Times: Lockdown cancel culture is a distraction

This article was first published in The Times.

By the beginning of May, our news feeds had been chock-a-block with virus graphs and lockdown misery for weeks. So when it emerged that top scientist Neil Ferguson had resigned as a government adviser after contravening the guidelines to spend time with his married lover, it was the scoop we all needed.

Since then the stream of stories outing some politician or other for breaching lockdown rules, presented as unmissable breaking news, has not ceased. Rosie Duffield, the Labour whip, went for a walk with her partner. Welsh health minister Vaughan Gething took his son to buy chips. Isle of Wight MP Bob Seely attended a barbecue and ate half a sausage. And, of course, Dominic Cummings went to Specsavers.

There is a certain novelty in seeing politicians squirm and twist the truth over such mundane activities, rather than the more traditional infidelity rumours or fiddled expenses. This situation is a political journalist’s dream: all that is needed to embroil an elected representative in scandal is a single sighting of them outdoors.

For the rest of us, though, such gotcha stories have become tedious. The entertainment value of the initial Professor Ferguson scoop is gone. We surely ought to move on, just as we moved on from stories about insensitive tweets about drag queens from 2009.

Not only is the policy response to coronavirus endlessly complex and multi-faceted; it is also era-definingly important. How can the media scrutinise it constructively when news cycles are dominated by this kind of inane non-story? As valid as the Cummings scoop was, some journalists were still questioning ministers about it a week later, by which point the same handful of questions had become wearing in the extreme.https://f55893ec58f2ec620e59cd5167b51380.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html

The story was no longer developing. The point of maximum pressure on the government had ebbed away some time ago. Cummings had passed up the opportunity to resign. There was nothing new. Every drop of news value had been squeezed out of the story.

Journalists could have been interrogating ministers about what the new lockdown rules actually meant. They could have been pressing the government over its flexible priorities in balancing public health against the economy. They could have been investigating why mass tragedies in care homes across the country remained largely unaddressed.

Instead they found themselves sucked so deep into the world of tabloid gossip that they forgot about their duty to the public. Now more than ever, we need proper, rigorous scrutiny of the government’s every move. Lockdown cancel culture is a distraction.

Times: The new climate movement is excluding Conservatives

This article was first published in The Times.

As a Conservative and a neoliberal, I have long called for climate change to be much higher on the political agenda than it is. I believe in free-market solutions like carbon taxes and nuclear power. On paper, environmentalists of all stripes should be thrilled that a booming new climate movement is gripping the world. At long last, an entire generation appears to be treating this matter with the gravity it so clearly merits.

And yet, watching streets fill up with crowds of politically engaged, highly motivated young people, swathes of my peers among them, does not fill me with the joy that it should. Impassioned speeches from Greta Thunberg to the UN going viral and climate protests forcing politicians to concede ground on environmental policy is not, despite everything, an immediate cause for celebration.

The environmental aspect of this new movement is secondary to its extreme political agenda. An earth-shaking shift in the range of ideas tolerated in public discourse has allowed climate campaigners like George Monbiot to dispense with all self-censorship and demand, straight-faced, that our economy be deliberately brought crashing down in order to overhaul the capitalist system and create a new socialist, authoritarian world order.

It may be responding to a real and woefully under-discussed issue, but the material consequences of the noise created by this climate movement are profoundly troubling. Talk of revolution, of smashing apart the economy and implementing a centrally planned, harshly enforced ultra-Luddism is now commonplace.

The demands of the protest leaders are radical to the point of being both impracticable and truly petrifying. Mainstream political discourse is tiptoeing towards the extreme thanks to its momentum, as was seen, for example, through Labour’s adoption of a Green New Deal as party policy, including the bonkers “net zero carbon emissions by 2030” commitment.

The disquieting aspect of all this is the distinct implication that a repudiation of totalitarian politics and actively destructive economics is to be conflated with climate denialism. Environmentalism may be a traditionally left-wing cause — and climate denial largely a right-wing endeavour — but that is not to say that liberty lovers and market enthusiasts have nothing to offer.

Why do the protest leaders reject flat-out proven solutions like nuclear power, geoengineering and biofuels, as well as proposed measures with a thumping consensus among economists, like carbon taxes, in favour of their absolutist vision of a communitarian economy? Why must they go so far as apparently decrying price signals in the food market as an instrument of the rainforest-burning capitalist elite?

I would sincerely love to be able to participate in the youth climate strikes, but I cannot. This is not to say that fellow travellers in political protest must agree on all the finer points of the policy debate. I do not think it unreasonable to be uncomfortable with marching alongside countless Socialist Workers’ Party placards, supporting anarcho-communist groups such as Extinction Rebellion who would cheerfully bring about a global economic disaster that would make the Great Depression look like a picnic in comparison.

Conservative and liberal environmentalists are being actively excluded from the increasingly narrow climate movement, thanks to its rigid and extreme worldview, which Robert Colvile of the Centre for Policy Studies has termed “utopian totalitarianism”. There is simply no room for those who are not on the far left.

That is why there is a need for organisations like the British Conservation Alliance, of whose team I am proud to be a part, in order to provide a space for the voices of right-of-centre environmentalists. The real tragedy is that the climate movement would, if it were more politically accepting and inclusive, be so much richer and stronger, and considerably more likely to have a tangible impact on the long-term direction of international politics.