent ministerial deceivers] How infinitely more admirable the rest of us are. But then along comes some really big and radical problem, such as the rotting of our environment, and we have to face the fact that the greatest obstacle to progress isn't the politicians. It's us, the hypocrite-voters.

We want green taxes, but for somebody else. We zoom up and down motorways discussing the rape of the countryside. We want economic growth but not the mess and noise that goes with it. We're all for corner shops - except when we're doing the family shopping. In Flintshire, the same locals who blame the Government for a smelly new road will blame it for unemployment when their factories can't export cheaply enough. In Middlemarch, couples sit nose to tail, believing congestion is something of which they are the victim, not the cause. And everywhere 'heavy traffic' describes only other people. On four wheels, we remain the silly, short-sighted biped.

Politicians may be ill-informed about lots of things. But on the subject of biped hypocrisy, they have had years of work experience and callouses to show for it. So when they see voters are worried about environmental issues, they also recall that we're inconsistent, fickle and unreliable. We may support Green groups and nod sagely when Greenies appear on television. But do we vote for them? No, when it matters, we vote for the parties dangling faster growth.

That said, the traditional growth parties are uncomfortably aware that Green consciousness is rising, especially among younger voters. For the Conservatives, this is particularly threatening since it coincides with a dangerous regional threat from the greenest of the growth parties, the Liberal Democrats. The dilemma, therefore, is how to provide maximum reassurance without committing the Government to too many painful measures in the short term.

It is a tricky business, for hypocrite-voters are waiting in ambush on all sides. Take road-pricing. This is now almost universally acknowledged by intelligent opinion as essential to limit car pollution and urban congestion. It is urged by the left and the right. You would have thought no policy would be safer for the Government to adopt (as it is doing); no wheeze would be more universally applauded.

Just you wait. No one's asked the punters. Wait until it becomes clear that only the fat-cat executives with company cars, the Lexus Lads and the Ghia Girls, can afford to travel regularly through the city centres or on new private motorways. Just wait until Nurse Brown watches the JCBs building the M99 toll-road past her garden in the knowledge that the sleep-wrecking monstrosity will be too expensive for her to use each day. Just wait until the London working-classes find themselves priced off their own neighbourhood roads. Do you think there might be some resentment?

So there would be exemptions. Yes - but the more exemptions, the higher the price of motoring for just those middle-income, aspirational families who tend to determine the outcome of general elections. Road-pricing is a necessary evil. But it won't be a safe or politically popular policy. Those who approve it will be silent and those hurt by it will be furious and loud. The think-tanks and lobbyists don't care about that - but THEY don't have to get elected.

So road-pricing will, must, come in slowly and cautiously. Ditto cleaner but pricier energy, development bans and many other environmental policies. I feel some sympathy for the ministers who packaged the Government's 'green agenda' this week and were loudly jeered for their lack of boldness and radicalism. True, to proclaim your belief in 'sustainable development' isn't an act of courageous leadership. (Who, other than a Brazilian rancher, believes in any other sort?) But, misquoting Disraeli, the Tories are our leaders - they must follow us.

But that doesn't absolve them from seeking electorally acceptable environmental policies. They need to, for whatever is happening to the global climate, the political one is changing. It is probably shrewd politics for the Government to be behind fashionable opinion on this - but only a little behind.

This is what seems to be happening. There has always been a tension between conservationist Toryism and business Toryism (the 19th-century enemies of the monstrous railway would call themselves greens today) and the balance is tilting a little towards greenery. John Gummer, for one, is gaining a reputation as a serious High Tory thinker on environmental issues, who talks persuasively about the need for a philosophy of stewardship.

Nor is this all hot air, unless you define progress only by reference to pressure groups outside the electoral system. Policies such as road pricing, higher standards for urban architecture and a new, hostile attitude to out-of-town shopping centres, are evidence that changes are taking place in government thinking. Most important is the roads programme, which has become the litmus test for environmental sincerity. Pro-motorway policies are causing deep resentment in the Tory heartland and can do terminal damage to the party's green credentials. Relations between the transport and environment ministers are personally good but the two departments are eyeing one another with increasing suspicion. Spyholes will be put in the walls dividing them (they share a building). Sooner or later, they will find themselves at war, and their struggle will matter.

It will not, though, produce dramatic or striking reversals of policy. No resignations, I think, or roads suddenly abandoned. We are condemned to cautious and tip-toeing changes, not primarily because of the failure of politicians, but because we remain a nation of green hypocrites that wants both sides to win, that roots for the new jobs and for the butterflies, too.