BRITISH environmentalists were in their political pomp in the middle of the past decade. Prosperity allowed voters to worry about an issue they used to regard as esoteric: Ipsos MORI polls found 19% of the public citing pollution as a serious issue facing the country in early 2007. Then in opposition, David Cameron, the Conservative leader, sought to capture the Zeitgeist, and fix his party’s “uncaring” image, by visiting melting glaciers and changing the Tory logo from a torch to a tree.
The subsequent recession left environmentalism looking like an unaffordable luxury. Since 2008 the share of voters who think it a big issue has fallen to around 4%. Politicians who once competed to out-green each other now stick to bread-and-butter subjects such as the economy and public services, for fear of seeming out-of-touch. “Vote Blue, Go Green” was the Conservative slogan for the 2006 local elections; Mr Cameron has not revived the theme for this year’s polling, which was taking place as we went to press.
But whereas the political salience of greenery has wilted, the government’s environmental policies are holding up. Although this year’s budget disappointed greens by cutting petrol duties, it also included the creation of a green investment bank to finance carbon-free energy projects. The coalition government has also cancelled plans it inherited to expand Heathrow airport in London, braving the ire of big business. It wants to reduce short-haul flights by building more high-speed railways. It is also striving to cut carbon-dioxide emissions across the public sector.
The government’s commitment to greenery is set to face a further test. A law passed by its Labour predecessor obliges it, by the end of June, to set a limit on Britain’s total emissions of carbon dioxide in the period 2023-27 (limits until then have already been set). Environmentalists want ministers to accept the limit recommended by the Committee on Climate Change, an independent advisory body, but fear the government will choose a laxer one.
The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition is certainly more environmentally conscious than a purely Tory government would have been. George Osborne, the Conservative chancellor of the exchequer and author of the fuel-tax cut, is reluctant to impose further burdens on a private sector that he is counting on to deliver economic growth. But there are also some quite ardent environmentalists, such as Chris Huhne, the increasingly assertive Lib Dem energy secretary. Mr Cameron’s instincts are somewhere in the middle.
The prime minister is more aware than most of the political irrelevance of environmentalism. As leader of the opposition, he learned the hard way. Among the “modernisers” who wanted to remake the Tory brand, there was always a divide between those who thought voters disliked the party because of its supposed disdain for “soft” issues such as the environment and gay rights, and those who insisted that the real problem was the party’s perceived indifference to public services and poverty.
The former camp, the so-called “Soho modernisers”, set the tone of Mr Cameron’s early years as Tory leader, hence his glacier tour and all that conspicuous cycling. The latter group—some of whom call themselves “Easterhouse modernisers”, after a Glasgow housing estate visited by Iain Duncan Smith, the last but one Tory leader—argue that this contributed in two ways to the Tories’ failure to win last year’s general election outright.
First, it made the already privileged, metropolitan Tory leadership seem even further removed from the concerns of ordinary people. Although 19% of voters may have been worried about the environment in 2007, more were thinking about crime, health services and so on. After five years of modernisation, the party went into the last election still doubted over its commitment to the poor and social justice. Second, dwelling on soft issues left the Tories unprepared for the return of hard economic questions brought about by the financial crisis, a subject on which they rarely sounded convincing.
The government knows that making too much of its environmentalism risks alienating squeezed voters. Even Ed Miliband, the Labour Party leader and former energy secretary, who is closer to the green movement than perhaps any other senior politician, has not made the environment a big theme. The worry for greens is that the lack of political utility in their cause will ultimately prompt government to water down environmental policy itself. If so, those years before the crash will not be remembered as the flowering of the environmental movement, but as its peak.