17 August 2023

Nigel Farage is wrong: calling a Net Zero referendum would create more problems than it solved


You would have thought that Tory MPs have had enough of referendums. Although Scotland voted No and Brexit did eventually get done, the years of rancour and bitterness spawned by those votes was enough to put one off single issue plebiscites for good.

Yet that hasn’t stopped a growing number of Conservatives from jumping on Nigel Farage’s bandwagon, urging Rishi Sunak to let voters have their say on the Government’s 2050 Net Zero target. Since the surprise Tory win in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, Net Zero sceptics (of whom there are many) understandably feel they have the public on side. Marco Longhi, the MP for Dudley North, says the case for a referendum is clear, ‘given the complexity of [the] issue’.

To make the case for the prosecution, there are obvious attractions to putting such a far-reaching plan of reform to the public. For one thing, the legislation which gave birth to Net Zero was passed in the dying days of Theresa May’s dismal regime. It faced little opposition from MPs and has become the established policy of each major party with barely a whimper. It’s no exaggeration to say we have committed to radically changing our entire economy with a near total absence of democratic scrutiny.

For May that legislation represented one of several attempts to provide herself with a meaningful legacy for her benighted premiership. MPs worried about climate change, meanwhile. could point to polling suggesting over 80% of voters shared their concerns.

But while it’s easy for politicians to strike poses about the environment, pass targets they will not be in office to oversee, and get a pat on the back from Greta Thunberg, putting their proposals into practice is a very different kettle of fish.

Whilst voters may tell pollsters they’re all for cleaner oceans and cutting emissions, they are not so keen on being told that they might have to scrap their boiler or cough up for an electric car. ULEZ expansion was (nominally) about air quality. But was voter discontent there a straw in the wind?

If so, the UK would certainly not be alone. In both the Netherlands and Germany, governments face public anger from voters unwilling to put up with arbitrary environmental targets and their expensive consequences. If the Government is already, sotto voce, suggesting that it might retreat on the plan to ban the sale of new diesel and petrol cars by 2030, why not go the whole hog and call for a Net Zero referendum? 

Sunak doesn’t have much else to lose. Boris Johnson at least proved in 2019 that a Tory government could win an election by running against the record of its immediate predecessors. A poll by YouGov also suggested the public back a Net Zero referendum by 44% to 27%.

Even so, Downing Street is right to avoid the siren calls of a few backbenchers. Not only because, as I have highlighted previously, there are a far great number of MPs signed up to the agenda. Or even because, as Sunak claims that ‘most people are committed’ to the target (which is debatable).

No, the real reason he should avoid this idea is that referendums are an inherently bad idea in a parliamentary democracy. As Brexit has amply proven, handing a decision over to the voters but then expecting MPs to implement it is a recipe for conflict and gridlock.

We could therefore easily see voters reject Net Zero, only for climate-crazed politicians to shift the goal posts. They could, say, move the target to 2051 if they so wished – or 2049. It would also be entirely possible for a de facto end date to persist in Whitehall, even if it is scrapped de jure.

Then there are the nuts-and-bolts questions about how that referendum would be put together. Which questoin would be on the ballot paper? Who would represent the different sides? Would the vote target specific policies – like the ban on the sale of new non-electric vehicles – or would it simply call for the legally binding target to be scrapped? What safeguards could possibly exist to prevent politicians from back-tracking on their campaign pledges? Would we soon see discussions of ‘hard Net Zero’ versus ‘soft Net Zero’? 

The anti-Net Zero side would presumably be led by a motley crew of Nigel Farage, Reform UK poseurs, and a few Tory backbenchers. It’s hard to avoid the suspicion that for some of them this would be a bit of Brexit displacement activity, a reminder of their finest political hour taking on the forces of the Establishment and winning. Like the Leave side in the referendum, they would confront all the weight of the political-media establishment: Whitehall, the two old parties, the BBC, and the rest. And they would likely to do so without the aid of Dominic Cummings and the Vote Leave gang.

Even the most committed opponents of Net Zero must admit that this would not be the fairest of fights. They risk losing a referendum and providing a hitherto absent legitimacy to a policy they loathe. They should also be honest about the consequences of a referendum for our democracy.  Not only would a referendum likely pit the generations against each other – think Just Stop Oil-supporting millennials against aging Jeremy Clarkson enthusiasts – but it would toxify the debate over climate change. Camps would become entrenched – like in Scotland after 2014 – and a rational discussion of costs and strategies would become increasingly impossible, much as rational debate about Brexit has.

Rather than fling Net Zero open to the voters, the policy’s many critics would do better to try winning the argument within the Conservative Party. For though it has superficial attractions, calling a referendum on Net Zero would end up creating more problems than it solved.

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William Atkinson is Assistant Editor of ConservativeHome.

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