It looks as if Britain has two Chancellors of the Exchequer at work. Three if you count the unhidden hand of the financial markets. But have we got a Prime Minister focused on his job? Rishi Sunak’s initial excuse for not attending the Climate Change COP27 conference was that he was too busy — with what everyone assumed to be the difficulty he has with “balancing the books”. If dealing with the economy, whatever its difficulties, is going to get Sunak’s undivided attention, you might even feel a bit sorry for Jeremy Hunt, whose job it is as Chancellor. And you might wonder if Sunak grasps the breadth and depth of prime ministerial responsibilities.
Next the Prime Minister lets it be known that, if he’s got time, he might go to COP27. Then he announces he really is going. Bravo. The ability to U-turn, preferably avoiding ridicule, has become a qualification for high office. To be charitable, Sunak reversing his decision does imply willingness to listen, to heed good advice, to respond to criticism and parliamentary shaming. But the frequency of U-turns is a sign of instincts out of tune with the world beyond money-making and neo-liberal ideology.
Rishi Sunak’s has at least fifteen years’ experience in financial services, in hedge fund management and venture capital companies, starting with an investment bank, Goldman Sachs, and ending as director of his immensely rich father-in-law’s Catamaran Ventures. He knows what successful small and big companies look like and how to make money out of his own and other people’s money. His winning the leadership of the Conservative Party on the second attempt should come as some relief to the City of London. But it is little preparation for the complex, interlocked problems of the 2020s when the interests of international capital must come second, if not third, when responding to extreme weather events, movements of population, mass starvation, globalised epidemics and war.
Even when the Prime Minister seems to be lifting his head from the books of “UK plc”, his vision is narrow. He sees renewable energy sources as a requirement of “energy security”. He presents dealing with the huge global issue of climate change as essential to achieving the “long-term prosperity” of which he talks, and which he finally gave as his explanation for going to Sharm-el-Sheikh. And it is a good reason. But there is so much more that needs saying and doing.
Achieving long term prosperity does not necessarily commit Sunak to anything in particular — for example, honouring the promise of a $100 billion fund to support developing nations, made at Glasgow’s COP26, chaired by Alok Sharma (then still a Cabinet Minister), or to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation, while delivering sustainable development. Sharma is clearly dedicated to making international progress on drastically reducing fossil fuel emissions and so he appealed to Sunak to drop plans for opening a coking coal mine in West Cumbria. Sunak dropped him from the Cabinet.
After William Pitt the Younger (first term aged 24), Sunak is our youngest ever Prime Minister. His political instincts seem undeveloped. He may learn. But he has to carry the fractious Conservative Party with him whilst facing a confident Opposition and multiple, intractable problems. And he has Parliament’s European Research Group (ERG) lying in wait. No wonder Conservative MPs are looking for their next job. Meanwhile we seem no longer to wish to provide some kind of leadership in the world’s slow march towards reduction in carbon emissions. The “windfall tax” on oil companies is linked to 90% tax relief on investments in exploration for more oil and gas. (See Politics, Power & Profits 21/10/22). To date we have heard nothing from this Government about how to achieve carbon emissions targets by mid-century. Youthful stamina and all the personal wealth in the world will not solve such problems.
Sunak has not been to see King Charles to tell him to ignore previous advice not to attend COP27, nor told him that Britain is proud of his decades of work building awareness of the rolling catastrophe that is global warming. Nor has the PM indicated that most of the British people would want the King to continue his work. Curbing climate change is a global imperative which Charles has been speaking about for many years, not a personal campaign like the one against architecture he didn’t like.
Treating the struggle to achieve a global consensus on combating fossil fuel emissions as a contentious matter of party politics or ideology is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even extreme libertarians must want a planet liveable enough for their descendants to be libertarian in, though some of the ERGs, the back-seat drivers of Tory policy, behave like closet climate change deniers. As the constitutional monarch of “global Britain”, Charles should go beyond the limitations of traditional monarchical duties, always being the passive symbol of past glories, a figurehead, a fig-leaf hiding disunity. He has earned the right to speak for the future every man, woman and child on the planet.
Other voices have been raised. Before last year’s Glasgow COP 26, Cardinal Vincent Nichols wrote to the Prime Minister calling for the UK to “lead in championing green energy solutions”, “support poorer and vulnerable communities”, and lead in creating international partnerships to the same end. A revised edition of The Call of Creation, written by the English and Welsh Catholic Bishops, now twenty years old, was issued, calling for a “profound internal conversion”. Bishop John Arnold, the lead Catholic bishop on the environment, followed up the publication in a podcast this October saying: “Pakistan – 33 million people directly affected by climate change. We’ve got Japan with Typhoon Nanmadol – three million people evacuated; the Puerto Rico typhoon; Alaskan storms; the west states of the United States with their wildfires; Kentucky with its ongoing flood damage. Really, it’s an appalling state of affairs. When are we going to make it urgent to be effective in our response?”
Last year, in The Call of Creation, the Catholic bishops warned: “The COP 26 summit must not be allowed to fail through governments’ refusal to take decisive action because they think public opinion is against them”, The Government must know that the same warning should be heeded this year, but with even greater urgency. It would be an instructive read for Rishi Sunak on his forthcoming flight to Egypt. And before appearing at COP27, he might also find time for the 2009 Hindu Declaration on Climate Change.
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