Conservation’s Conservative streak

We shouldn’t be surprised that the Green Zac Goldsmith has turned Blue.

James Heartfield

Topics Politics

‘I personally intend to do everything I can to help this party at the next election’, says Ecologist editor Zac Goldsmith (1). The dashing heir to the Goldsmith fortune is being wooed as a potential Tory candidate as well as being held up as an example of the newfound trendiness of the Conservative cause.

But it should come as no surprise that conservationists are at heart conservatives. Despite shifting over to the anti-capitalist ground in recent years, the long-term meaning of conservationism has always been a hostility to change. More recently, the Tory Party has made a pitch to the environmentalist lobby by opposing Labour’s tentative plans for new house-building (despite the fact that these are only a more modest version of those proposed by the last Conservative environment minister, John Gummer). Defending the Green Belt unites the Tory shires and the grungies against shifty-looking New Labour spivs.

Indeed, most of the emerging leaders of the anti-capitalist movement seemed to be surprisingly well-heeled. Mark Brown (Radley School), heir to the Vestey fortune was acquitted of leading the Carnival Against Capitalism of June 1999; Lord Peter Melchett (Eton), former cabinet minister and grandson to Imperial Chemicals Industry’s Lord Alfred Mond, was head of Greenpeace UK, as well as standing trial for wrecking genetically modified crops. Charles Secrett (Cranleigh), executive director of Friends of the Earth, explains the appeal of environmentalism among the upper classes: ‘Among the aristocrats there is a sense of noblesse oblige…a feeling of stewardship towards the land.’ (2)

Sir Crispin Tickell used his wardenship of Green College, Oxford to provide a base for one rising star of the movement, George Monbiot. Educated at Stowe school and Brasenose College, Oxford, Monbiot was headed for a career at the BBC until he threw in his lot with the Donga tribe at Twyford Down, and, despite some suspicions about this ‘careerist’ and ‘media tart’ (3), he succeeded in making himself an accepted spokesman.

It was Zac’s father, corporate raider Sir James Goldsmith, who founded the Ecologist magazine, edited by his brother Edward in 1970; and the organisation Friends of the Earth was founded in the same year. Three years later the Ecology Party – later the Green Party – was formed. These groups had supported the Tory government’s ‘Save It’ campaign, popularising austerity measures in 1974, but in the late 1970s they clashed with the establishment over the public inquiry into the Windscale nuclear plant. Conservation had made the transition from ‘a fairly close and “gentlemanly” dialogue with the state’ to a counter-cultural lifestyle ‘comprising vegetarian diets, concern for animals, wholefood shops, open-air festivals, cycling, hiking and rallies’ (4).

But it was only with the decline of the Labour left, following the party’s 1983 election defeat, that environmentalism became widely accepted as an alternative to the status quo in the UK. The traditional left’s nadir, 1989, coincides with the apex of environmental concerns, when eight per cent of Europeans voted for green parties.

The old left by no means welcomed the environmentalists’ claim on radicalism. Tony Benn recorded his impressions of a Friends of the Earth Christmas party in 1980: ‘One felt that all this concern was the middle class expressing its dislike of the horrors of industrialisation – keeping Hampstead free from the whiff of diesel smoke, sort of thing’.

But already the old left was reaching out for a ‘red-green alliance’ to try to compensate for its declining influence – which wasn’t something that held an immediate appeal for environmentalists. As the political agenda became more stridently anti-capitalist, though, the remnants of the old left found a home in the new anti-globalisation movement, doing the donkey-work of leafleting, placard-making and mobilising their supporters. Much of the movement was ‘reds, pretending to be greens, pretending to be reds’, one Trotskyist ruefully admitted to me.

Contemporary green activists have complex attitudes to the movement against capitalism represented by the old left. The rebranding of the anti-globalisation movement as an anti-capitalist movement means taking on some of the rhetorical force of the socialist slogans. Tony Juniper, executive director of Friends of the Earth, explains the evolution in their thinking:

‘For the past 10 years we’ve been locating ourselves more in the bigger economic debate and less in the “save the whales” type debate. Talking about rainforests led us into talking about Third World debt. Talking about climate change led us to talk about transnational corporations. The more you talk about these things, the more you realise the subject isn’t the environment any more, it’s the economy and the pressures on countries to do things that undercut any efforts they make to deal with environmental issues.’ (5)

But just as the anti-globalisation movement reached its apex, it disintegrated. An anti-capitalist demonstration planned for the weekend after 11 September 2001 was cancelled. The left moved on from anti-globalisation to campaigning against the war in Iraq. Recent anti-debt protests in July 2005 were organised at a discrete distance by UK chancellor Gordon Brown and prime minister Tony Blair, working through their ‘youth’ frontmen Bono and Bob Geldof. But despite the hype, the Edinburgh protests were a damp squib.

The conservationist ethos has not exhausted itself; far from it. The value of moderation and parsimony are universally upheld – ideally, anyway, since they generally coincide with increased consumerism. But the anti-capitalist strand of environmentalism is giving way to its underlying conservative ethos, and finding a home in the Conservative Party.

James Heartfield is a writer based in London. Visit his website here.

(1) Guardian, 5 October 2005

(2) Guardian, 5 May 2000

(3) Green Anarchist 39

(4) Phil Macnaghten, Contested Natures, 1998, pp. 51, 56

(5) Observer, 14 July 2002

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Topics Politics


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