There are few cardinal sins in politics – but campaigning on behalf of your opponent has to be one of them. So when news broke this week that the British Conservative Party MP Chris Heaton Harris had boasted on camera of providing resources and support to an opposition anti-wind farm candidate in order to “cause some hassle”, it was widely expected that the axe would fall.
But instead, as the story developed, it transpired that this was a trail that led to the very centre of the Conservative Party.
In the end, the manouverings came to naught – Labour won the by-election easily, the first time it has taken a seat from the Tories in a by-election since just before Tony Blair’s seismic 1997 general election victory.
Heaton-Harris was caught in an undercover sting by the environmental campaign group Greenpeace. He was bragging that he had backed the anti-wind farm election campaign of the blogger and self-publicist James Delingpole, a far-right commentator whose pantomime-villain outbursts are typically treated as undeserving of serious engagement. Among the climate-sceptic elements of the Conservative Party, however, Delingpole appears to have carved out a role for himself as the mouthpiece for views that they dare not air in public.
Delingpole stood down as a candidate in the Corby by-election several weeks ago, prior to the video emerging. But not before the energy minister, John Hayes, gave an interview declaring that “enough was enough” for on shore wind. This was seemingly in direct contrast to official government policy, which favours a range of renewable technologies as part of an increasingly low-carbon energy mix.
And in potentially even more serious developments, a second Greenpeace film appeared to show the Chancellor, George Osborne, implicated in a plot to withdraw government support for onshore wind. This is despite its huge value to the British economy as a fully operational low-carbon technology.
When David Cameron boldly proclaimed that his would be the “greenest government ever”, following his election in 2010, he must have known the boast would come back to haunt him. And, although the UK is (currently) a world leader in terms of legally binding carbon reduction targets, some members of the Conservative Party look like they are doing everything they can to ensure these targets are unlikely to be met.
The Conservative central command would like to paint anti-wind zealots like Heaton-Harris as existing on the lunatic fringe of the party. But increasingly, it is looking like the MPs who represent the rural constituencies where wind turbines are typically sited are having a disproportionate effect on the Conservative Party. Although there has been no formal shift in energy policy, the “mood music” around the environment on the British right is worrying.
To be clear: opposing the siting of a wind farm cannot be equated with climate change scepticism. But the willingness of Conservative party representatives to promote and publicise the views of hardline anti-environmentalists like James Delingpole does not send out a good signal. And opposing on-shore wind without suggesting an alternative policy for reducing levels of carbon dioxide is tantamount to dismissing the risks that climate change poses.
The relationship between climate change scepticism and political ideology has been documented repeatedly and consistently in the US, the UK and Australia. But how to address it is an altogether trickier question.
There is a proud tradition of conservation and respect for the natural environment in the history of British Conservatism. But the “conserve” part of conservatism currently seems to apply only to the hyper-local, with debate focusing on the aesthetics of wind-farms instead of the value of clean, green energy for the whole of the UK.
Ultimately, the Conservative Party will lose its hard-fought status as an (allegedly) moderate, modern, compassionate, centre-right group if it associates itself with the extreme views of individuals like Delingpole. If the Conservatives don’t want wind farms across the UK, their challenge is to identify and implement another set of policies that will allow Britain’s carbon targets to be achieved – with the consent of the electorate.
Despite the noises coming from climate-sceptic Conservative MPs, wind farms – and renewable technologies in general – are very popular with the public. They are certainly more popular than nuclear power or fossil fuels.
Few credible energy future scenarios see no role for on-shore wind. If the Conservatives have evidence to the contrary, they should speak up. If not, they need to find a way of convincing their voters that climate change is the biggest threat to the environment that they supposedly want to conserve so much – not the wind turbines that can provide clean, abundant energy for the future.