Carrie Symonds’ influence only goes so far – green Toryism is a hollow dream

Alex Niven
Photograph: WPA Pool/Getty Images

The nature of our new political consensus – call it Johnsonism if you must – is still hard to figure out. Will we see the rise of an authentic populism with a northern face, or just a nipped and tucked version of the same old Thatcherism? As we try to parse what this government has in store, all eyes are on Boris Johnson’s inner circle. The opinions of certain advisers seem to matter far more to the prime minister than those of Conservative MPs in his ultra-centralised regime.

A key player is Johnson’s partner, Carrie Symonds, whose controversial role in shaping government policy will be tested by a court probe into the cancellation of a cull on badgers in Derbyshire in the last months of 2019. As her opposition to the cull suggests, Symonds is an animal rights activist and patron of the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation, which will raise hopes in some quarters that Johnson’s government can find a special place in its heart for environmental issues.

No Tory government would countenance doing anything to risk losing the party’s bedrock of support in rural communities

Should we then be cautiously optimistic about the prime minister’s apparent openness to forms of ecological consciousness? Might this be one policy area in which the woke liberalism of a millennial such as Symonds can offer a progressive counterweight to Johnson’s more rigidly Conservative mix of tough leadership and strident nationalism?

In fact, while environmentalism and Conservative doctrine might seem unlikely bedfellows, “green Toryism” has countless historical precedents. The Tories have a fair claim to be the original green party – though their modern history highlights the limitations of a politics that seeks to accommodate both capitalism and the environment.

When it emerged in the 18th century, the Tory party was defined by its advocacy for the “landed interest” of aristocrats and squires living in the countryside, in contrast to its parliamentary counterpart, the Whig (later Liberal) party, which found its strongest support among the nouveau riche of the rapidly developing towns and cities. This tended to guarantee Tory protection for the rights of farmers and landowners, who benefited from the enclosure of the landscape. It also lay behind frequent Tory opposition to modern industrial innovations such as the growth of the railways, and helped to foster a lingering myth that the Tories were in some sense the organic, “natural” party of government.

It is easy to be sceptical about Tory claims to ownership of the soul of the countryside. (The rights of vast numbers of rural labourers, for example, were often ignored or squashed by Conservative governments.) But if we are to understand the history of environmentalism in this country, we have to grasp that the causes of Conservatism and conservationism have often intersected.

At the heart of our culture are sentiments like those of William Wordsworth, who detected in the British landscape “a sense sublime / Of something far more deeply interfused, / Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, / And the round ocean, and the living air.” Wordsworth’s radical, Romantic view of nature as a means of social and spiritual redemption is a starting point for modern environmental awareness. But we should also remember that Wordsworth was – at least in his later years – a famously devout Tory.

The big problem with green Toryism is that it has never been strong enough to compensate for the actual, material basis of the Conservative project, which ultimately defends the rights of certain privileged individuals and groups to do what they like with their natural habitat for the sake of profit. In the 1980s, as the Tories adopted the sorts of “neoliberal” policies once championed by their Whig and Liberal opponents, Conservative governments invariably put the interests of capitalism and big business first, with the conservation of land and environment coming a distant second.

Margaret Thatcher briefly flirted with green causes toward the end of her premiership, but her horror at the “anti-capitalist arguments which the campaigners against global warming were deploying” eventually led her towards climate-change scepticism. Similarly, David Cameron’s promise to create the “greenest government ever” petered out in a farce of inaction and apathy in the early 2010s, so much so that he reportedly told his aides to “get rid of all this green crap” in the thick of a 2013 row about energy bills.

Symonds’s interest in animal welfare – and the role of other contemporary green Tories such as Zac Goldsmith in fronting environmental issues – represents something of an improvement on the dismal record of leading Tories in the neoliberal period. And frankly, anything with the potential to pull Johnson away from his default position of reactionary populism has to be enthusiastically welcomed.

Related: Alok Sharma can make Cop26 a success – but does he have the will? | Chaitanya Kumar

But as so often throughout Tory history, the party’s vested interests put formidable obstacles in the way of any meaningful green strategy. Even if, as seems highly unlikely, Johnson is prepared to wage war on the large corporations responsible for a third of global carbon emissions, no Conservative government would ever countenance doing anything to risk losing the party’s bedrock of support in rural communities, where environmentally damaging practices in the farming and forestry industries need to be reformed with some urgency if climate change is to be mitigated.

Since the election, Johnson has borrowed some of the rhetoric and policies of the left around nationalisation, infrastructure and regional inequality. But as with these half-hearted gestures at a radical reformist agenda, the government’s interest in environmentalism seems unlikely to go far beyond cautious tinkering with animal welfare policy (and even then it will probably do nothing to tackle the widespread continuation of blood sports in rural areas). Love of nature is a central part of Tory tradition, but the fundamental desire among Conservatives to own and exploit the landscape rather than truly conserve it is a contradiction that makes real green Toryism an enduringly hollow dream.

• Alex Niven is a lecturer in English literature at Newcastle University and the author of New Model Island