Power is not an end. It’s a means to an end
Zac Goldsmith, the billionaire's son and former Ecologist editor, has his sights set on becoming a Conservative MP at the next general election. And, as he tells Tom Idle, he has no intention of toning down his strong and convincing views on the environment for the sake of political expediency
When Zac Goldsmith announced he would stand for Parliament this year, he could never have imagined the furore ignited by the media over his decision. Hungry for sensation in the aftermath of the MPs’ expenses scandal, Goldsmith will no doubt provide perfect game for Fleet Street in the run-up to this year’s general election. The Times has already exposed him as a non-dom, avoiding tax on his £200M fortune, with several of his UK properties (including a house in Richmond, the London borough where he will run for Parliament on a Conservative ticket) owned by an offshore holding company in the Cayman Islands. Liberal Democrat Matthew Oakeshott says he’s “not fit to sit in Parliament” and should “pay back the millions he’s dodged to the British taxman”.
Then there are the women. He is now separated from his wife Sheherazade, but the Sunday Mirror claims he had an affair in 2006 with one of the daughter’s of the Rothschild family. It’s a story that isn’t likely to go away soon. Nor is the fact that he has already spent a record £260,000 of his own cash on his election campaign – a fact that might prove uneasy with voters keen to elect someone they can relate to, rather than an out-of-touch elite.
Tory leader David Cameron is pinning his hopes on the 34-year-old who inherited his wealth from his father, the late billionaire financier Sir James Goldsmith, to secure the Richmond Park seat. Zac, an environmental
activist and former editor of The Ecologist, the magazine founded by his uncle Teddy in the 1970s, was placed on Cameron’s so-called Alist of prospective parliamentary candidates back in 2006. He now faces a tussle with Lib Dem incumbent, Susan Kramer, for the seat.
On meeting Goldsmith at the offices of one of his brother Ben’s investment outfits in the heart of London’s West End, his interest in playing the game of politics is absent. Almost embarrassed by his political ambitions, he is keen to stick to the subject he knows best, and the one closest to his heart: the environment.
Being selected to run for Richmond Park is a prize obtained, in part, because of his work on the environment. Not long after he won the
leadership contest to run the Conservative Party, Cameron asked Goldsmith to collaborate with former Environment Secretary John Gummer to produce a roadmap document, outlining what needed to be done to drive the UK towards a low-carbon economy. The Quality of Life Review offered a platform for Cameron’s new party position that placed the environment at its centre.
Goldsmith’s recently published book, The Constant Economy, draws heavily on the Quality of Life work. He calls it a “simple blueprint”; a book to highlight “the kinds of things the government would have to do if its rhetoric were to match the action”.
“I wrote it because the debate on environmental issues has gone off the rails slightly; it had been polarised too much and everybody was hearing the same message – doom and gloom,” he tells me. Goldsmith claims that the climate-change problem is overwhelming; people consider it too big an issue to influence, so just don’t bother. “The message from the environmental movement is ‘change your lightbulbs’ and it’s a nonsense.
“And politicians seem to be saying the same thing – ‘you’ve got to go out and buy the right things and change your lightbulbs. But it’s just misleading, because the power lies in their hands.”
And that is the crux of Goldsmith’s book. As he openly admits, there are no new ideas in there; it is rather a checklist of things that are already out there and working. “None of it is particularly sophisticated,” he says. “And it’s not particularly challenging politically – it doesn’t commit us to economic suicide. It is possible to turn things around. You don’t need to be demoralised. But the one thing you do need to do is apply political pressure. It all comes back to politics.”
The Constant Economy makes for good reading, full of strong examples of low-carbon best practice and convincing arguments as to why the UK ought to adopt supporting policies, mixing carrots with sticks. With the Conservative manifesto being scribed ahead of the election, I wonder how much of his thinking will be reflected by the Party in the months ahead. He isn’t inclined to say. Almost apologising before giving any sort of political answer, he says the Tories have made great progress on environmental issues. “If you had shown me [Greg Clarke’s recently submitted] energy policy white paper five years ago and said ‘this is a platform on which the Conservatives will be going to the polls in 2010’, I wouldn’t have believed it,” he says, describing it as a “very impressive and progressive document” that covers not only energy issues but also transport, including high speed rail, Heathrow expansion and shifting cars to electric. “I like that that’s what the Conservative Party imagines when it imagines the future, but getting there is going to be tough.”
I ask him whether he will be forced to tone down his strong views and toe the party line should he be elected in Richmond. “Who forces you?” comes his sharp reply. “How does that happen? There is no law within the Conservative Party that requires you to have a political lobotomy. You can choose to, but it isn’t something that is forced upon you.”
He asks me to take the Heathrow expansion argument as an example. There are plenty in the party who think it is a good idea for the economy to go ahead with it, he says. But many, like Goldsmith, thought the opposite.
“Fortunately we won the argument. But it was an argument, not just an automatic decision taken on the back of a poll and I hope that after the election – assuming the Conservatives win – that as a government, we’ll still be able to handle that kind of internal debate.
“And I will be part of it. I will stick to my guns; there’s no reason for me to get involved in politics in order to drop my views on these issues.
“Power is not an end, it’s a means to an end. If you forget that, you will become a political automaton and do what you are told. And gradually your sense of self is eroded.”
A victory for Cameron is not a foregone conclusion. I question whether performance on the environmental agenda can be used as a vote winner. Goldsmith isn’t sure.
He says the “proper environmental agenda” can be a vote winner and it’s not all about punishment. “You’ve got to be straightforward about it,” he says.
“Green taxes, for example, have got a very bad name. But I can’t think of any genuine green taxes – almost all the green taxes we have are stealth taxes, dressed up in green clothes and that upsets people. It’s got to be transparent and you’ve got to have lots of hypothecation – to tax one thing in order to fund something else.”
Green taxes without hypothecation will “almost always be unacceptable” he says, remembering a recent MORI poll that asked people whether they believe in taxing domestic aviation. Their answer was ‘no’. But then they were asked, ‘do you believe in taxing aviation if every penny of the revenue is used to invest in high-speed rail?’ and the answer was yes. “People just don’t trust politicians. But if you are honest about it and you come up with initiatives which are actually going to make a difference, people will accept it and even embrace it.”
The ‘Goldsmith Manifesto’ also includes less regulation – or better existing regulation. He points towards the UK’s “cumbersome” housebuilding regulations, which are more stringent than in any other European country.
However, our environmental standards are not higher, and in many cases lower, than in Scandinavia and Germany. “That is not a coincidence,” he says. “I wish I could blame it all on this government, but it goes back a long way…but our government has an assumption that we are all villains or idiotic, so that every single thing we do has to be policed.
“I’d prefer to see a completely different approach. So say to the housebuilders, ‘these are the basic standards we want’ and just let them get on with it. We are going to trust them to meet those standards, but if they abuse that trust, they won’t be able to build any more.”
He says the same should apply in farming, a profession he knows a thing or two about having run an eco-farm in Devon on his 300-acre estate. “There needs to be much less regulation, but tougher penalties for abuse of trust. And that can be applied across the board. That is where government has got to be strong.”
The pressure will be on the Tories to ease off on regulation to win the business vote. But it works both ways, says Goldsmith. “There are a lot of businesses that want to know what sort of framework will be in place and how long it’s going to take so they can make decisions.”
He tells me about a company he visited recently that was trying to develop wood-chip energy systems for electricity. They have reached a point where they can no longer get investment. It’s an attractive business model but they’ve stopped work because they don’t yet have an assurance that April’s incoming energy cashback feed-in tariff system will work for them and at what level it will be set.
“That’s where the short-term nature of politics really harms business,” he says, before offering his take on how the Government’s Climate Change Committee should not just concentrate on the big targets, “which are meaningless unless you meet them”, but try to encourage politicians so that when they get to a point of agreement on a particular issue, they sign it off – “for example, whoever wins the general election, there is going to be a FIT system and this is how it will look.
“At least the businesses that are affected will know. There’s not nearly enough cross-party activity on these issues.”
But it is for the party currently in power that he reserves much of his frustration. Considering British politics to be juvenile (“I’m supposed to say to you that every idea generated by the Lib Dems is crap”), he does admit that Climate Change Secretary, Ed Miliband has “pushed the boat out”. However, it is the Government’s many contradictions that irk him. “You’ve got Miliband who is straight down the line coming up with some quite ambitious programmes, but it’s contradicted by the Government’s plans to treble airport capacity,” he moans. “It shows so little intelligent thinking – spending millions widening motorways instead of investing in smarter travel. There is no coherent policy there at all.”
Again, Goldsmith’s arguments are compelling; his Eton-patois meandering between tales of high-level talks he has given to government officials in Denmark to meetings with car-battery suppliers in Israel. He is creative, intelligent, welltravelled and open to discussing his progressive ideas. But he is also a newcomer to politics, new to the Conservative Party and being able to exert a lot of influence in a new Tory government is highly unlikely.
So, where does he want to go from here? “Honestly, I have no idea,” he says. “I have no experience of being an MP, backbench or otherwise. I don’t know what it involves being a minister. I don’t know what that means in terms of being able to pursue this agenda. I want to be involved in Parliament to push this agenda as far as it can possibly go. And I’ll do whatever it takes to make that happen.”
For all of his Ecologist activism and lobbying, Goldsmith realises that if he really wants to affect change, it is in politics that he can make it happen. But if he was hoping to keep a lid on his private life, he should have known better.
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