Patriotism could be the unlikely answer to solving the climate crisis | Anatol Lieven

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When it comes to fighting climate change and its effects, both greens and conservatives pay far too much attention to localism, voluntarism, and corporate responsibility. All are valuable; none are adequate. If, as many environmentalists say, the struggle against global heating requires a sense of wartime emergency, then fighting it while chiefly relying on these assets is as if Britain fought the Second World War relying on the Home Guard.

Last week’s budget contained some useful steps to limit carbon emissions; but they are far too small, and offset by road construction and the failure to lift the freeze on fuel taxes brought in 10 years ago.

Climate change, if unchecked, threatens the destruction of Britain; yet the new money allocated to combat it is less than one fifteenth of the annual defence bill and well under half the cost of the two Royal Navy aircraft carriers – which increasingly seem to have no national strategic purpose.

The best way of looking at the idea of state-led national green new deals is to see them as the latest episode in the 200-year-old history of efforts to save capitalism from itself. The difference is that in the past, unrestrained capitalism could only destroy one country’s political and economic order. Today, by continuing to boost carbon emissions, it can destroy the whole of modern civilisation.

Throughout modern history, just as today, there have been capitalists, such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, who have called for the reform of capitalism, whether from conscience or fear of revolution, but, in the end, parliaments still had to pass the laws and states had to implement them. If we had left it to capitalism to regulate itself, seven-year-olds would still be working down coal mines – or, more likely, Britain would have collapsed into communism. Capitalism, when left alone, cannot regulate itself. If we did not know that before the crash of 2008, we certainly know it now.

Central to the taming of capitalism has always been the creation of welfare states. Enhanced social security and state healthcare as part of any green new deal are essential to the fight to limit carbon emissions for three reasons: to compensate those workers and sections of society that will suffer as a result of the abandonment of fossil fuels; to make the necessary sacrifices politically possible by sharing those sacrifices through progressive taxation; and to build the social and national resilience which we will need if our democratic orders are to survive the shocks of the decades to come – including the spread of tropical diseases as a result of climate change.

This need for social solidarity links the green new deal to the patriotic origins of the welfare state. Both conservatives and socialists have agreed in attributing the welfare state to socialism; conservatives because they have come to dislike it, the left because they want to claim all credit for it.

In fact, the origins of the British welfare state lie very largely in the social imperialism movement in the years before 1914. The supporters of this movement were an extraordinarily varied bunch: H G Wells, George Bernard Shaw and Sidney and Beatrice Webb on the left; liberal imperialists such as Winston Churchill and William Beveridge; patriotic writers including Rudyard Kipling and Arthur Conan Doyle; imperial bureaucrats such as Lord Milner and John Buchan; and soldiers including Field Marshal Lord Roberts. Their thinking echoed, in key respects, Bismarck’s social security programme in Germany and the reformist “new nationalism” of Theodore Roosevelt in the US.

As Lord Roberts declared: “To tens of thousands of Englishmen engaged in daily toil, the call to ‘sacrifice’ themselves for their country must seem an insult to their reason; for those conditions amid which they work make their lives already an unending sacrifice.”

What all these figures had in common was a fear of social disintegration and revolution; a belief (right or wrong) in the British Empire as a force for progress; and a belief that social solidarity, “national efficiency”, and a degree of national self-sufficiency were essential to survive what they (correctly) saw would be the colossal social, economic and political strains of a new European war.

My own thinking about this has also been shaped by my experience of working in Qatar, which has engaged in an intense and successful state-led effort at national self-sufficiency in response to the blockade by Saudi Arabia and other neighbours.

The social imperialist tradition flowed into the later development of the welfare state as a result of the Second World War. In the course of these conflicts most of the Labour party became intensely patriotic, while the Conservatives became one-nation Tories, committed to social solidarity and state involvement in the economy.

When, in 1960, Bernard Semmel wrote his classic study of social imperialism, Imperialism and Social Reform, he took for granted its victory on both sides of the political spectrum: “Today, the Cobdenites [ie radical free-market liberals] and the international socialists are virtually extinct breeds.”

This is the spirit we need to recover in response to the climate emergency and associated menaces. International agreements and protest movements are valuable and necessary but they can’t do anything themselves. Their purpose is to nudge and shame states into taking action. And state governments, in the end, take action on behalf of their national populations. That is their duty, and it is also what those populations expect and vote for.

The task then is to mobilise patriotism by convincing national populations that global heating is a threat, not just to humanity and the planet but to the interests and the future survival of their own countries; and that society, as a whole, will pull together, alleviate suffering and make sacrifices as part of a common effort.

If we can’t manage this I very much doubt that liberal democracy will survive what is coming at us down the line.

o Anatol Lieven is the author of Climate Change and the Nation State: The Realist Case

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