12 June 2023

Caroline Lucas may be leaving Parliament, but her degrowth politics has captured Britain


Caroline Lucas has been the single most influential MP of the past decade. Her central idea – that we need to go cold turkey on our ‘addiction to economic growth’ – has been spectacularly successful. Whether you measure output, productivity or overall GDP, Britain is well on the way to becoming a degrowth economy (I would call it a Lucasian economy, except that that term has been bagged by pro-prosperity types). Within a decade, on present projections, we’ll be poorer than the Poles.

‘I have said the previously unsayable,’ declared the outgoing Green leader in her own eulogy, ‘on the myth that endless economic growth makes us happier.’ 

Actually, I am not sure it is a myth; certainly our low growth doesn’t seem to making the Greens any chirpier. Then again, they are rarely expected to be consistent. Broadcasters, who like to treat Lucas as a disinterested expert rather than a party politician, have been adulatory in their tone; columnists even more so. 

‘Caroline Lucas was the best PM Britain never had’, wrote Neal Lawson in The Guardian. ‘There has been no better MP in my lifetime than Caroline Lucas,’ agreed George Monbiot. 

Just as with the resignation of New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern in January, hardly anyone has been so uncouth as to point out that the polls had turned. At last month’s local elections, the Greens were hammered in Lucas’s Brighton constituency, securing their worst result in 20 years and losing their leader and deputy leader.

It was beginning to look as though St Caroline herself would be slung out of office, and that would never do. So journalists played along with her claim that she had ‘not been able to focus as much as I would like on the existential challenges that drive me – the Nature and Climate emergencies’. Apparently, being the party leader with the most disproportionate airtime in Westminster didn’t give her the opportunity to raise the issues she wanted.

One of the oddest beliefs among eco-activists, incidentally, is that they need to ‘raise the issues’ because ‘no one is doing anything’. Climate change is taught in every primary school, so pessimistically that some children emerge with clinical anxiety. Every economic policy – literally every one, from planning to trade deals – is measured against net zero. We impose sector-specific, retrospective levies on energy companies. Our carbon emissions have halved since 1990. Yet we are supposed to imagine that nothing of moment is happening.

In fact, our problem is not that we fail to consider the environment; it’s that we fail to consider the economy. When we stop things being built – nuclear power stations, runways, houses – we make ourselves poorer. But we struggle to join the dots. That really is something we should be teaching in schools.

I write in no carping spirit, being rather fond of Lucas. We represented the same region in the European Parliament for eleven years, and I always found her honest and pleasant to deal with. She is rather posher than I suspect she would like – an alumna of Malvern Girls, married to a delightful Old Marlburian who played cricket for Oxford – but that only adds to her charm. 

She is principled, too. Unlike other Greens, she would always travel to Strasbourg by train – thereby forfeiting the lucrative travel bonus that MEPs trouser when they fly.

On the occasions that we worked together, Lucas was friendly and professional. We both campaigned against HS2, for example. In those days, she was also a Eurosceptic, opposed to Maastricht and the Euro and in favour of an In/Out referendum. 

When the referendum eventually came, of course, she did not like it. She demanded a rerun, but later admitted that, if people voted Leave again, she wouldn’t accept that either. At one point, she called for an all-female emergency Cabinet, including Nicola Sturgeon, Emily Thornberry and Anna Soubry, to halt Brexit.

It was, in a way, the ultimate expression of Green ideology. For all their talk of democracy, eco-activists distrust the masses. They suspect that the rest of us are materialistic, short-sighted and drawn to (as Lucas once put it) ‘cheap stag nights in Riga’.

They are right that few of us buy the central policy of the Green Party, which is not clean air or animal welfare or rewidling, but a wholesale move away from prosperity. Yet it turns out that voters can be induced to vote for degrowth policies provided the connections are not spelled out.

Consider the ways in which Lucas’ anti-growth agenda has been taken up by the other parties. The Greens are always and everywhere against extra housing – a position they somehow manage to combine with support for almost unrestricted immigration. Lucas has voted against each attempt to increase the housing supply nationally, and her councillors oppose local developments.

Sure enough, it was reported on Friday that the number of new homes granted planning permission in England has fallen to its lowest level since 2008, not least because of new environmental rules. In a competitive field, housing scarcity is probably the chief cause of our economic slowdown.

Greens also oppose almost all forms of energy, and the bigger parties have duly banned fracking, halted the drilling of new oilfields and announced the end of petrol and diesel cars. It is important to understand that the Greens are not for clean energy; they are for less energy. They oppose nuclear power and, at local level, campaign against wind and solar farms. They may have only one MP but, nationally, we are now seeing something quite unprecedented, namely a decline in the amount of energy use per person – a measure which, historically, has correlated closely with prosperity. 

It goes without saying that the Greens also oppose other measures that would stimulate growth, such as cutting business taxes or scrapping regulations. Here, too, they have managed set the other parties’ agendas.

How are we to explain their stunning successes? All the other parties claim to want more prosperity, yet they keep doing things that retard it. How, with only one MP in Westminster, have the Greens inflicted their glum philosophy on the rest of us?

Part of the answer has to do with fashion. Extreme eco-pessimism is the political version of conspicuous consumption. The reason that we keep reading about Just Stop Oil protesters flying off on ski holidays is that their views are chiefly performative rather than functional – what the American writer Rob Henderson calls ‘luxury beliefs’.

As P.J. O’Rourke once put it, in what has always struck me as one of the more profound political observations of our age: ‘Everyone wants to save the world; no one wants to help mom with the washing up.’

Yet the deeper problem is that few of us are interested in economics any more. We fail to link the policies we demand, however histrionically, with their real-world consequences.

Waiting for a delayed flight not long ago, I listened to the disgruntled conversations of my fellow passengers. Almost all of them blamed the airline. Not a single one blamed the protesters and politicians who had stopped Heathrow building an extra runway.

As long as we fail to make these connections, we will get poorer. We will continue to demand that other people pay more tax, that businesses be more heavily regulated, that no houses – let alone nuclear power stations – be built anywhere near us. And we will continue to blame our consequent stagnation on capitalism, moaning about MPs Who Just Don’t Get It. 

In fact, one MP got almost exactly what she wanted. I can’t for the life of me understand why she always seems so dissatisfied.

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Daniel Hannan is an author and columnist. He teaches at Buckingham University and is a member of the Board of Trade.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.