Johann Hari: Cameron a progressive? I don't think so

If you are opposed to government regulation, how can you tackle global warming?

Monday 12 May 2008 00:00

Britain is stumbling in a daze towards Tory rule. Every week now we sleep-walk further up the opinion polls, giving David Cameron a 26-point lead by one count. What keeps us from waking? The lullabies of Cameron posing with huskies and the homeless soothe us; it won't be so bad, he's a New Tory, we mutter, and close our eyes again.

Cameron is benefiting from a growing gap in British politics. While the Labour government's flaws are (rightly) ripped from its stomach and left out in the sun for all to see, Cameron is being waved through with a cheery smile. He has not been subjected to even the gentlest frisking to check for sharp-edged policies.

In the 2000 election campaign, George Bush posed as a "compassionate conservative" who would dedicate his presidency to helping poor children and immigrants. The US press took this at face value, while ridiculing his hyper-intelligent opponent as an icy, autistic nerd-freak. It ended with the "likeable" guy watching New Orleans drown and Baghdad burn, and everyone wishing they had opted for the nerd after all.

Cameron's article for The Independent last week – headline: "We are the champions of progressive ideals" – was a masterclass in how this is happening again. He proclaimed himself "a true progressive" and a champion of "social justice" – but the policies he demanded were precisely the opposite.

Let's start with the biggest issue of all: global warming. Cameron has performed a recent screeching turn-around. Prior to his election as Tory leader, his only recorded statement about environmentalism was to mock wind farms as "giant bird-blenders" and demand more roads be built. But within a year of the sneer, he had one of these "bird-blenders" built onto his house, and invited the press to see it, proclaiming himself a "true green".

Yet – wait – what's this in his article? He goes out of his way to oppose "centre-left approaches such as bureaucracy and regulation" to stem the release of warming gases. These are old-fashioned failures. He means it: the man Cameron has put in charge of drawing up his plans for "a bonfire of regulation" is John Redwood, who says global warming is a "swindle" – but if it was happening we should celebrate because we will have more sunny days. "If you want to know if I'm a Tory," Cameron told The Spectator, "ask John Redwood."

But if you are opposed to government regulation, how can you tackle global warming? Imagine this. You, as Prime Minister, go to the leading corporations and say they need to cut their emissions. And they say – sorry, David, but we have a responsibility to our shareholders to maximise their profits. You have disavowed "regulation" and "bureaucracy", so you have no power to make them do it, except – perhaps – to bribe them, with your tax-billions and mine. Is that really a better way, when they already rake in tens of billions in profit?

Cameron tells us he wants to copy the green policies of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Angela Merkel – but he doesn't seem to understand what they are. Schwarzenegger, for example, has passed a law requiring car manufacturers to slash the amount of fuel each car uses. By 2020, they will have to achieve 43 miles per US gallon. The car manufacturers are fighting the law in court; Schwarzenegger has told them to quit "whining". This is precisely the kind of "regulation" – with, yes, a "bureaucracy" to police it – that Cameron explicitly disavows, and Redwood promises to dismantle. Oh, and Cameron tells conservative audiences he still wants to pursue that "massive road-building programme" across Britain.

So much for the green-wash. What about inequality and poverty? Cameron says "only we" can tackle it. He concedes that, in the past, "income redistribution and social programmes run by the state had considerable success in relieving poverty." Yet now "those methods have run their course." Why? He doesn't tell us, but he vows he will abandon this idea of "the central state shifting money around" nonetheless.

But is it true that this approach has inexplicably stopped working? Since 1997, the poorest families have been given, on average, £4,200 more in top-up benefits per year. I can take you to the Ocean Estate here in east London and introduce you to children who used to sleep on a mattress in the kitchen but now have a bedroom of their own. You could talk to mums who can afford to give their kids birthday parties and take them on holiday for the first time. To them, "the central state shifting money around" hasn't dealt with "the symptoms" of poverty; it has ended their poverty.

There are now more than half a million people in this position – including many of my relatives – and if Cameron wants there to be more, he should call for a ramping up of tax credits.

Yet Cameron hints he will abolish them: one of his spokesmen compares them to the disastrous nationalised industries of the 1970s. What would he do instead? He says he will deal instead with "the causes of poverty", which he says are "the cycle of family breakdown, worklessness, crime, [and] drug and alcohol abuse."

It's true these factors aggravate poverty, but the "solutions" he proposes are oddly feeble. Will £40 a week for married couples really turn Shameless families into Terry and June? Will kicking all addicts off their safe, legal prescriptions make them good happy workers – or will it send them back to crime on the streets? Will either of these "solutions" make up for the poorest losing more than £4,000 a year?

There is a larger cause of poverty than any on Cameron's list – but his ideology stops him seeing it. Markets are brilliant at many things, like generating wealth. But they cannot, on their own, ensure that people at the bottom of the pile have enough to live on. There is a large chunk of people in Britain whose skills and labour simply aren't worth very much to the market. A security guard and dinner-lady raising their kids in London aren't poor because of family breakdown or drug addiction, but because their skills are worth only £5.52 an hour.

Even if you could draw up plans that really would reduce addiction and chaotic families, you would still have millions of people like them. Markets do not magically ensure a liveable income for everyone. Only government can, by "shuffling" money from those at the top to those at the bottom – the policy Cameron says worked for a century but has, for no apparent reason, become worthless in the Noughties.

Coverage of the Tories seems increasingly like a Mitchell and Webb sketch where increasingly absurdist political groupings demand to be taken seriously: Bullingdon Club Progressives for Taking Money Away From Poor Children. You can argue for Cameron's policies, but if words mean anything, you cannot call them "progressive" or "green". They will leave us living on a more unequal island in a more rapidly warming world. Is it time to shake ourselves awake yet?

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