The net zero ‘debate’ has revealed a stunning shift in the basic assumptions that underpin Left-wing political thinking
By Janet Daley, The Telegraph, April 1, 2023
We are living through the most startling political realignment in more than 100 years. Never since the advent of modern socialism in the early 20th century has the Left openly advocated making ordinary people poorer, thereby leaving those on the Right to defend the spread of mass prosperity. The debate (if this tendentious chorus of unanimity can be called a debate) on net zero has entirely shifted the ground on which modern political discourse has been based.
This role-reversal is especially clear in the features that were once most characteristic of Left-wing and Right-wing allegiance: it is the radical young who now tend to be most adamant that the freedoms and comforts that come with widespread disposable wealth should be prohibited, while the traditionally conservative older generation is left to fight for what used to be the Left-liberal doctrine that higher income and the independence it brings should be spread as widely as possible. Where organised protest movements in the past have been inspired by the idea that the masses were too poor, now they promote the idea that most ordinary people are too rich.
Such a strange reversal of political poles might just have been a bizarre, rather perverse, fashion if it had been confined to the more extreme, exhibitionistic ends of the divide. But in fact the transformation of the Left into a movement which energetically seeks to make ordinary people poorer, colder, less well fed and less mobile inevitably has ramifications across the entire democratic spectrum. This is because the fundamental tenets of Left-liberal belief – that the state should be responsible for equality, wealth distribution and social welfare – are now universally accepted in advanced democracies.
However strong a country’s commitment to free market economics, the basic social democratic package is thought to be a core of decency which any prospective government must accept if it is to be taken seriously. Western populations are now accustomed to the idea that the life conditions of everyone should be constantly improving – that it is morally wrong for general prosperity, and the personal liberation that it brings, to decline in real terms.
There is no going back from this. The Left won that argument hands down, just as capitalism won the argument about free markets being the only way to create wealth. The only political discussion that made sense in the wake of those conclusions was how to get the balance right between competitive markets and welfare provision. All electoral contests became a choice between priorities and practical compromises: how much equality of wealth could you guarantee without stifling capitalist competition? How could you eliminate poverty without destroying incentive?
Making people better off no longer the goal
But everyone accepted the underlying assumption that it was desirable for as many people as possible to become progressively better off. Until very recently, there was no respectable voice calling for an end to the spread of prosperity to the developing world, as well as in the advanced nations.
Now it is not just the juvenile Left making this extraordinary demand. Politicians of the centre-Right who had adopted pretty much wholesale the doctrine of social justice—which is to say, everybody having an equal chance for economic self-determination and a materially comfortable life—find themselves having to justify penalizing ordinary people for heating their homes or for travelling beyond their own neighbourhoods.
The consequences for those populations in the short term are carefully elided with fuzzy rhetoric and unsustainable government subsidy. Somehow a vague dream world is created in which the immediate deprivations become just a transitory stage leading to a utopian paradise in which all these apparently insoluble problems will be resolved. Even if this is feasible – the ultimate carbon-free heaven in which energy is supplied without sin – it is a very long way away.
Nobody is venturing any figures for what the cost – in misery, financial privation, hypothermia, lack of mobility and choice – is going to be to those who will endure the first experimental stages. In truth, most of the radical permanent solutions are in their infancy and many of them involve practices that the Left would once have regarded as unacceptable like the exploitative mining of minerals in developing countries. Finding practical policies for mitigating the effects of climate change is the rational way forward, but that scarcely satisfies the demonic crisis demands which most Western political establishments have embraced.
With capitalism defeated, farming is next
Of course, the Industrial Revolution will not go down without a fight. The German car industry has shown the way on that front. But reversing two centuries of manufacturing which made the modern world and put an end to the feudal economic structures of Old Europe might prove easier than the eco-Left’s next project. That is to abolish animal farming, which has been a civilizing feature of human society for much longer. The devastation that such a ban would create on rural life would rank with the Enclosures Act as a social and economic cataclysm.
In the 18th century many of those earlier displaced farming people – the ones who did not simply perish – could be absorbed into the emerging new industries, thereby creating the proletariat on which Marx founded his revolutionary ideology. What would happen to the new legions of former dairy, sheep and pig farmers? Would they all be expected to find new jobs in the green energy business? Modern social democratic principles would have to be applied, wouldn’t they? Government would surely compensate them at yet more cost to the taxpayers, who are already poorer than their parents’ generation ever expected to be.
I wonder what would happen if, before some future election, a Labour Party leader stood before the country and said, “I didn’t come into politics to make working people poorer. We will have to find solutions to our problems that do not mean creating more hardship for struggling households.” Somehow I can’t see Keir Starmer doing that.