Post-Huhne Climate Politics?

11/02/2012 22:59:29

Ben Pile: So Chris Huhne has resigned, pending something or other about perverting the course of justice. Sceptics and other critics of UK/EU energy policy are understandably happy.


Good riddance, perhaps. It also gives the opportunity for some pause on the UK’s energy policy. But I think some of the celebration is misplaced. Wouldn’t it have been better to have won a victory over the ideas Huhne represented? Instead, it looks more like Huhne simply got himself in a mess, all by himself. Would we have a much different situation if Huhne had not taken the job of Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change? Or perhaps a more interesting question: had the Party of David ‘vote-blue-go-green’ Cameron won a decisive victory at the last election, would we be in a different situation?

Counterfactuals aside, Huhne’s arrogance came to stand for the way environmentalism has been foisted on us without much in the way of democratic debate. He was as contemptuous of critics and the idea that he should answer them as any zealous environmental activist is. Where there were any questions about the policies he was executing, or the ground on which they were formulated, he would not engage with the debate but would assert the same claims, slowly, repeatedly, monotonously, in that tone, with his eyebrows hooked up beyond his grey fringe… ‘This is my sincere face’, he seemed to be saying, ‘trust me’.

Huhne’s spin was astonishing. It’s been covered before on this blog. But briefly, Huhne is claiming that energy bills will go down, because we will be using less energy — a bit like saying a packet of biscuits is less expensive, even though the price has gone up, because you should only eat half of them.  How come it wasn’t that sort of doublethink and complete indifference to people that saw him chased out of politics? It seems that, in today’s stange world, you can spin numbers out of thin air in support of expensive and damaging energy policies, but get someone to take your speeding ticket, and you end up in prison.

I really don’t care about the speeding ticket. And really, I don’t care that he and his department would spin such yarns. What is disappointing is that nobody else in the coalition government or the opposition could or would challenge him. It was a left to bloggers and the think tanks like the GWPF and TPA to challenge Huhne, amid howls of protest from the likes of Bob Ward, the Carbon Brief, and other shrill, greenish foot soldiers. Amazingly, they would complain that the figures used to criticise energy and climate policies didn’t stack up; never mind Huhne’s spin.

That’s because they were fully involved in manufacturing it too, of course. His own party and the major partner in the coalition wanted to sustain the fragile relationship, if they weren’t already committed to being the ‘greenest government ever’, as they had promised. The opposition was completely sympathetic to this aim, though the public didn’t really ever get a chance to say how green it wanted its government to be. NGOs and most think tanks already too involved in the green agenda, and too dependent on state funding to be worried by the Secretary of State’s gaffes.

Huhne, like his predecessor, Ed Miliband rose quickly from relative obscurity, to make leadership bids for their party. Huhne put himself forward after just a year in Westminster, having spent  6 years previously as an MEP. Miliband did not win a seat in Parliament until 2005. Just five years later, he was leader of the Labour Party. What these two characters have in common, apart from having been at the top of the Dept. for Energy and Climate Change, is their sheer lack of charm, their arrogance, and their naked ambition, in spite of it all. This much is obvious, not simply for the fact of their own mealy-mouthed words about climate change policy — they are clearly less committed to environmentalism than their own careers — but also from what we know went on in the background. Here, for instance, is the halfwit eco-baroness,  Bryony Worthington, revealing that the Climate Change Act 2008 was a rush job, designed to maximise Miliband’s profile.

As is clear, figures at the NGOs were happy to work with cynical, and self-serving politicians. And politicians, devoid of their own ideas, were happy to give NGOs influence in return for direction. ‘Showing leadership’ mattered more than considering the consequences of ill-conceived notions of leadership were. Doubts from realists within government were brushed aside, or worse still, sneaked past with trickery. And a bill, dictating four decades of energy, industrial and economic policy was drafted in just 3 months, and after scant scrutiny by Parliament, became an act. Drafted by just one department, it would make the ‘whole government responsible for delivering emissions reductions’, and the cost taken by the public. Miliband got a department with an extended reach, a direction legitimised by civil society (and, in theory, with public approval), and an opportunity to strut his stuff on the world stage. Worthington got a seat in the House of Lords.

But this is about Huhne, who inherited the role from Miliband. Where his predecessor had created a ‘Green New Deal’, itself lifted from the New Economics Foundation, Huhne put his own mark on the idea, by drafting a ‘Green Deal’. It was in fact a more modest proposal: the number of jobs that these policies would create was slashed from nearly half a million, to just a quarter.

This shameless reinvention of what the previous government had proposed was however, still sold as ‘nothing less than an industrial revolution’. Shameless plagiarism, shameless overstatement of the value these policies would produce, and shameless failure of the good — i.e. jobs — to materialise does not bother men like Huhne (and, I suspect they don’t bother the likes of Miliband much, either). Outside the blessed green industrial sector — growing, if at all, only because of the continued subsidies promised to it — people continued to lose their jobs. Energy costs continued to soar. It wasn’t his fault; it was the ‘Big Six’ energy companies, or the stupid, lazy energy consumer for not finding he best deal. The morally bankrupt political hack could not take responsibility for his policies.

The establishment’s vacuity and credulity towards environmentalism, and its cynical regard for the public and democracy allows ambitious but hollow individuals to embarrass it, while stamping their mark on public policy. The ascendency of these mediocre personalities through the party ranks must speak about the dearth of ideas, talent, and vision. And this is echoed in the broader inability to challenge environmentalism. This is what creates men like Huhne (and Miliband). Little will change by his departure. Huhne’s replacement may be more sober, and perhaps less self-serving, but will that be sufficient to stop the absurdities of UK and EU energy and climate policies, the dodgy relationships between governments and NGOS, and the excesses of UNFCC process? It seems unlikely.