May the middle class preserve us
The obvious must be stated. Conservation is for conservatives; restoration is the business of Bourbons, baleful or otherwise. This simple truth is worth re-stating only because so many rival claims are now being staked in the Great Environmental Rush, whose false hopes and false boasts rival Klondyke or Kimberley. Mr Harold Wilson with the unerring eye of an old prospector has already hammered in his stakes on some likely territory: 'environmental pollution, uncounted social costs of advancing industry and private profit-making . . . these issues will for us dominate the 'seventies . . . our opponents are disqualified from dealing with the issues of the 'seventies, because solution involves the assertion of social responsibility and the assumption of social costs by the whole community.'
Once again Mr Wilson means Swansea to be a political Windarra Ridge. And dug in next to the Poseidon of Downing Street, we find the New Statesman, one of those gnarled old hands who manages to scratch out a little paydirt by sticking close to the big boys: The environment is a socialist prob- lem, not a preserve for well-meaning mem- bers of the middle class.'
In America, President Nixon's efforts to grab a slice of the action have been greeted by fury on the left; Senator Muskie de- nounces him as a last-minute claim-jumper. All this is of course the usual frontier-town shindig. Governments of all complexions in all countries have shown themselves altern- ately sensitive and insensitive to the problems of the environment. If Governor Reagan was indeed the author of the immortal words 'seen one redwood, seen 'em all', he is also the propellant behind the campaign in Cali- fornia to stop asphyxiation by automobile exhaust. If the Tories passed the Clean Air Act, they also permitted the Hilton and the Shell Centre to defile the London skyline. We can produce equally patchy records for parties of the left.
This is not surprising. We are dealing with a question of the strength applied by govern- ment, not of that government's ideology. Only an extreme libertarian or futurist would argue for a private citizen's unvarn- ished right, say, to knock down Chatsworth should he be the Duke of Devonshire. Good Tory and good socialist would agree that the business of government, local or national, includes the preservation of what is worth preserving. Which was the better lover of Merrie England, Disraeli or William Morris? In each camp, there are embarrass- ing mutters to be stifled: on the right, 'where there's bulldozers, there's brass'; on the left, 'pull down the old abbey and turn it into workers' flats.' But basically there is little to choose between the attitudes of Western governments, whatever their politics, and those of Communist governments towards the preservation of their heritage. There should be, but there isn't. St Basil's is carefully preserved, though like St John's, Smith Square, secularised; the Temple of Heaven stands yet in Peking.
And if there is to be any great change in the attitudes of Western governments from now on, it will be entirely due to members of the middle class. All the famous victories over airport and pylon, missile silo and sludge farm, have been won by armies com-
manded by the middle classes, service by middle-class architects and lawyers and sup- ported by middle-class money. The leftists are pretending that new-found popular con- cern, including their own, is fuelled by the doom-laden prophecies of scientists, Reith lecturers and other forward-looking fellows like themselves. Many scientists are not averse to telling us that they have learnt in their researches that man in his little world ought to be humble. Those who care for the lunar cavortings even claim that space has
given man a- new perspective on himself, as if Pascal and Kant had not made the point centuries ago. All such claims are dross.
It is the splendid indignation of the middle class, strengthened for once by the indignation of its children, which alone has brought governments to mouth these new slogans. The scientists are just wheeled on for show; like the Australian geologists, they didn't get a whiff of the nickel until after the prospectors had backed their hunches.
And the middle classes are simply acting in defence of their own fields, their own views of the South Downs, their own peace and quiet, their own Georgian facades; they are acting in their own interests, in the true, vested, eighteenth-century sense. They have, to use a Tory phrase so antiquated that Dickens puts it into the mouth of the antediluvian Sir Leicester Dedlock, 'a stake in the country% and they wish to defend that stake. Such is the fuel of the protest, not some abstract notion of amenity or ecological balance. It is that same robust, selfish spirit which gave the English country- side its present pattern of hedgerows—and turned the goldenrod and buttercups of the Prairie State into an endless conveyor belt of corn. It is not a charitable spirit, though it cannot match the ruthlessness of the Enclosures or the passion of the battle between the farmer and the cowman.
The difference is that the middle classes are now on the weaker side, corresponding to the tenant farmers of the eighteenth century; for today the great magnates are embodiments of 'the people': the Ministry of Transport, the Central Electricity Gen- erating Board. Imperial Chemical Industries. As Mr Wilson delicately indicated: The polluters are powerful and organised. They can point not only to profits but to the short- run interests of the consumers of their pro- ducts.' The brutal translation is that the polluters must win the war though the pro- testers may be allowed to score in local skirmishes. And the big battalions know their own strength, as the crassness of the Confederation of British Industry's recent evidence to the Countryside Commission shows. The attitude of the hard-faced men
who look as if they had done well out of the IRC is that they can get away with anything
as long as the demand for their products holds up and they appear in public with their flies buttoned.
The big battalions will only start to lose when they cease to be big, when the pro- letariat has melted into the middle classes. This is an oft-heralded phenomenon, but the majority of the British population at least are still without land, house or dispos- able savings and with only the rights that the government concedes them through the wel- fare state. A certain moderation and good-
will preserves our national harmony; it takes the total lack of working-class response to 'the fight for the environment' to remind us of what the first Industrial Revolution, and more precisely the Enclosures, did. Those whose proudest possession is a television set may have a stake in peace and prosperity, but they have no stake in preservation. They have no real property to preserve, un- like even the cottagers and smallholders before the Industrial Revolution. Rising prosperity will and should eventually give the majority such a stake. A wise govern- ment will therefore of its own volition con- serve what at the moment only a minority wishes conserved but what in ten years' time a majority will want to see still standing. This concept of 'government as trustee' is the middle classes' best weapon; Dedham Vale and St Pancras, once gone, will be gone for ever.
Yet the middle classes should not forget for a moment that they themselves still form a tiny minority and that the vast majority still put trade and employment before tran- quillity and environing beauty. The pre- servers are and will remain for some years yet a guerilla force among the progressives, fighting with their backs to the Morris wall- paper, living off the landscape, not a great mass army. They should not therefore be lulled into false security by the promises of amnesty from El Supremo in Whitehall. The preservers must know all the bandits' tricks, how to subvert a minister or stick a knife in the planning officer's ribs. Each concession must be fought for; El Supremo will not surrender a moment before he has to.