Politics & Policy

Learning from Cameron’s Mistake

Embracing trendy green policies did not help the British Tories.

When President Obama meets British Conservative leader David Cameron today, it will look like the wave of the future. After all, Democrats aren’t looking to Prime Minister Gordon Brown for inspiration. On the other hand, some Republicans will suggest their party could learn some lessons from Cameron, who enjoys big poll leads and is preparing his party for a return to government for the first time since 1997. There’s a long tradition of American and British politicians borrowing political ideas from each other.

Yet Americans should look for the right lessons, separating hype from substance, and avoid rote imitation. The Conservatives have had plenty of ups and downs since Cameron became leader and have benefited from opposing an exhausted and faltering Labour government. They’ve gotten many important things right, but they have also made plenty of mistakes — which are just as crucial to learn from.

#ad#One such mistake is the Conservative party’s new approach to the environment. David Cameron has adopted a radical green agenda, touting the dangers of global warming with a highly publicized trip to a supposedly melting glacier early during his leadership (ironically, the glacier was actually growing). Since then, Cameron and his advisers have actively embraced policies intended to decarbonize Britain’s energy mix — policies not far removed from those of the Obama administration.

Now some suggest that American conservatives should take a similar line. For instance: Jamie Boulding, writing at NewMajority.com, suggests that the London-based TaxPayers’ Alliance, which has extensively studied the subject, was wrong to suggest that embracing radical green politics was a mistake. He bases this on a fallacious argument: Conservatives currently enjoy significant poll leads, and the British public tends to rate climate change as “an important issue,” so therefore the two must be connected. In fact, neither of these facts is particularly pertinent to the question at hand.

A trend line of opinion-poll ratings shows that the big lead the Conservatives are currently defending was first established in October 2007. Until then, the Conservatives were trailing Labour, even though Cameron began burnishing his green credentials the day he was elected party leader in December 2005. Conservative politicians reversed that position by announcing a massive cut in the inheritance tax (raising the threshold above which people pay it to around £1 million) that was massively popular. Shortly after that, Gordon Brown failed to call an election as many had expected him to, severely damaging his reputation for honesty and seriousness.

Different polls, asking different questions, can suggest that the public consider almost any issue as “important.” Based on the YouGov poll he links to, Boulding seems to derive his 75 percent figure from the combined percentage totals of the respondents who think that climate change is important enough to tackle unilaterally and those who say that it should be taken on only with multilateral support. (The combined total is actually 74 percent, but that’s the source he provides.) However, the same poll results could be interpreted to say that, “54 percent of Britons refuse to support action to tackle climate change without the cooperation of other countries, while only 37 percent support unilateral action.”

Moreover, the YouGov poll’s language seems to introduce bias through its tendentious formulation. The option supporting unilateral action begins with, “Climate change is such an important issue . . .,” while the one supporting multilateral action states, “Climate change must be tackled internationally . . . .” The option opposing action begins much more passively — in the past tense, even: “Many scientists and politicians have exaggerated the dangers of climate change . . . .”

Other better worded, unprompted polls suggest that climate change is a low priority for British voters, much as do similar polls in the United States. The Ipsos-Mori Issues Index, which has been running for decades and is well respected, suggests that “pollution/environment” (a category that includes climate change and other issues) ranks 11th, with just 7 percent of the British public ranking it is an important issue. By contrast, 67 percent consider the economy an important issue, 32 percent say the same about crime, and 25 percent say that about race relations and immigration. Only 2 percent cited pollution or the environment as the most important issue facing Britain today.

This isn’t just a result of the recession. With a few exceptions, an annual Taxpayers’ Alliance poll has consistently obtained similar results since at least 1997, and climate change has never been rated as an important issue by more than a fifth of the British electorate.

#page#When confronted with numbers like these, defenders of Cameron’s environmental strategy argue that there are intangible benefits that such polls fail to capture. They argue that environmentalism has, as they put it, “decontaminated” the Conservative brand in the minds of the public. A poll for the TaxPayers’ Alliance suggests that this, too, is a myth. When asked to describe the motivations of politicians who promote green taxes, 74 percent of those polled said that, “politicians are not serious about the environment and are using the issue as an excuse to raise more revenue from green taxes.” Promoting “green” measures that are perceived by the public as disingenuous attempts to take their money is hardly a winning formula to decontaminate any brand.

The political failure of David Cameron’s environmentalism has been reflected in the Conservative party’s serial shifting of its position. The party had promoted the slogan, “pay as you burn, not pay as you earn,” but has now retreated from green taxes. Most of the Tories’ more radical environmental policies have been quietly dropped — including forcing supermarkets to charge for parking spaces and halting all road widening and airport expansion.

#ad#Unfortunately, however, the Tory leadership continues to support measures that will hit people’s pocketbooks without their knowing, and such policies are already taking a huge toll on British families and businesses. For example, according to government estimates, the average British home electric bill has already increased by 14 percent due to climate-change policies. The public, however, doesn’t know that it’s paying such a high price for policies such as the European cap-and-trade scheme and subsidies for renewable energy. Moreover, British businesses have enough trouble competing with rising industrial powers like India and China without having their energy bills inflated by climate-change programs.

Other Conservative proposals, such as those echoing Obama’s call for a new “smart grid,” may sound clever, but in fact they are full of holes. Much of the Tories’ smart grid will supposedly be financed by auctioning European emissions permits, but the price of those permits has oscillated wildly ever since the trading scheme was put in place. The idea that you can reliably plan to pay for anything on the basis of such a variable revenue stream is absurd, no matter which side of the Atlantic you live on.

If there is a lesson to be learned from David Cameron’s flirtation with radical environmentalism, it is that American conservatives should avoid embracing trendy green policies that will harm the U.S. economy and do little to make the GOP more popular.

– Iain Murray is director of projects and analysis at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. Matthew Sinclair is director of research at the Taxpayers’ Alliance in London.

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