Why U.K. Conservatives Are Going All Green

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- British Conservatives have long had an on-off relationship with environmental causes. Margaret Thatcher was an advocate of action on global warming during her time in office, but seemed to cool on the idea in retirement. David Cameron urged the U.K. to “vote blue, go green” in 2006, but later reportedly told aides to “get rid of all the green crap. ”

Now, it’s most definitely on. The Tories are considering creating new national parks, having floated bans on wet wipes, plastic drinking straws and other single-use plastic products just this month. This follows a ban on microbeads and the announcement of an ambitious 25-year green plan by Theresa May earlier this year. The prime minister has one of her cabinet big hitters, Michael Gove, as environment secretary, and her lawmakers regularly tweet their support for all things green and animal-friendly. And Her Majesty's Armed Forces have just been sent to Africa to save endangered black rhinos.

That attitude contrasts starkly with the Tories' U.S. counterparts. Republican Congressman Mo Brooks of Alabama recently drew sniggers in the U.K. when he postulated that rising sea levels might be due not to climate change but to “soil or rock or whatever it is” falling into oceans and displacing the water. Examples he gave included the California coast -- and the White Cliffs of Dover in southeast of England.

Rarely has going green made so much political sense in the U.K.  In a poll we conducted, 56 per cent of eligible voters said such measures have not gone quite or nearly far enough, including 55 per cent of Conservative voters and 59 per cent of voters from the opposition Labour Party. Twenty-six per cent thought that measures to protect the environment were about right currently, whereas only 12 per cent thought they had gone too far.

A green agenda may be helpful to the Tories in particular. The governing party fared poorly at the 2017 general election among young voters and graduates, consistently two of the most pro-environment demographics. It struggled with various questions relating to animal welfare.

This new, full-throated alliance between conservatism and conservationism is a potential game-changer. In mid-2017, when the British Election Study asked the same question to its online panel, it got similar results among Labour and Liberal Democrat voters but much less support from Conservatives. Although the difference could in part be methodological, it is likely that  environmentalism is a vote-winner for the party. It is also, in turn, strengthening environmental sentiment among the party's following.

Unlike the Tories, who are reaching out to the voters they lost last June and hoping to regain a lost parliamentary majority, U.S. Republicans are not in a conciliatory mood. It’s no secret that a large part of the GOP holds a different view to the majority of climate scientists. You would think conservatives would be pro-conservation, but American conservatism often sees environmental causes as a pathway to more government intervention and fewer personal freedoms.

Even so, there are some signs that the green agenda is gaining traction in the U.S. Although multi-country research suggests that Americans are among the least concerned about the environment, the 2016 American National Election Study found that 53 per cent favored increased federal spending on protecting the environment, up 12 points compared with the same survey in 2012, with 13 per cent favoring a reduction (down four points) and 34 per cent preferring to keep it the same (down seven points).

In a sense, the conservative case for the environment should not be difficult to make on either side of the Atlantic. Among the things to pass on to your children, the planet ought to be pretty high on the list. The national security benefits of reduced reliance on imported oil should not be lost on the right; likewise the business opportunities. But for decades, environmentalists have been far more likely to talk in terms of big business destroying the planet, or advocate green taxes, than to make the case to conservatives on their own terms.

The environment hasn’t yet returned to the salience it found in mid-1989 when, at the height of concerns about chlorofluorocarbons and ozone layer depletion, one in three Britons told the pollster MORI that the environment or pollution were among the important issues facing the U.K. The equivalent number in recent months has been closer to one in 10, though that is nevertheless higher than it has been most of the time in recent decades.

Since the factors pushing the environment up the political agenda -- notably the backing of younger voters the Tories desperately need to win back --  are unlikely to go away, don’t expect the U.K. government’s green phase to end anytime soon. For Republicans, it may take a while longer.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.