If you take the long view, the biggest and, perhaps, only real story of the 21st Century is the changing climate. Given the potential consequences for humanity if the average temperature of our planet rises by 3 or 4 degrees, who really cares about the small print of Britain’s relationship with its nearest European neighbours or whatever? And when — if — historians look back on this decade in the context of climate change, they may well identify 2013 as the year that demonstrated how maintaining political support for policies meant to avert environmental disaster was perilously difficult and perhaps even impossible.
The key figures in the history lesson are none other than David Cameron and Ed Milliband. From here, it looks as if history will remember Cameron as the gentleman amateur who bet — and lost — Britain’s EU membership on his own charm, and Miliband — if it remembers him at all — as the Labour leader who buried Blairism and helped keep his party out of office for a decade.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
In fact, both men did things in 2013 that tell us a lot about how the politics and economics of “Net Zero” would play out. Net Zero has, with remarkably little debate, moved from a fringe demand to a mainstream and almost universal political commitment. But the story of 2013 should raise questions about how durable the new consensus will be.
Start with Cameron and his environmental journey. Possibly the first thing Cameron did as Conservative leader in opposition was go to the Arctic and pose with sledge-dogs. The hapless huskies were part of his “vote blue, go green” schtick, using environmentalism to “decontaminate” a Conservative brand that a certain T May had described as “nasty”. But that was 2006. What about 2013?
Well, 2013 was the year that a “senior Conservative source” told a couple of newspaper reporters over a nice lunch in Westminster that Prime Minister Cameron had given a clear order to his ministers regarding energy bills: “Get rid of all that green crap.”
To be clear, I was not one of the reporters at lunch that day, so I cannot swear to the accuracy of that quote. But I don’t know if anyone has asked Sir Michael Fallon, then the energy minister, where he was at the time that nice lunch was taking place; perhaps he has an alibi. Perhaps.
Anyway, let’s assume — and this isn’t much of a stretch, trust me — that Cameron had indeed said something about “green crap” to his colleagues. That remark signals the end of Cameron’s environmental journey — which covered a lot of ground, but came to its conclusion rapidly.
Back in the happy, almost innocent days of 2006, greenery was, Cameron fairly calculated, a nice-to-have add-on to a politician’s offer. Saying you cared about huskies and icecaps was a way to say you were generous and decent. And that was about it. Greenery didn’t obviously entail any actual policies that would directly affect voters’ lives.
Of course, even before Cameron took office in 2010, he had started to learn that it wasn’t that simple. Greenery then meant onshore wind: turbines, often in places where Conservative voters really didn’t want them to be.
Still, that didn’t bother everyone. What bothered just about everyone in the early years of the decade was the cost of living: after the financial crisis, real wages were falling and household bills were political. Bills for things such as gas and electricity.
And one reason those bills were as high as they were was the range of environmental tariffs that the Cameron coalition and its Labour predecessor had added on. The rationale here had seemed clear enough: there were many things that governments wanted to achieve and someone had to pay for them. General taxation wasn’t an attractive option — initially too visible, and then simply impossible given the state of the public finances. So consumers had to foot the bill.
Or rather, the bills: the energy company obligation, to support energy efficiency in poorer households; the warm homes discount, meant to help with the costs of fuel bills, again for poorer households; the renewable obligation, the EU’s emissions trading scheme; the carbon price floor; the feed-in tariffs; the smart meters. All told, the Cameron government reckoned, they added £114 to the typical bill.
And in 2013, with people feeling the pinch, £114 was all it took to turn David Cameron, husky-hugging vote-blue go-green David Cameron, into a potty-mouthed pocket-book politician, intent on saving voters money not saving the planet.
So the first part of the environmental policy lesson of 2013 is that green promises sound good when they’re first made, but sticking with them when they turn into financial pain for the electorate is far from easy. Remember Cameron’s “green crap” when you hear his successors talking about when they’ll take the country to Net Zero, and ask: who’s going to pay for that, and who’s going to tell them they’re going to pay?
The Miliband of 2013 completes the lesson about energy policy, populism and policy. At the Labour conference in September of that year, he announced that if he were made PM in 2015, he would enact a legal freeze on domestic energy prices.
For all the excitement the announcement caused — more on that in a moment — the plan wasn’t really so radical or startling. The year before, that notorious radical socialist Sir John Major had called for a windfall tax on the profits of the energy industry.
The Miliband promise caused something approaching chaos inside the Conservative Party. I was the Telegraph’s political editor at the time and at the Tory conference the following week I did my rounds of breakfasts, lunches, dinners and drinks with Cabinet ministers. I found precisely no unity on how to respond to the price freeze promise. Some were outraged by the idea of the state trying to “fix” markets. Some thought the energy firms were a bad advertisement for capitalism and making profits that were not economically justified. And some just thought the Miliband policy would be popular so the Tories should match it.
In the end, Cameron came out against a price freeze — it was simply not something a Conservative could ever do, he thought. But nothing is forever in politics, and less than four years later, another Conservative leader, May, decided that Toryism was flexible enough to accommodate a price cap for energy.
Remember, in all this, that some of the bills Miliband — and May — promised to limit were driven upwards, in some part, by the environmental policies they pursued and decided that customers should fund.
The year 2013 matters so much because it offers several connected lessons for the politicians promising to lead us on the journey to Net Zero. The first is that few political promises survive first contact with voters’ falling incomes. The second is that if you’re going to do things that cost voters money, best to get their permission first — because they’ll find out in the end, and when they do, they won’t be happy. And the third is that anyone who hopes to rely politically on “market forces” to allocate the resources needed to address big issues like climate change is taking a very big gamble indeed.
Now that he’s settled into Downing Street for five years — or, who knows, 10 — it will fall to Boris Johnson to learn these lessons; getting to Net Zero by the middle of the decade will require the 2020s to be a decade of genuine transformation. So far on the environment, Johnson has belied the charges of cheap populism levelled at him elsewhere, sticking with Net Zero as a promised goal. But right now, the politics of the environment are still relatively easy: commit to a goal still many years away and if in doubt, talk about photogenic distractions like turtles and pangolins.
But if he goes the distance and approaches a decade in office, he will either have to find a way to solve the green political riddle that defied Cameron, or admit defeat, just as his old school chum did.
Join the discussion
To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.
Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.Subscribe