Tipping points

Facing up to their rhetoric on climate change is becoming more uncomfortable for politicians, not least in the Brown government. Mark Lynas makes the neat point that the Plane Stupid protesters on the roof of the Place of Westminster were arrested for trying to enforce government policy, while Martin Kettle also in The Guardian and Geoffrey Lean in The Independent reflect on the government’s hesitancy in the Budget (billed as the “greenest Budget ever”) to signal any environmental leadership, although – given the much-reduced formal importance of Budget statements – the more revealing litmus test should be the next public expenditure review.

But why are politicians and policy-makers apparently frozen into inactivity on climate change, and equally the continuing financial market imbroglio? Is it in part a perception that the green sensibility that has undoubtedly arisen in the past few years is a (middle class) luxury good, which will be dropped during the endgame of the present boom? Is it more simply an inability of today’s politicians and political classes to match a suite of new ideas to the shifts in social and economic change in the UK over past 25 years, which arguably are equal to those in 1945, 1979 or 1997?

The political parties seemingly define their territory according to their concepts of a “new relationship between the state and the citizen.” But is this any more than focus group wish think? Does it not miss the fundamental point that few people want to run their kids’ schools let alone local hospitals – we just want the state to do a decent job of it together with the professionals working in these schools, hospitals and other welfare agencies. Likewise on climate change, are people not unreasonably expecting their elected representatives to present for debate a range of pathways for next 5-10 years setting out government plans on taxation & spending, the role of business, the response of local government and the incentives for households to adapt to the impacts of climate change?

Or perhaps the paralysis is caused by the feeling that the squeeze on living standards which has already begun for middle classes is a foretaste of further falls as the need to mitigate near-future emissions bites into consumption and livelihoods. Economic growth has done little to reduce inequalities or improve social justice in the UK (with honourable exception of child poverty), indeed trade liberalisation may have eroded real wages for many workers. Managing the adjustment to a lower-emission economy will require more than a liberal agenda based upon calls for equality of opportunity, and that is what worries the political elite who recognise the inherent fragility of a state built on class inequalities when the liberal consensus breaks.

UPDATE 29 Mar 2008: Matthew Parris reporting on the annual Orwell Prize for political writing comments:

A once-great political idea [socialism] was disintegrating into a welter of crèche initiatives and well-intentioned wittering about small-picture communitarianism and self-help groups in Glasgow. This is not what Marx, Engels, Lenin or even Attlee were all about. Nor, for that matter, is it what Disraeli, Salisbury, Churchill or even Thatcher were about. And I think I diagnosed the problem: a problem for the Right too, and for British Tories as much as for new Labour. All sides have suffered a slow but disabling collapse of confidence in the ability of central government to do things, to mend things, to start things or to run things properly. Nobody seems to believe in the State any more.

I do. My message to the Left is keep the faith, baby. My message to the Right is beware the siren calls of laissez faire and localism. People need governing. People need governments, strong governments. People need certainty. People need consistency. People need constraining, inspiring, harnessing and directing, and they need it done with the clarity and command that central government alone can offer. In a thousand places, from the strategic heights to the nooks and crannies of everyday life, there arise necessities to which the answer must be that only government can do them.

AND (2 April) Nick Cohen (but is this correct- – politics by the average or marginal approach?):

However, I and my fellow liberals are equally intolerant when it comes to our pet causes. It’s no good telling us to be grateful that London is no longer enveloped by smog, for instance, or that homophobia is not as vicious as it used to be. We want a green environment and minorities to be treated with respect, right now.

This convergence between liberal and conservative thinking is a sign that London, for all its povoerty, is becoming an ever-more middle class city. And like solid bourgeois everywhere, Londoners want good manners, cleanliness and order. In his lumbering way, Johnson half grasps the public mood, which is why he looks like winning.

FINAL UPDATE 3 May 2008: Which he has


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