Softening net zero targets might well encourage people to think they need not worry about climate change and can ignore the extremes of “Just stop Oil”. It’s a million miles from the responsible course of addressing climate change — and implicitly saying “we have a problem, and a plan to address it.
There are echoes of the same mentality in some of Suella Braverman’s comments before the reshuffle. Talking of refugees arriving by boat in exaggerated language can make them sound like an “invasion” force, stoking people’s anxiety so that they are “grateful” when the government “protects” us. Talking of homelessness as a “lifestyle choice” gives a way to say we can ignore it — when we should be embarrassed at what it implies for failed housing and mental health policy.
The snag is that stirring up anxiety and then presenting oneself as the solution speaks to some very raw emotions and makes it hard to think. In 2019 it seemed inconceivable that a government that had just been found to have illegally prorogued parliament could win a General Election, but the slogan of “Get Brexit Done” spoke to who wanted Brexit and who were fed up with it and in a way that closed down debate. It was very hard to create any discussion of what the promised Brexit would look like, or how it sat with public opinion.
Much more recently, the political scientist Matthew Goodwin has been talking of widespread alienation from politics. Linking that back to what I’ve been hearing on doorsteps in Huntingdon I am hearing people who are worried (not least about the cost of living) and assume that “politicians” are “not listening”. In that context “we’ll take your worries away” appeals.
Cutting back HS2 is a good example. There was no debate. No mention of the £15Bn per year that the government’s own Economic Case for HS2 indicates it would add to the British economy if HS2 went as far as Manchester and Leeds, or of the benefits of rebalancing the economy between North and South, or of the environmental benefit increased rail capacity getting more freight off the roads. Instead it seemed to be just “we’ve saved some money”
There is a danger that, as in 2019, the Tories are able to snatch victory by offering things that enable people to worry less — and trap Labour into being reactive.
A possible Liberal Democrat position
The country needs something better than that. We need to find a way to think about the actual problems we face — which needs leadership that earns enough trust to enable thinking.
At a practical level, we have thousands of councillors who are committed to their communities. Can we find a way to say “You’ve trusted us to have difficult discussions in local government: can we do that nationally?”
As I write this I have the words of the preamble to the Liberal Democrat constitution in the back of my mind. Those words alone might encourage people to have an eye on the possibility of another way of doing things.
It would be a bit of a stretch to talk of “freedom from enslavement by poverty, ignorance, conformity, or the manipulative behaviour of the government” but, in another difficult time, Franklin Roosevelt’s inaugration address, instead of exploiting anxiety, offered something wiser:
“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is… fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”