Not Bill Gates (In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images)

February 23, 2023   6 mins

The anarchist commentator Michael Malice observed that conservatism is “progressivism driving the speed limit”. And perhaps he was right. When it comes to rounding savagely on your most loyal voters, the Labour Party is the undisputed trailblazer — but the Conservative Party is making a valiant effort to catch up. Nowhere is this more pungently symbolised than in the recent Tory crackdown on that potent aspirational feature of home life in Middle England: the wood-burning stove.

But this isn’t wholly the Tories’ fault. Rather, it’s another omen of the ongoing transformation that began with de-industrialisation: the end of fossil-fuel-era mass prosperity. This is now percolating well beyond the “left-behind”, and snapping at the heels of the next tier up the ladder: the Caravan Dreamers.

You’ll find them out in force on the A1, early on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Usually, they’re transporting a secondary mode of transport — such as mountain bikes or vintage cars — to another location, in order to enjoy a transport-based leisure activity. By and large, Caravan Dreamers are practical, decent people. They’re pub-goers and dog owners. They buy gifts in garden centres. They own small businesses and shops. They pick up litter. The Caravan Dream is a modest one: to enjoy both relative independence and relative comfort, at an affordable price point. It’s an autonomy made sweeter by being saved for weekends and bank holidays, and it doesn’t matter if earning the money to fund the Caravan Dream rules out actually being rootless. That feeling of freedom, for a few hours of a weekend, offsets the real-world effort needed to sustain it.

London is, of course, a different country. But out in actual England, in my anecdotal observation, Caravan Dreamers are well-represented among the 1.5 million UK households with open fires and wood-burning stoves. And it’s no wonder — the woodburner conveys something like the same aspiration to affordable independence and comfort, with just the slightest edge of one-upping your neighbour. But as the climate debate has grown shriller, the dream of affordable independence has begun to take on an anxious edge.

Britain’s carbon emissions have halved since 1990, in part by shifting away from coal-burning power stations — but also, in part, at the expense of the industrial working class. For a major contributor to this first phase of decarbonisation was in fact de-industrialisation. Since 1990, British manufacturing’s share of GDP has collapsed from 16.5% to 8.8%, as carbon-intensive industries departed for countries such as China, with lower labour costs and less stringent environmental laws.

But Phase One decarbonisation wasn’t really decarbonisation in an absolute sense. Instead of making carbon-intensive consumer goods in Britain, now we just import them from China, where carbon emissions per capita have climbed even as they’ve fallen in the developed West. Worldwide, we’re generating more greenhouse gas than ever. So the pressure is on to cut deeper. But we can’t do anything about China building coal-fired power stations, and at home we’ve picked all the low-hanging fruit. How to make further reductions? The obvious, uncomfortable answer is that reducing emissions means people are going to have to start doing without nice things.

But whose nice things are next for the chop? If the Caravan Dreamers are growing restive, it’s because they harbour the suspicion that the answer is: them. Towing the caravan anywhere is getting painfully expensive. Further down the line lurks a ban on new internal combustion engines. How far can an EV with a limited range tow a caravan? How long until vintage car rallies are banned?

And the threatened loss of freedom goes deeper still. If owning a woodburner afforded the reassuring prospect of being able to stay warm even in the event of power cuts or rationing, the threat of government restrictions on their use brings with it a suffocating sense of avenues closing off for the type of modestly comfortable independence, long cherished as core to the Caravan Dream. In its place looms the panicky feeling of having even provisional, partly illusory freedoms forcibly stripped away, replaced by a centrally surveilled and unaccountably-administered condition of helplessness.

And if politics feels so bitter and volatile at present, this is at least partly because Caravan Dreamers are Tory at a cellular level, much as the industrial working class was (and to a great extent still is) Labour. Theirs is not the Toryism of high finance, or large land-holdings, or a manicured pile in the Cotswolds. It’s the shopkeeper Toryism that produced Margaret Thatcher — and, with her, the seeds of its own demise.

The slow hollowing-out and financialisaton of Britain that Thatcher inaugurated has already delivered “Brexitland” populism, as well as the Left’s turn away from blighted post-industrial regions in favour of an exciting new coalition of students, identitarian “communities” and higher-rate taxpayers. Now, the Caravan Dreamers suspect their interests, too, have been sidelined by the Tories who once championed them.

They have some grounds for thinking so. After more than a decade of Tory rule, British life has transformed radically in a number of ways that are anathema to the Caravan Dream. This is structural: it is no longer possible to deliver the growth that underpins middle-class British prosperity without degrading the middle-class British way of life. Until relatively recently, the Tories squared this circle by externalising the pain overseas or among non-Tory voters, but (notably in the housing debate) this approach is now causing widening fissures within the Tory coalition.

My staunchly Tory constituency was outraged last year, for example, when the then Transport Secretary Grant Shapps waved through Luton Airport expansion plans. As a result, passenger planes have been re-routed over our heads, several times an hour, at about 5,000 feet (this is quite loud). Airport expansion, is, he insisted, “core to boosting global connectivity” and perfectly compatible with “our commitment to the environment”. So you can perhaps forgive me for laughing hollowly when I learned that Shapps was to be the new Minister for Net Zero, tasked with deciding who flourishes, and who takes the hit, as the British public are alternately shoved and cajoled toward this goal.

Given his previous approach in the Transport brief, we can expect Shapps (himself a keen amateur pilot) to support the aviation industry and doubtless seek savings elsewhere. And this is where we begin to see the widening fissures in the Tory coalition, and the reason Caravan Dreamers are growing mutinous.

According to one 2020 study, half of aviation emissions are caused by “super-emitters” representing just 1% of the world’s population. Bill Gates, for instance, is the author of How To Avoid Climate Disaster but also owns four private jets worth $200m, and admits that travelling by jet is his “guilty pleasure”. If aviation is to be supported, even as wood-burners come under scrutiny, from a Caravan Dreamer’s perspective the inference is clear: that, much as we saw after the Great Crash and again during Covid, we were not in fact “all in this together”.

You don’t have to be a basement-dwelling internet addict to see the contours emerging. The couple who run my local post office are quintessential Caravan Dreamers, and in their shop window, alongside local concert and church group announcements, there’s a lurid yellow-and-black poster warning about the danger to individual freedom posed by an elite plan to replace cash with digital currency. Nothing could capture more neatly the rising sense of existential terror bubbling under post-pandemic small-town Britain.

This is the mood powering increasingly prevalent and colourful concerns about surveillance, climate change, microchips, Klaus Schwab, digital ID and so on. It’s also behind increasingly frequent eruptions of public dissent, for example in the protests last weekend against Oxford’s proposed “15-minute city” scheme. And while detractors may mock rising popular objections to this diffuse cluster of changes as far-Right, conspiracy-mongering, or just straight-up lunacy, much of it is factually wrong but still directionally accurate.

For while the details are often overblown, the sense of being downgraded from yeoman to serf is not baseless. Justin Trudeau ended the trucker protests by freezing protesters’ bank accounts; it should already be obvious that a fully-digital currency would grant wildly extensive new powers of surveillance and control to any government that adopted it. What might a government do with such powers? Well, just a few days ago, the Times reported on a new University of Leeds study suggesting that “rationing has been neglected as a climate change mitigation policy option”. To force further reduction in emissions per capita, the authors suggested, governments should impose artificial scarcity, then ration carbon-intensive goods such as long-haul travel, petrol or meat. No one in government is proposing such a scheme at present, but a middle class who recently learned just how much more flexible lockdown rules were for the right people will already be taking an educated guess at how climate rationing might play out.

If you’re a Caravan Dreamer, chances are you ration nice things already, and view the free enjoyment of that ration as your hard-earned right. In that scenario, assent to “15-minute cities” threatens a net loss of prized personal autonomy, with no corresponding improvement in quality of life. And, most likely, it also means a whole new set of class stratifications: just this week, shoppers in Tesco, Asda and Morrisons were outraged to discover vegetables rationed due to unseasonable cold in Spain and Morocco.

I’m far from being a climate denialist. I suspect most of us will get used to fewer nice things, as the century goes on. But I also think the Caravan Dreamers are not wrong to treat current manoeuvring with deep suspicion. The tide of abundance that once promised to reach all the way down the social ladder past them, to the working class, is already some way back from the high-water mark and still withdrawing. All the signs suggest that, however leaders dress up their changes as climate solidarity, it will be those with only a little to lose who get sacrificed next.

Out with the caravan, and in with 100 permits a year to leave your neighbourhood. Out with the woodburner, and in with a “smart meter” that hands control of your heating to the energy supplier. And all while Bill Gates continues to warn of climate disaster — and travel by private jet.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.