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Caroline Lucas has stood down as head of the UK Green Party. Lucas is her party’s first and only Member of Parliament, an honor that voters nowadays rate about as highly as being “the last person to be hanged in England.” It’s a fascinating piece of trivia, but not the most flattering way to be remembered.

With Lucas gone the Greens will set about choosing a replacement in the traditional manner: whoever can eat a four course meal in a vegan restaurant and survive wins. Expect the contest to come down to a tight race between an unshaven sociology lecturer and a dolphin called Roger. Roger will win on personality.

I lived for two years in the Green Party’s political stronghold of Brighton, a seaside town on the Sussex coast. I was still a partisan Labour man back then, so I witnessed firsthand the slow decline of socialism and its eclipse by the ecology movement. The cause was demographics. Our people were dying out or couldn’t be bothered to vote. The Greens, on the other hand, benefited from the influx of middle-class professionals and students. By nature, Brighton is a working-class town (even those bits of it that are proudly gay), but gentrification took its toll in the noughties and changed its character. I lived in a Georgian dive opposite the burnt-out pier for just £650 a month. Three minutes down the road, BBC producers were forking out £2000 for a studio flat opposite an excrement-fuelled eco garden. The future was Green.

The Greens thus suited the peculiar social dynamics of Brighton - something they couldn't replicate elsewhere at a Parliamentary level. They won the seat by offering to send Labour a message from its disaffected core of middle-class sympathisers. Oddly, there was very little about that message that was green. Instead, there was a lot of classic socialist rhetoric about ending war, doubling pensions, being nice to immigrants, yadayada. It was obvious that the Greens were a catch-all for the disaffected Left; had they not existed, their place might have been taken by Respect. Lucas herself was perfectly pleasant, although it’s hard not to be when you offer the voters “the moon on a stick.” Dracula would sound nice if he promised to end dental charges.

In the course of an election, you come to hate your opponents. Usually, that’s entirely justified, but not in this instance. The green agenda is rooted in a conservatism that I’m actually very sympathetic towards: the idea that you are what you do. If you eat rubbish, you become unhealthy. If you disrespect the living space of others, you become uncivilized. If you exhaust the planet’s resources, you become hooked on money yet also impoverished. About once a month I seriously consider turning to vegetarianism; it pains me that our global economy is rooted in the cruel and senseless murder of other creatures.

The desire to conserve, to be frugal, to respect nature, to promote the Good Society above material greed – these are all conservative attributes. In its respect for the inherited earth, the Greens are perhaps the most conservative party on the ballot paper. 

And yet … no. By elevating environmentalism to a moral order, they sacrifice the freedom of the individual on the altar of the common good. When in power, bureaucracy flourishes. Poor people are fined for using the wrong bin bags and rich people are crippled by high tax rates. The folks in the middle are squeezed by lifestyle tariffs that seem determined to force us to operate within a single square mile – no flights to New York or car journeys to Cornwall. It’s a bleak outlook that swaps the pollution of Original Sin for the literal pollution of the urban space. Man is corrupt because he needs to survive, and by surviving he takes from nature and thus despoils it. Environmentalists miss the fact that we might be stewards of this Earth but we are not its servants. Eventually, we’ll move on to somewhere even better.

Then there is that cultural difference that I’ve alluded to crudely in this post – a sense that the Greens are the party of tofu and Gaia, Wicca and Quorn. Great fun if you enjoy them; but anemic and odd to those of us who are red meat and square. Conservatism is about preserving what’s good about the culture, not just the wilderness that shaped it. That’s why “heritage” – archived in churches, towns, cities, factories – is so important to the Right. To neglect or destroy these things seems foolhardy, even though some of them are built upon the insatiable exploitation of the natural world.

When I contemplate the green/conservative dilemma, I’m reminded of a moment in the movie The Shooting Party when an eccentric protestor walks in front of a volley of gunfire to halt the shooting of birds. The Lord of the Manor stops the guns and confronts the radical. He argues, “These pheasants wouldn’t have been here at all if we hadn’t hatched them, reared them. One could argue that we give them life and then, after a bit, take it away from them again – abrogating to ourselves somewhat godlike powers.” 

That makes my point about the relationship between man and his environment being rooted in necessary evil. But what happens next is equally pertinent. Studying the protestor’s manifesto, the Lord asks, “This is a very well produced pamphlet. Where do you get a thing like this printed? Is it expensive? You don't mind my asking you?” The protestor pricks up his ears and replies, “O no, not at all. I know a very good printer in Dorking, just near where I live. An excellent man of anarchistic views. He gives me very good rates.” The two men – Left and Right – find a common passion in words and debate. It’s a pithy lesson in tolerance. By competing in the public sphere, the conservative and the environmentalist can at least agree that they care about the world around them – that there is something about mankind that is still worth saving.