Beware the self-pity of the governing classes. Ministers of the crown might look powerful and oppressive to us; often they see themselves as lonely heroes confronting a sea of troubles. That has been Tony Blair’s schtick from the month he took office. We now see him dripping with other people’s blood but he appears to perceive only the scars on his own back.
The whingeing begins as soon as they are free to speak. Michael Gove, demoted as education secretary but still in government, has said little, but his emissaries are wailing loudly on his behalf. Owen Paterson, the former environment secretary, can speak directly, and he now lambasts the “green blob”, against which he nobly fought and lost.
As one of those he blamed for bringing him down in his wild, minatory article on Sunday, I’m happy to join Blob Pride. But I also see something new emerging in his position and that of other disaffected rightwingers. It looks like the development of a Tea Party faction within the Conservatives.
Tea Party politics can be defined as the interests of the ultra-elite cleverly repackaged as the interests of the common people. Here are its essential elements.
The first is a sense of victimhood. Never mind that those who make such claims are the least likely victims. They must find common cause with people who feel passed over or pushed out or ignored: the motivating themes of the radical right. In Paterson’s case, he made it up, stating: “I was burnt in effigy by Greenpeace as I was recovering from an operation to save my eyesight.” Greenpeace did no such thing.
The second requirement is an out-group, an enemy responsible for this victimhood. As the writer and campaigner George Marshall points out, it’s not enough that the out-group causes harm; the harm must be intentional. In this case, green movements oppressed Paterson and the hard-working, country-loving people of this nation in order to “keep each other well supplied with lavish funds”, he claimed. They know nothing about the natural world, he says; their leaders “could not tell asnakeshead fritillary from a silver-washed fritillary”. All they want is “to enhance their own income streams”.
This comes from a man who insisted on a mass cull of badgers against scientific advice, who stripped away the last regulations protecting the soil from erosion, who believed that “the purpose of waterways is to get rid of water” and sought to turn our rivers into featureless gutters,and who championed the pesticides that appear to be destroying bees and other animals.
Anyway, enough opinion. Let’s test his proposition. I challenge Mr Paterson to a kind of duel: to walk through the countryside together, with independent experts, and see who can correctly identify the greatest number of species across all classes: birds, insects, spiders, plants, fungi and the rest. Will he take up my challenge?
The third element is a reframing of where power lies. People working on behalf of billionaires and corporations project themselves as horny-handed sons of toil while casting their enemies as an aloof intellectual elite. Paterson lists his opponents as “rich pop stars”, “rich landowners”, “a dress designer” and “a public school journalist” (me), who “don’t represent the real countryside of farmers and workers”.
So who is this voice of the workers? Paterson is a millionaire, educated at Radley College and Cambridge, who owns a large country estate on which he lets buildings and agricultural land. While in office, he doubled the public subsidy for grouse moors. He also defeated an attempt to limit the amount of public money rich landowners can receive. As a result, the dukes and sheikhs and oligarchs who own England’s biggest estates each receive millions of pounds in subsidies. He appointed as chair of Natural England – which is supposed to defend wildlife – a multimillionaire house-builder, Andrew Sells. And he ignored his civil servants to take advice instead from his brother-in-law, Viscount Ridley, described by ConservativeHome as “Paterson’s personal thinktank”.
That’s another thing this putative movement has in common with the US radical right: discredited figures (think of Oliver North and G Gordon Liddy) are feted by powerful industrial interests and able to develop a new career as commentators. Matt Ridley inherited (along with his estate, his opencast coal mines and his vast wealth) the chairmanship of Northern Rock, whose collapse under his reckless and incompetent oversight was the catalyst for the British financial crisis, which impoverished so many. Yet, while the misdemeanours of Fred Goodwin – the son of an electrician who became head of RBS – were rightly condemned, Viscount Ridley’s have been comprehensively airbrushed. Rupert Murdoch used his first tweet to praise him, and he has worked as a columnist for the Times ever since. Unlike Goodwin, he is of use to the elite, as he has helped to formulate its talking points, arguing for deregulation and denying environmental problems.
The fourth element consists of shifting the spectrum of political thought by planting your flag on the outer fringes of lunacy. It’s a tactic often used in the US by people such as Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz and Michele Bachmann. Paterson’s contribution is to identify the Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, and the Canadian premier, Stephen Harper, who have arguably done more harm to the living planet than anyone else alive, as champions of environmental protection.
In other words, Paterson has positioned himself as a spokesman for a new strand of conservatism that is likely to consolidate as David Cameron seeks to distance himself, before the election, from his party’s whackier fringes on the radical right. In a furious row with Cameron after he was told he had been sacked, Paterson is reported to have shouted: “I can out-Ukip Ukip … You are making a big mistake.”
Now, choked with resentment and self-pity, apparently convinced that despite a life of wealth and power he represents the whipped and wounded, he has spelt out the essential components of something that might soon become familiar to us. Tea Party politics were bound to reach these shores eventually, and they will be lavishly financed by the very rich. It won’t be pretty, but we should be ready for it.