12 April 2024

Greening the Tories

By Andrew Sullivan

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Centre for Policy Studies and the 10th of CapX, we’ve been republishing CPS pamphlets from our archive. This week, it’s Andrew Sullivan’s case for conservative environmentalism, ‘Greening the Tories: New policies on the environment’. We’ve republished the introduction and the chapter ‘Green Conservatism’. You can read the full report here.

On Thursday 25th April, the Centre for Policy Studies is hosting a public panel with the same name, with Andrew alongside other speakers, reflecting on nearly 30 years of green conservatism. You can sign up here.


This study springs from what has been fashionably regarded as a neurosis. Let me label this ‘neurosis’ as the nervous, defensive, even backward-looking search for a ‘new Englishness’. It has a suitably journalistic and sociological ring about it.

How does this ‘new Englishness’ express itself? There have been several ephemeral suggestions: architectural anti-modernism, anti-Americanism, Imperial nostalgia (from Chariots of Fire to The Jewel in the Crown), defence of red telephone boxes and pound notes, and opposition to the cultural revolution that economic change seems to be bringing about.

To one coming from abroad, it has a strikingly nervous and parochial character, as if the country were permanently looking back to console itself with nostalgia for the glory that is no longer there. That, at least, is how Americans most readily explain the contemporary atmosphere in Britain.

My contention in this study is that the Americans, the journalists and the sociologists have got it wrong. This ‘new Englishness’ is not new at all; this attachment to the past and national culture is not a sudden aberration; this respect for what we have been is perfectly in keeping with our national temperament. It could be described as a ‘neurosis’ only by the neurotic.

My second contention is that this cultural and intellectual conservatism is not and has never been an enemy of change and renewal; indeed, that it is a prerequisite for securely based advance.

We have to know who we are to know who we may be. Moreover, it has been the escape from this self-knowledge, the reckless pursuit of a doctrinally modern, futurist and radical outlook that has typified a period of national decline. Our ‘new Englishness’ is a sign of health, a return to normality, which bodes well for sustainable economic and cultural renewal.

But perhaps the most curious feature of this ‘new Englishness’ has been its concern with our physical surroundings. Our country is tangible, physical, definable in thousands of small but significant ways. The buildings and streets in our towns, the avenues and hedgerows of our countryside, our heavy coins and old signposts, red telephone boxes and sash windows have become suddenly articulated again, as they have come under threat. It is not for the first time that these sentiments have been heard but their urgency and concern have become noticeably more acute.

Surely if this country is at all ‘green’, then these sentiments are the most fundamental elements of our green consciousness. A further study of the history of English environmental concern reveals the same themes: a concern with the small, immediate details of our lives, with gardens and trees, with hedgerows and wild flowers, with comfortable buildings that we have come to love, and beyond this, with a developing myth about the national identity which is bound up with all these things. There is no evidence of some sweeping, Teutonic paranoia, or of alternative-lifers concerned with the future of the ozone-layer having anything but the mildest influence on popular culture and attitudes. To be English and to be green has often also been to be conservative. That is a thought which casts suggestive shadows over our present attitudes.

Green Conservatism


It may seem the ultimate in absurdity to suggest that a healthier and more protected environment can be achieved only through the actual rolling back of centralised State control, but in one area this is surely the case. The extension of property ownership, arguably the only credible radical achievement of the present Government, has gone hand in hand with more organised and more rational popular defence of environmental balance. The most rigorous opponent of a new housing development is the mortgaged inhabitant of the last one; the most responsible voices in the countryside are those who may wish to hand some of it on to their children. Owning property makes us more sensitive to the particular and varied demands of a specific place, it gives us a stake in a neighbourhood, makes us part of its history and its beauty. We put down ‘roots’. Or as Aristotle definitively put it in the Politics,

‘What is common to the greatest number is cared for least. Men think principally of what is their own, and if they have the common interest at heart, it is only to the extent that they are personally concerned therein.’

The extension of property-ownership is the best way to combine human nature with environmental protection, to create proper and enduring links between people and their surroundings and to protect our towns and countryside, just as the extension of share-ownership is the most effective way to ensure that wealth creation is responsive to the society in which it works.

The alternative is the beneficent man from Whitehall, imposing his version of what the country should look like; or even worse, the man from the Royal Institute of British Architects, imposing his version of what the country should look like. The history of the environment since the war is likely to make us at least wary of the effects of centralised control over our surroundings. Central beneficence gave us the tower-blocks of the fifties and sixties and the Common Agricultural Policy of the seventies. The caring State of the post-war period lacked both the ability to curb the irresponsibility of property-speculators (the obverse of responsible property-owners) and the intellectual courage to resist the tired doctrines of modernist planning and architecture. Oxbridge funk did as much for our environment as it did for our economy and the danger of abandoning our environment to it is the danger of any Establishment control. It ultimately does not care about what it is supposed to protect. As Henry Fairlie put it in 1959,

‘The one significant fact about the Establishment is that it represents nothing in the national life. It has its roots in no class and no interest; it responds to no deep-seated national instinct.’ 

The State’s most constructive and least pernicious role might be to take a back seat and allow individuals to defend their own environment rather than let anyone do it for them. It can of course provide legal weapons and even financial or fiscal incentives to help the process along, just as it has so successfully managed to do in the trades union field, but it should avoid the temptations of cultural or environmental dictatorship. This would provide a far more secure, long-term foundation for the protection of our surroundings. Interested individuals on the spot can also be considerably more vigilant than a disinterested civil servant several miles away.

Property is linked with responsibility and responsibility must be the keynote of our protection of the environment. The more we are property-owners, the more direct our responsibility – and the better such protection. From there, we can perhaps broaden the perspective and persuade responsible, free individuals of their responsibility for the wider world as well. It is after all irresponsible, even immoral, to treat our national and international resources as immediately dispensable, to abandon our responsibility to the generations who are yet to come, to see the world as another consumer durable which will never run out and which can be used merely for our immediate personal and material gratification. This touches questions of morality which it is unfashionable to raise in contemporary political discussions but it is disturbing that conservatives should refrain from a moral perspective. As T.S. Eliot observed,

‘A wrong attitude towards nature implies somewhere a wrong attitude towards God, and the consequence is an inevitable doom. For a long enough time we have believed in nothing but the values arising in a mechanised, commercialised, urbanised way of life: it would be as well for us to face permanent conditions upon which God allows us to live upon this earth’


Community is now, of course, a term identified most readily, in Britain at least, with the rhetoric of the far Left. We all belong to a community: black, gay, élite or otherwise. Communities have community leaders,and communities have community identity. We know because community leaders never stop telling us.

For others, though, the word is subtler than that, and the ideas that it conveys can be of far more value than the lobbying tricks of Labour Party activists. For conservatives, for example, the sign of a real community is perhaps when it does not feel the need to call itself one.

It may not even be articulated, and although it may exist in conditions of considerable poverty and degradation, it may well not bristle with the anger of its self-appointed spokespersons. It will even find quiet strength in its reticent customs and habits. It need be neither exclusive nor exhaustive, with unarticulated communities within it and encompassing it. It may take the formal shape of a local football team, a company or a street; or it may simply exist in the mutual recognition of regular nightclubbers, the occasional smiles of a group of women at daily Mass, or even the solidarity of young unemployment. At its most powerful level, it may aspire to national identity aroused by an attack from without, finding words to express sentiments which before needed hardly to be said; at others, it may have all the characteristics of what the Left wishes was class-hatred but which too often expresses itself as class-pride.

My point about these communities is quite simple: they should be left alone. It is impossible to explain them intellectually without sounding faintly ridiculous, or fit them into an ideological structure which does not ultimately demean their dignity and simplify their contradictions. Of all temperaments, the conservative one will find this task of political self-denial the most natural.

Communities invariably, though not always, exist in a particular physical environment which gives substance and support to their continuation. School buildings become at times inseparable from what it means to belong to a school; the familiar curves and lines of brick and stone inextricable from the community of a street; the old town hall indistinguishable from the identity of a town, or a row of beeches an integral part of a village’s self-perception. When we destroy or uproot such apparently harmless, irrelevant articles, we destroy more than the things themselves. We destroy the bonds that people have made with them; we destroy parts of people, their history, their sense of belonging, their community. Is a tiny increase in the abstract statistical ‘maximisation of utility’ an exchange which we can casually make for these things? What do human beings, what do we need more?

The minimum response that we can make to these reflections is to develop a sensitivity to the unspoken and fragile communities in our midst in the course of all policy decisions. That means at least an understanding, if not a defence, of all those elements which give structure and support to those communities: the human clutter of small streets, odd buildings, and countryside that frustrates the uniform demands of cash-crop prairie. Conservative government will wish to protect these details from whichever threat appears the most immediate: the abuse of private or public power, or the insensitive demands of the naked balance sheet. The State here is defending the lifestyle of a diverse and free society, providing legal means to arbitrate clashes of interest which yet protect the weak against the strong.

Underlying this is the knowledge that a healthy society, and a cohesive society, needs to protect the communities in its midst from unwarranted disruption or obliteration, or face the barrenness of atomised, materialist emptiness. In any case, responsible use of freedom will not attack the ways of life which give meaning to what we would like to call our national culture. The right to be free has always to be tempered with the human need to belong. By elevating the former against the latter, freedom itself will become discredited, and the more radical alternatives come to seem at least less traumatic than the sweeping destruction of a national way of life.


‘I am by nature and instinct Conservative, loving old things because they are old and hating new ones merely because they are new. There is no question of expediency or feeling whether we shall preserve the buildings of past times or not. We have no right whatever to touch them. They are not ours. They belong partly to those who built them, and partly to all those generations of mankind who are to follow us.’

John Ruskin’s sentiments expressed here in 1856 find an echo in many people who, like him, would never dream of becoming paid-up members of the Conservative Party. For most people, history is not an academic subject nor even an excursion into the realms of the BBC2 ‘classic’ serial but a constant reaction with things, places, buildings and people who were here before us, which helps us to understand a little more clearly who we are. In our own lives we are intensely historical, amassing photograph albums, keeping old letters, writing diaries and visiting old haunts in a constant turning over of the pages of our lives.

In our national life, the same process inevitably takes place. We visit old houses, castles, parks, museums and churches, and even despite the steadfast refusal of modern historians to produce anything vaguely readable, consume a vast amount of historical trivia and literature. Even without making any deliberate effort, the past impinges itself upon us in a whole variety of mundane ways; the old lamp post, the worn coin, a forgotten wall plaque, a sudden turn in the street unleashing a wave of reminiscence. History exists as a continuous process, situating us, comforting us, how love of the countryside curiously made us reflect on our personal history, since a flower we catch sight of at fifty can seem the same as the one we knew as a child. As G.M. Trevelyan put it,

‘It is indeed in the depths of the natural wilderness that a man feels most united to his ancestors, for there he is for a moment withdrawn from the present noisy age, left alone with nature as his fathers were left alone amid the same green sights and quiet sounds.’

Once again it is striking how inextricable and complementary are our urban and rural environments: both draw us back to our past, but in different ways, both leading us to a richer sense of a personal and communal inheritance.

Conservatives have always seen history as central to any self-confident society. The teaching of history in schools is curiously a subject of as yet little public concern, though its effects may be just as profound as the collapse in the teaching of the language. The preservation of our environment is then a key element of any conservative defence of the historical sense of the nation. The alternative is some dangerously escapist society in which, as Newman described it,

‘Nothing has a drift or a relation; nothing has a history or a promise. Everything stands by itself, and comes and goes in its turn, like the shifting scenes of a show, which leaves the spectator where he was.’

It is a prospect too close to our present reality to allow us to contemplate its further approach with any equanimity.


Here is far more tricky ground. Who can decide what is beautiful? How can you possibly bring the esoteric concept of beauty into a political world of hard-nosed economic calculations?

In response to these challenges, I would simply point out that there is enormous public consensus, if not about what is beautiful, then about what is ugly. And modern England is ugly, and ugly in a monotonous, insidious way that can hardly mean that as an issue it can be dead. Most people live in conditions not merely of shabby, unimaginative tawdriness, but of increasingly shabby, unimaginative tawdriness. Any glance at the mess of our major cities and towns, or the scrubby outskirts even of picture postcard villages reveals the greying, grubby mediocrity of our surroundings. Even what is beautiful is polluted by noise and by the unceasing pressure of the motor exhaust. England is uglier today than it has ever been. As our standard of living has gone up, the quality of life has plummeted. Even abolishing smog has only revealed the horrors of our post-war rebuilding more clearly.

And here I feel a sense of mild embarrassment. No doubt I am being too ‘simplistic’, or raising a subject which is curiously unacceptable, largely because it does not easily fit into the current political battle-lines, or because it does not conform to an easy solution. It is, of course, remarkably unsophisticated to put it in so simple a way. The Left sees only economics and the Right would rather ignore it, help the profits of the House Builders’ Federation, or alternatively compose monographs on Sir Reginald Blomfield with a sigh of composed resignation. Yet the emergence of the ‘first slum of Europe’ is something which directly affects almost every individual in the country, except those lucky enough to buy an escape to the dwindling number of oases left. Why should this issue not be one on which considerable public support could be engendered, given the right rhetoric and leadership from above? It does not need an aesthete to do it: indeed such an approach could be very counter-productive. What is needed is an articulation of the ordinary person’s instinctive sense of physical beauty so that he can demand the measures and standards necessary for revival. Perhaps another Stanley Baldwin, who knew a political nerve when he touched it:

‘It is the wealth and the glory of England, this beauty which has been saved through the centuries. There could be nothing more disastrous, nothing more wicked on our part, than to waste it, to dissipate it, and to destroy in our profligacy a priceless and irreplaceable heritage.’

We live in a century, after all, whose most popular poet was one who brilliantly expressed these sentiments and who understood the peculiarly English appreciation of a ‘sense of place’. Betjeman’s approach is unmistakable:

‘When all our roads are lighted/By concrete monsters sited/Like gallows overhead,/Bathed in the yellow vomit/Each monster belches from it,/We’ll know that we are dead.’ 

It is either a failure of nerve or of imagination or probably both that has led us to be so curiously acquiescent in the spread of ugliness and cheapness that Betjeman has forever commemorated. Conservatives, of all people, might be expected to have an understanding of society which stretches beyond the merely economic, and their strange silence about such important cultural concerns is one of the more disturbing features of their post-war development. The rhetoric of the 1949 statement of party policy is clear enough:

‘Man is a spiritual creature adventuring on an eternal destiny, and science, politics, or economics are good or bad so far as they help or hinder the soul on its immortal journey. This is an age of change – but there are unchanging truths and, in such times as ours, it is above all things necessary to keep these before our eyes.’

This, ironically, was the statement of policy of a party about to engage on the most shameless materialist binge in its history.

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Andrew Sullivan is a British-American author, editor, and blogger.