A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Peel redux: will free trade be Cameron's Achilles heel?

Recently, 'two-brains' MP, David Willetts, Shadow Secretary of State for Education, presented a talk to Conservative Campaign Headquarters on the modernising of the Conservative tradition. He was clearly speaking as David Cameron's tame party theologian. His speech was noteworthy for four things - the air-brushing out of Margaret Thatcher (though not of the "late, great Sir Dennis"); a somewhat selective view of history; the obligatory genuflection at the shrine of that great opportunist, Disraeli; but, above all, a failure to resolve the party's oldest and most bitter division, the Peelite split on free trade, against which even the divisions over Europe pale.

Robert PeelIn 1846, as the Conservative Prime Minister, Robert Peel [opposite: image courtesy of Wikipedia: public domain] moved to end agricultural protection in the form of the Corn Laws. Praised by the opposition, he was harangued by many on his own benches, who saw free trade as a fundamental threat to their livelihoods and to the roast beef of Olde England. In the resultant brouhaha, Peel's lieutenant, Gladstone, departed, eventually to help to form the Liberal Party as the true party of free trade. The Conservatives were forced back into their rural hinterlands to become the English country party at prayer, a position from which they were only able to escape when later allied with the Liberal Unionists of Joseph Chamberlain.

Today, both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives are internally divided over free trade. Moreover, the nature of the splits is common between the two as they dog-fight over the same environmental electoral ground, between Orange Book Liberals/Adam Smith Conservatives and the soggy Green authoritarian environmentalists who want to protect a rural 'organic' dream of 'the local' from everything global. On the one hand, we have Nigel Lawson inveighing against the Kyoto Protocol, and, on the other, Zac Goldsmith with Prince Charles in the Royal Box at Cheltenham.

At the moment, David Cameron can say everything, or nothing, because there are no policies. But policies there will have to be, and it will be fascinating to observe the re-engagement of the old Peelite battles between free trade and rural nostalgia, between the hard-nosed, economic Smithians and the 'Corn Law' protectionists, who want higher prices, 'Green' taxes, and EU subsidies. And the nostalgia could well work both ways, a swath of conservative voters opposing wind farms on the roof. In the end, Cameron may have to confront reality and join the statues of Bright and Peel in front of Manchester Town Hall.

Meanwhile, back with New Labour, and on the day of his March Budget speech, Gordon Brown is lambasted for the fact that the take from 'Green' taxes is falling: 'Brown attacked over revenue fall from "green" taxes' (The Independent [where else?], March 22):
"Gordon Brown's plan to present an environmentally friendly Budget today was undermined before it was presented when a group of MPs cast doubt on his green credentials.

The MPs fired a shot across the Chancellor's bows by disclosing that revenue from environmental taxes has fallen to its lowest level for more than a decade. Its share of the total tax take dropped from a peak of 9.8 per cent in 1999 to 8.3 per cent in 2004.

In his 10th Budget today, Mr Brown will give an upbeat assessment of Britain's economic prospects....."

Hm! Well done, Gordon. I wonder if there is a relationship there. Still, don't fret my Green worryworts, Gordon will most assuredly gesture towards those 'Chelsea tractors' .....

Philip, SUVicient unto the the day, say I. I'm absolutely fed up with the Green wallahs always banging on about higher taxes and everything needing to cost more. Gets me quite hot under the Eton collar. Still - we won at cricket. "Tiffin anyone?"

[New counter, June 19, 2006, with loss of some data]

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