Zac Goldsmith is the most prominent green Tory. Will he prosper in a Cameron first term?by / August 27, 2009 / Leave a comment
Published in September 2009 issue of Prospect Magazine
If David Cameron wins the next election his mantra of “vote blue, go green” will be quickly tested. Cutting emissions. Taxing pollution. Solving a looming energy crisis, possibly without nuclear power. All will make a Tory first term the most environmentally conscious in British history. And all should provide a platform for the political rise of Cameron’s most recognisable eco-supporter: Zac Goldsmith.
One of only a tiny handful of “green Tories,” Goldsmith is also by far the best-known new Conservative candidate. Few others in politics can match the star power of this handsome, thoughtful multimillionaire, friendly with glitterati and monarchy alike. One might think this alone would assure Goldsmith a position at Cameron’s top table. Yet doubts remain over whether he will accept the compromises of frontline politics—and whether the Tories will green their business-friendly instincts. His first-term progress will test the size of Cameron’s big tent.
Goldsmith has certainly been on an intriguing intellectual journey. In his late teens, after being expelled from Eton, he ignored university and travelled the world. Returning from one trip he remembers picking up a book given to him by his father, the billionaire businessman James Goldsmith. The inscription said it would be the most important he would ever read.
The book, Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh, told of the visits of environmentalist Helena Norberg-Hodge to a primitive but beautiful corner of northern India in the 1970s, and her subsequent horror at the province’s economic development. Inspired, Goldsmith met her, worked for her organisation, and also went to work in Ladakh itself.
Norberg-Hodge, along with Zac’s uncle Teddy Goldsmith, had a powerful effect on Zac’s thinking. Both espoused a “deep green” philosophy concerned with the preservation of natural ecology and tribal societies, and a strong scepticism of capitalism and globalisation. Such ideas, in turn, underpinned Goldsmith’s early campaigns—as editor of his uncle’s Ecologist magazine—against everything from international trade and GM food to nuclear energy and climate change.
Now Goldsmith wants to be an MP, and is using an upcoming book, The Constant Economy (Atlantic), to take on some of his previous beliefs about “no pain, no gain” environmentalism. He remains anti-nuclear, anti-GM and the rest. But where once he shared his father and uncle’s mistrust of Britain’s political and business establishment, he now seems to have found faith in market mechanisms and mainstream public policy to avert environmental calamity—a change of heart he partly credits to Cameron’s invitation to co-chair a 2007 Tory green policy review.
For any of this to matter, Goldsmith must of course win his seat in Richmond, southwest London, by no means assured. Lib-Dem Susan Kramer has a defensible 3,000-plus majority. But if he doesn’t win Cameron isn’t likely to form a government —Richmond is the Tories 61st most winnable seat, and they need 125 for a majority.
Given the prominent role he could play outside politics it’s reasonable to assume that Goldsmith aspires to a Cabinet position, at least. But here he has work to do—not least to overturn the after-effects of the media reception to parts of his 2007 review. In what could be a sign of things to come, Cameron swiftly distanced himself from its (basically sensible) proposals for taxes on domestic flights to fund rail investment and penalties for polluting cars, while Goldsmith copped the blame for the bad headlines. Both ideas are resurrected in his book—but their reception at the time led some to conclude that Goldsmith’s youth (he is 34), privileged background and radical heritage denied him the antennae and common touch needed in the political frontline.
This early reputation for naivety wasn’t helped by further bad headlines in 2008. He was found to have spent around £90,000 of his own money to fund his campaign, some £7,000 given to his local party while he was not a resident. Elsewhere his calls for a national boycott of Sainsbury’s, following a spat over planning permission in his constituency, raised eyebrows.
Since the launch of the 2007 review Goldsmith has been less closely involved with Conservative environmental policy than his public profile might suggest. He is not part of Cameron’s inner circle. But this doesn’t mean he will be without influence. Some observers talk of a “Goldsmith veto” that if wielded carefully could be influential; a possibility strengthened by his ability to go to the media on issues he cares about, as he did during 2008 over debates on nuclear power.
In this Goldsmith is lucky: present Conservative policy is in many ways more environmentally-friendly than Labour’s. But coming out of a recession Cameron will face pressure to dash for growth. Even if this isn’t a problem, localism might be. Goldsmith backs radical moves for local direct democracy. Ideas like petitions to prompt local planning referendums are an outgrowth of his environmentalism—the hope being that local votes will stop new power stations, supermarkets, and so on. Yet it is unlikely a Tory government will really go down this road.
The Tory commitment to stop a third runway at Heathrow will matter too, given its proximity to Goldsmith’s constituency. The promise seems firm, but in July 2009 a Tory frontbencher was caught out telling a constituent that it would be “revisited” post-election—a slip senior Tories, and Goldsmith, quickly scrambled to deny.
Energy will be most important of all. Currently Cameron argues for a “market neutral” approach to electricity generations with no subsidies, effectively ruling out new nuclear power stations. But, facing a coming energy crisis, this may also be revisited, a more significant test of loyalty.
Nonetheless, with manifesto commitments in his back pocket and green issues up the agenda, Goldsmith should make his voice heard. But one question remains a mystery: what sort of politician does he want to be? In his twenties he often spoke of his lack of faith in politicians as a class, once claiming that Tony Benn and Clare Short were the only two he admired. The danger is that he comes to be seen more like Frank Field: intelligent, but viewed as a difficult loner and soon in the wilderness.