There was a time when conservatism meant what the word suggests. It was an attempt to keep things as they are: to arrest economic and social change, to defend the position of the dominant class. Today conservatism has become a nihilistic festival of destruction: a gleeful Bullingdon dinner party of upper class anarchists, smashing other people’s crockery and hurling the chairs through the windows. Yet its purpose is still to secure the position of the dominant class.
It is no longer enough to own the land and most of the capital, to own the media and – through the corrupt system of party funding – the political process. To reinstate Edwardian levels of inequality, the feral elite must seek to reverse the political progress that has been made since then. This means dismantling the tax system, which redistributes wealth. It means ditching the rules which prevent the powerful from acting as they please.
Both are being consumed in what British Conservatives proudly describe as a bonfire(1,2). Nowhere is deregulation more destructive than in its treatment of the natural world.
If ash die-back takes root in Britain, it could be as damaging as Dutch elm disease was. This fungus is now raging across the Continent, consuming almost all the ash trees in its path(3). Few ashes – among which are some of the oldest and best-loved trees in Britain(4) – are expected to survive if the disease becomes established here.
The only way the fungus can arrive in this country is through imports of infected saplings. In February the first case in the UK was reported, at a tree nursery in Buckinghamshire. The disease has now been found in ten places, and foresters are desperately trying to contain it(5).
But – and this is the extraordinary thing – the government still refuses to ban imports of ash saplings. Instead, it has put the issue out to consultation, as if it had all the time in the world. It’s like spraying one side of a burning house with water while allowing petrol to be sprayed on the other. The government’s commitment to deregulating business outweighs the likely consequences. If ash dieback spreads through Britain, Cameron’s administration will be solely and unequivocally to blame.
It cares just as little about what’s happening to the bees. A new study published this week in Nature provides yet more evidence of the devastating impacts of a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids(6,7.8). But, unlike other European nations, Britain refuses even to suspend their use.
The same politics inform the planned mass slaughter of badgers, which seems mystifying until you understand that it’s an alternative to effective regulation. Far from controlling tuberculosis in cattle, it could, as Professor John Bourne (who led the previous government’s £49m scientific trial) says, “make TB a damn sight worse.”(9) In the 1960s, strict quarantine rules and the rigorous testing of cattle almost eliminated the disease from the UK(10). But farmers complained, so the rules were relaxed, and TB returned with a vengeance. Killing badgers creates an impression of action, without offending landed interests.
In March the government published its kill list of environmental regulations(11). Among those being downgraded are the rules controlling hazardous waste, air pollution, contaminated land, noise, light and the use of lead shot(12,13). Ministers describe this as the shrinking of the state. In reality it’s the shrinking of democracy. Regulation is the means by which civilised societies resolve their conflicts. It prevents the selfish and the powerful from spoiling the lives of others.
But this isn’t about only economic dominance. It is also about cultural hegemony. Uniquely perhaps, in Britain the right-wing culture war is waged largely in the countryside. Tory culture revolves around land owning: battle lines are drawn around the issue of who represents rural Britain.
Writing in the Telegraph last month, Fraser Nelson, a reliable guide to the current state of thinking in the party, maintained that people who live in the countryside don’t care about “newts, trees and bats”: these are of interest only in London(14). He went on to describe David Cameron as “at heart, a rural Tory”, who “still grumbles to his wife about what, for him, are ‘banned activities’ – notably shooting”. Authentic rural people spend their adult lives in Notting Hill and drive out to their second homes for a shooting party at the weekend. Inauthentic rural people are those who live in the countryside and care about wildlife. They are, “at heart”, Londoners. The rural-urban divide, as formulated by Tory theorists, is nothing to do with location. It’s about class.
Those who wish to restrain destructive activities are characterised – by the minister Greg Barker(15) and, apparently, George Osborne(16) – as “environmental Taliban”. Their attempt to associate democratic debate with people who shoot girls in the head tells you all you need to know about their sense of political entitlement.
This conservatism does not care what it destroys. It does not care whom it hurts. It will sacrifice entire species rather than contemplate the slightest check on its own self-interest. All else can burn.
6. Richard J. Gill, Oscar Ramos-Rodriguez and Nigel E. Raine, 21st October 2012. Combined pesticide exposure severely affects individual- and colony-level traits in bees. Nature. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature11585
7. See also Penelope R. Whitehorn, 20th April 2012. Neonicotinoid Pesticide Reduces Bumble Bee Colony Growth and Queen Production. Science.Vol. 336, no. 6079, pp 351-352. doi:10.1126/science.1215025
8. and Mickaël Henry et al. 20th April 2012. A Common Pesticide Decreases Foraging Success and Survival in Honey Bees. Science. Vol. 336 no. 6079, pp 348-350. doi: 10.1126/science.1215039
10. John Bourne, 13th November 2010. pers comm.
13. For some background to the lead shot issue, please read this: http://www.monbiot.com/2012/07/26/lead-soldiers/