Environmentally conscious politics has traditionally been the preserve of the Left. The Green Party in England and Wales ran at the last election in 2019 on a tax-and-spend manifesto which would have raised corporation tax and established a universal basic income. In Germany, Die Grünen partnered with the centre-left SPD in government around the turn of the millennium, while in the US – thin soil indeed for ecologists – the Greens have long worshipped at the altar of Ralph Nader and in 2016 formally rejected capitalism in favour of “eco-socialism”.
It was not so in the beginning. The English Green Party traces its roots to the early 1970s and—mirabile dictu—to the August 1970 edition of Playboy, which featured an interview with Dr Paul Ehrlich, the Stanford biologist who had written The Population Bomb two years earlier. The professor’s warnings about the devastating effects of overpopulation were read by Lesley and Tony Whittaker, a Kenilworth couple left aghast by Ehrlich’s warnings; they founded a group of like-minded individuals in the Midlands called the Club of Thirteen, which soon became a political party, PEOPLE, which in turn became the Ecology Party in 1975.
These were not cardboard cut-out leftists. Tony Whittaker had been a Conservative councillor, two early confederates, Freda Sanders and Michael Benfield, were property agents, and they were later joined by Edward Goldsmith, editor of The Ecologist, whose approach to saving the planet was a markedly reactionary one: he preached the gospel of neotribalism and the Gaia Paradigm.
There is no reason at all why today’s Conservative government cannot seize and absorb the green agenda over the next decade and shape the issue in its own image. Circumstances support this approach.
Firstly, and the factor on which this argument hinges, is that the UK will later this year host the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, known as COP26. This environmental meeting was scheduled to take place in Glasgow last autumn, but was delayed by 12 months due to the pandemic.
This is a huge diplomatic and presentational opportunity for the UK, as well as offering the hope of making real policy progress. And it entwines conveniently with the second factor, that of the new administration in Washington DC.
President Biden does not seem to be an instinctive Anglophile. His (far-removed) Irish roots undoubtedly play a part, and Boris Johnson’s apparent enthusiasm for the presidency of Donald Trump, excusable to some as a diplomatic necessity, has not made the hoary old “special relationship” any warmer. It is hard to imagine that the previous president’s half-witted and fawning description of the prime minister as “Britain Trump” has helped matters in any way.
If the UK’s stock in Washington is not at an all-time high, there are promising auguries. Biden’s enthusiasm for addressing climate change was made obvious by his appointment of the patrician former secretary of state John Kerry as his special representative on the issue, a cabinet-level appointment with the administrative backing of the State Department. COP26 therefore provides the prime minister with a perfect opportunity to show the Americans some carbon-free ankle.
Boris Johnson also has environmental influences closer to home. His fiancée, Carrie Symonds, served as a senior adviser to the marine conservation alliance Oceana, inc., and is a patron of the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation. She has recently returned to work after maternity leave as head of communications for the Aspinall Foundation, a prominent wildlife conservation group. (To reinforce the connection between the capitalist Right and the roots of environmentalism, the organisation was founded by John Aspinall, a bookmaker, gambler and founder of the Clermont Club in Mayfair.)
The prime minister therefore has powerful reasons to hug the environmental agenda to his bearish chest. A command performance on the world stage, an opportunity to redeem his reputation with Washington, and dovetailing with the passionate beliefs of a partner who is politically minded and forthright: these are stars clearly coming into alignment. And they are joined by another. The UK is coming up to the third anniversary of its much-trumpeted “Global Britain” vision for our place in the world after Brexit. For its supporters, the concept is beginning to assume a coherent shape, and a favourable reading of the recent Integrated Review gives detail and direction. COP26 is another showcase which the prime minister should seize.
What should the government’s narrative be? What is the impression to be left by the decisions of COP26?
Last autumn, Johnson laid out his ten-point plan for a “Green Industrial Revolution”, the subtitle of which encapsulated its vision: “building back better, supporting green jobs, and accelerating our path to net zero”. These are fine principles to adhere to. They can be woven together with Global Britain and COP26 to fashion a story worth telling: how the UK will engage tech and research to transform energy generation at home and trade with the world, not only reducing carbon emissions at source but addressing what remains through carbon capture and storage. Finally—and for me most excitingly—all of this will be powered by systems of finance and investment which will be specifically tailored towards achieving net-zero as soon as possible.
There’s the prize at stake. If COP26 is handled skilfully and with incisive, strategic and innovative thinking, it can be the legacy not just of the current Conservative government but of the UK for a decade or more. The potential is great. For those on the right, there could be a symmetry in the green movement returning to its roots after half a century dominated by the lefts. So let us watch Downing Street, and see if the incumbent has the capacity, the stamina and the support around him to become a transformational figure. Remember that the Fates only spin one thread for each man.
Eliot Wilson, is the co-founder of Pivot Point Group