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Learning From Cameron’s Mistake

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Learning From Cameron’s Mistake

Op-ed in The National Review

Learning from Cameron’s Mistake
Embracing trendy green policies did not help the British Tories.

By Iain Murray & Matthew Sinclair

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.

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.

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.

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.