The contents pages of this book are highly revealing. A quick flick through the chapter titles shows that, as indeed the blurb on the back promises, this is a book about how green policies can foster economic growth: “The Green Book argues cogently that a low-carbon economy and environmental investments are the best way to escape from sluggish growth, create new jobs and share prosperity”.
That is a long way from from the sort of environmental debates which used to take place within the party and its predecessors over whether growth is a good thing. In part that is a pragmatic acceptance of the political landscape: the way to get green policies implemented is to give them a ‘good for growth’ tag. It is also a reflection of how even a collection of the keenest environmentalists in the Liberal Democrats are not at the ‘deep green’, anti-capitalist, zero growth end of the green spectrum. It is a case for green growth, not no growth.
Moreover, the little matter of green policies also being needed because of the scale and urgency of environmental challenges gets a secondary billing to the emphasis on growth. In other words, the books tries (and succeeds) in making a persuasive political case that a time of recession is not a time to neglect green policies. They are too important to the broad range of other policy areas to be shunted off on their own in a corner.
There is a touch of vision about a different form of capitalism in the references to working at regional and local levels, along with trying to get money circulating locally for longer in deprived areas. As with Jonathon Porritt’s Capitalism as if the world matters, it is a case for helping to fix rather than replace capitalism with only the occasional jibe at it, such as in picking advertising as the industry to be taxed in order to raise funds for a sustainable living promotional drive.
That pragmatic approach to trying to win support for environmental policies is further buttressed by the book’s emphasis on the tactical political benefits for the party, with green policies offering a clear distinguishing issue from the Conservatives.
Sitting in contrast with that pragmatic strategy is a hint of a more hardline approach to the actual policy details. As the Green Alliance’s Director, Matthew Spencer, has pointed out, David Howarth rather coyly talks in the book that, “the time might have come to reconsider what should count as liberal means” and others are rather less coy. For the contributors the state of our environment and its importance to such a broad sweep of policy justifies urgent action and one which involves a lot of new regulations alongside some use of financial incentives. This is a liberalism of more, rather than less, state action. As the book’s summary argues:
Markets are not good at factoring in costs to public welfare, such as the consequences of damaging the natural environment. So Green Liberals reject the false choice between free markets and regulation … a sustainable market economy requires government intervention through setting standards, and providing fiscal signals.
Interestingly absent from the list of contributors is Vince Cable, and his department comes in for some criticism in the book for its attitude towards environmental policies. It is notably a low key presence for one of the few Liberal Democrat Cabinet Ministers and one of the most important departments for green growth.
The 368 pages do not quite fly by. This is a substantive policy book, broken up neatly into sections and written clearly, but it is not a book for a light read or one to move the emotions to fuel environmental campaigning zeal.
Note: a review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher.