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The Tory shires are turning Green Conservationism has abandoned its natural home

Green converts? (Geography Photos/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Green converts? (Geography Photos/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)


January 5, 2024   6 mins

A quiet revolution is underway in the dales and downs of rural England. What the conservative philosopher Edmund Burke called the “little platoons” — local churches, families, charities, and civic associations — are in open revolt against the party they helped create. While much attention in recent years has focused on the Tory Party’s struggle to retain young-professional voters in cities, less has been said about the thousands of pensioners, affluent provincial business owners and struggling farmers who are swinging from Right to Left, and voting Green for the first time.

Local elections are traditionally an opportunity for upset, rebellion and protest. And in May, when the voters of Conservative metroland (from Tunbridge Wells and Tandridge, to Nuneaton and Bedworth) go the polls, the Greens will be hoping to repeat the gains of last year, when they established pluralities and majorities in the councils of Mid-Suffolk, East Suffolk, Babergh and the Forest of Dean. Of course, this was amid a general wave of anti-Conservative feeling. But these results were distinct. The Green Party, once the preserve of the bohemian bourgeoisie, holed up in university enclaves such as Brighton and Bristol, has managed a startling prison break, vaulting fences and stiles to advance across the fields of Tory England.

Whether these victories stick is an open question. But safe seats are only safe until they aren’t, and the last time dozens of Tory strongholds swung, in 1997, they never returned to the Conservative fold. There have been numerous theories to explain this metamorphosis: Nimbyism, short-lived protest voting, disaffection at the cost-of-living crisis, strategic localism, and a genuine slippage from Conservative conservationism to Green ecologism. But, while the Greens have recently been associated with a younger urban electorate concerned about housing, social liberalism and technological acceleration towards net-zero, the party always contained a “small is beautiful”, Little England wing. An older block that prioritises “green space”, local control, local public transport and responsive administration.

To understand the true colours of this countryside revolt, I head out to Mid-Suffolk, the first local authority the Greens have ever governed by majority control. Arriving in the market town of Stowmarket, I am greeted at the station by three of the district’s Green councillors, Teresa Davis, Colin Lay and James Patchett. In their chinos, desert boots, tattersall shirts and gilets, none stands out as a typical Green. All are former Conservatives with backgrounds in the military, farming, and charities: the lieutenants of Suffolk’s Burkean platoons. They show me around Stowmarket, from the Union Jacks adorning the Victorian high street, to the large and prosperous new estates patched onto its exterior. This was a bedrock of Conservative support in 2019. And nothing about the town speaks to a Green Party positioning itself towards an exodus of disgruntled millennial Corbynites from Labour, as some have suggested. Patchett admits that: “We’re almost the opposite [of young and professional]. If you look at the people who are in the local Green Party, who come to the meetings, well… we, in our forties, are the young ones.”

Stowmarket, still the centre for Suffolk farming communities in the outlying areas, is now also something of a dormitory town, with trains running to London in just over an hour. On the outskirts of the town lies the Orwellian-sounding “Gateway 14”, a vast freeport made up of huge distribution and logistics warehouses, the product of the Conservative’s attempts at a national industrial policy and “levelling up” in the area. Many residents grumble about the development, occasionally caveating with the need for “jobs for the young”. And this isn’t the only controversial infrastructure project in the region: Green Party support has also surged in East Suffolk, where Government plans to extend nuclear power capacity with Sizewell C have been met with stiff resistance.

Davis, Lay and Patchett deny that the Green Party surge in Suffolk comes down to Nimbyism, though they do allow that the pace of development targets from Whitehall has caused resistance. And speaking of the freeport, Lay offers little to ameliorate stereotypes of campaigners with a proprietorial attitude towards their surroundings, and a scorn for anything concrete or new: “There were a lot of objections to the project from the local people who live on the farms because their view used to be of rolling hills towards Stowmarket — now you’ve got a view of Suffolk’s biggest shed.”

It also seems that the pressures of the renewable energy transition, through developments such as solar farms, are, counterintuitively, pushing farmers and rural voters towards the Green Party. “We just had three solar farm applications go through planning,” says Patchett. “We’re obviously not against solar power. But we are against solar in inappropriate places. If developers are taking rich, fertile farming land and wanting to build solar farms on it — then we’re opposed to that.” The Green councillors justify working in opposition to certain green energy developments, because “one, the residents don’t want it and, two, these fields are the wrong place to put it”.

It seems odd that the Greens would be the best party to vocalise these niggles. Why have Davis, Lay and Patchett clustered there rather than in the party most associated with their perspective? “I don’t think the Conservatives have an identity you can get behind. We’re all disillusioned Conservatives, aren’t we? The first time I voted Green was four years ago, I always used to be Blue,” says Davis. Lay puts the Tory conversion to Green politics down to multiple factors, with the issue of competence looming large: “I think [the Truss debacle] reinforced what a lot of people were already thinking and gave them permission to say no — enough is enough.”

Their attempts to convert the surrounding areas have been boosted by recent events. All the Stowmarket Greens have set about capturing the conservationist and bucolic streak within Tory voters that has been alienated by Rishi Sunak’s Net Zero U-turn. “You’d knock on the door of a big detached house. You’d 100% know they were a Conservative voter. They’d have lovely big gardens. They admit to voting Conservative,” says Patchett, “You’d then ask them their views. ‘We like the environment, we like nature. We believe in all these things as well.’ That’s how we are flipping Conservative voters.”

Despite the Stowmarket councillors’ insistence that the Green surge wasn’t down to a protest vote, others see their local victories more pragmatically. One Ipswich resident says they switched from Blue to Green because, “Tories aren’t really Tory anymore. Labour is the above with red ties and barely any real point of distinction. Green is a good protest vote.” Although they do concede that: “I wouldn’t [vote] the same at a general election.”

However, the often dismissed question of building continues to rear its head. Geri Silverstone, a political consultant who has worked closely on Green political issues, tells me the party’s eastern surge is down to infrastructure pressures rather than a wholesale abandonment of the Conservatives. “It’s a reaction to development,” he says. “Those Suffolk districts have been under the cosh to meet government targets. There’s been a backlash from their residents. These areas are predominately 50+ years old and that’s why you’re seeing a movement from traditional Conservative voters to the Greens. It’s an alternative — they think this is a party that’s going to say no.”

Up the coast, in the small, Georgian town of Halesworth, I test this theory out on Green Party co-leader Adrian Ramsay and local councillor Toby Hammond, who were analysing river water connected to run-off sewage plants. Ramsay also puts the Green swing primarily down to local alienation. But he admits that the Greens have been pursuing a different politics in Suffolk from the one they might in urban enclaves: “You’re going to see a very different style of Green politics in rural Suffolk than you’re going to see in Brighton, certainly. The leader of Mid-Suffolk is a farmer who is very pro-farming. We’re less tied up with some of the more fringe issues discussed elsewhere.”

To scrape beneath the competing rhetoric, I went looking for Green converts at what used to be called “the Conservative Party at prayer” — a local Anglican Church hosting an environmental panel. The event was attended by the Bishop of St Edmundsbury, Thérèse Coffey (then-Secretary for the Environment), Green Party activists, Ramsay and Conservative Councillor Richard Rout. The congregation: a grey sea of fashionably dressed parishioners. I was probably the only person under 30, and one of five under 40. A pensioner, dressed in fashionable workwear, sidled up to me and joked that “Coffey doesn’t know what she’s in for”, and there was an audible grumble as she entered the church.

Various stalls lining the church outlined local concerns, everything from newts and birds, to the greatly disliked plan to run a series of pylons from Norwich to Tilbury to connect an offshore windfarm to the national grid. There were few — Green, Conservative or other — willing to make any kind of case for the potential efficacy of the pylon plan. No one, politician nor voter, mentioned that the cost-of-living and climate crisis, alongside energy security and Net Zero goals, might warrant speed over caution.

Outside, a tall man in a tweed suit, with a voice like Laurence Olivier, identified himself to me as former Conservative Councillor Michael Gower. “I’m a Tory Green! Don’t you believe it,” he bellowed. After asking him what “Tory Greenism” consisted of, Gower told me it’s “about doing things on the ground. I’ve been planting trees and testing water quality. Tories are local activists! We don’t like Sizewell C, and we don’t like the onshoring of wind turbines!” But, after he’d finished, I was none the wiser. Was he a green Conservative or a conservative Green? Was there any difference? How did an objection to onshore wind farms square with his professed environmentalism?

If Suffolk is anything to judge by, the “Green revolt” seems to be powered by those with the wealth and time to force a change in local politics. Rather than a national movement, it will remain a narrow phenomenon, both generationally and geographically, unless it can reach beyond its established confines. Because elsewhere in Halesworth, life goes on.  Young farmers, builders, and tradespeople gather in the pub, easily ignoring rural England’s debate over the future of the nation. The young sink pints, murmuring the politics of dark complaint, while receiving no echo in the church just yards away.


Samuel McIlhagga is a British writer and journalist. He works on political thought and theory, culture and foreign affairs.

McilhaggaSamuel

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William Davies
WD
William Davies
3 months ago

PEOPLE (forerunner of the Ecology Party, and now the present-day Green Party) was founded by (ex)Conservative politicians over fifty years ago, so nothing much changes. The current Green Party dogmatic obsession with “transubstantiation” (in its modern, intersectional context…) is presumably not popular in rural Suffolk? Focusing on medicalised gender reassignment is one way of lowering population levels by sterilisation, I suppose.

Jim Veenbaas
JV
Jim Veenbaas
3 months ago

They sound like typical green voters – those with enough time and money to adopt fashionable luxury beliefs. They don’t want solar, wind or nuclear – and I assume coal would be even less attractive. In 2024, there is no excuse for not understanding the profound dangers of net zero.

Walter Marvell
WM
Walter Marvell
3 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Exactly. They are the posh Wellie wing of our vast narcisstic Property Rich (a class notable in history for having not secured wealth by any merit). All have benefited from the Property Heist since the 90s (rigged Remainiac formula = build no new houses/keep interest rates at zero/stoke demand with mass migration). Bingo! Let them put up their BLM posters and trill and cluck about Greta and Climate change. They are utter idiots drunk on their pompous sense of moral virtue. They avow Neo Pol Potism. They are too scared of seeming raycist to argue against the greatest single force destroying their precious green environment in the UK- the uncontrolled unplanned mass influx of 12 million people. Incredible. I hope these ghastly Greens get eaten by their rewilded wolves and lost in the forest of weeds they prefer to the preservation of our land for the supply of homegrown food.

Caradog Wiliams
Caradog Wiliams
3 months ago
Reply to  Walter Marvell

I agree with you and share your anger. My father thought the same 50 years ago. There are no words good enough to describe the difference between these green slugs and the rest of us fighting for an existence in other parts of the UK.
But, as my father knew, they have contacts, they know people and they have power. This is one of the main reasons why we should never, ever rejoin the EU. The EU is not a democratic organisation and having power, knowing people, being able to influence decisions, etc, will fit nicely into the EU organisation.

Walter Marvell
WM
Walter Marvell
3 months ago

You are right to suspect that there may be a push from Starmer to cosy up to the EU again. Independence scares Labour and frankly their blind faith in the EU – along with the equality mania and mad eco Millibandism – represent the only credos in their manky stinky ideas locker. But I think the EU will be a very different beast in 5 years. The crises in their no Russian gas economy & mass immigration/ multiculturalism will have turned Western Europe – maybe even France – Eurosceptic. The far greater danger lies here. Our ruling permanent Progressive New Order and Blob are hardcore diehard Remainiacs. The sickness of the EU credo of governance – a cancerous failing system of top down diktat, suffocating regulation and Blob bureaucracy and contempt for a electoral mandate (er – us) lives on in them, the lawyers, the evangelical BBC, woke academia and the wfh broken public sector. No vote can remove our dodgy immigration judges, the secret EHCR judges abroad, the ‘bullied’ Brex assassinating (lockdown partying) Civil Servants, the Leninist immoral Young Doctors, the useless Bank of England & NHS leaders. We are an EU Legacy Party State. Our problem lies here, not there.

Andrew Green
Andrew Green
3 months ago
Reply to  Walter Marvell

I agree with you here entirely. What I do not believe, however, is that ALL the Greens in Suffock are Nimbys. There is a sensible case to be made for better quality food and food security, but both parties ignore it, because food would cost more – and quickly affect the amount spent on a roof over our heads, which BOTH parties want to avoid. In short the Labour party is just as complicit.

Robbie K
RK
Robbie K
3 months ago
Reply to  Walter Marvell

Very creative! I suggest sitting down and having a cup of tea, let the blood pressure drop a bit.

Walter Marvell
WM
Walter Marvell
3 months ago
Reply to  Robbie K

Skewering our selfish eco nut Elect is both creatively satisfying and delivered with relish in a dish served very cold….

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
3 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Whereas the typical tory voters are those with enough time and money to adopt unfashionable luxury beliefs!

Billy Bob
BB
Billy Bob
3 months ago

So it’s just a bunch of older wealthy NIMBYs doing everything they can to block much needed infrastructure and housing for the following generations?
Never mind that they largely got a start in life thanks to the government building entire new towns and houses across the country, they’ll do everything in their power to ensure the youngsters today don’t have the same chance at getting ahead that they did

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
3 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Don’t forget that they squirrelled away all that old industry into their pension portfolios in the privatisation revolution and have retired early off the proceeds (with a little help from QE).
Tell Sid – he could miss a once in a lifetime chance to be a rentseeker.

Simon Boudewijn
Simon Boudewijn
3 months ago

You can hear them if asked what the economic future will be like under Green’s:

”Yes, Yes, of course all this green developement and ESG, and Nimbyism will stop anyone who is not already set in life from ever getting there – but what is the problem with that? I cannot see the point of your comment.”

Simon Neale
Simon Neale
3 months ago

I’m sure they’re in favour of allotments, electric car charging points, locally produced meat, and maybe a nice crop of wind turbines on their land. Oh, and the feelings of moral superiority that come with luxury beliefs, of course.

Expect a change of heart when they realise the blokes who fix and deliver their stuff can’t afford to run their white vans, and an African shanty town appears on the village green.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
3 months ago
Reply to  Simon Neale

Love that argument. First half is semi-decent though wouldn’t the owners of white vans prefer to serve “luxury” customers with the means to cover the cost and living close by? Then couldn’t think of anything else so reeled out a lazy right wing scaremonger.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
3 months ago

I think we can say that climate change has now fully replaced socialism as the West’s secular religion. Climate change, gender liberation and racial justice as one post-Marxist complex.
Talking of which, people with resources, often inherited, still have their white man’s burden and even if they are conservative they can embrace local green concerns rather than the desertification or flooding of poor countries.

Douglas Redmayne
DR
Douglas Redmayne
3 months ago

Good. This in another part of the destruction of the Tory party which will get its head stamped on later this year.

Robbie K
Robbie K
3 months ago

who are swinging from Right to Left

This is nothing to do with right and left and it’s disappointing that the author hasn’t grasped that despite his grand tour.
Neither is it about wealthy landowners or ‘luxury beliefs’, conservative voters in this area are typical working class people who are disillusioned with the party but will not vote Labour. Most turn to the Liberals in these moments, but the Greens have given themselves enough credibility to take that vote.
It’s more than a protest vote, but I’m uncertain it will carry through to the general election in the same manner.

Jerry Mee-Crowbin
JM
Jerry Mee-Crowbin
3 months ago
Reply to  Robbie K

Yes, disillusionment with the Tories is widespread and the great irony is that Sunak and his government seem to be totally oblivious to it. But I could never vote Liberal (I did, many years ago!) as they are simply another shade of Green.
One only has to look at the horrors the Greens have imposed on Brighton to see what sort of future they offer.
Given a choice between a rock and hard place, I did not vote at the last GE, but now I can only vote Reform and cross my fingers that it might just do some good.

Robbie K
Robbie K
3 months ago

Agreed wtih your post up to the point where you said you would vote for Reform. Just no.

Steven Targett
ST
Steven Targett
3 months ago

I live in a “Tory Shire” and would no more vote Green than eat my own young. Unfortunately it seems a few of my neighbours would do vote Green out of pure nimbyism.

R Wright
R Wright
3 months ago

The Greens have more faces than Janus.

Matt B
Matt B
3 months ago

The Green Party has put people off the issues that the party should have been leading and winning on. The conservatives’ failure to see the link between their party name and conservation underlines their own generational incompetence. Green Party tweeds do indeed seem locally tactical. The failure by all parties is a far wider strategic disaster. We’re all paying the bill for it.

Peter B
Peter B
3 months ago

This is classic protest voting. Used to be Lib Dem, now also Green. That and a residual anti-Brexit effect. Voting Green is a “free hit” right now – when you believe the outcome is already certain, you can vote any way you like without consequences.
Note to author: Nuneaton and Bedworth is not Tory metroland. The Green vote share in the 2019 election for Nuneaton was 2%. Lib Dem was 4%, Labour 32%, Conservative 60%. But it is actually a tradtional Tory/Labour marginal.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 months ago

It’s a pity Mr Mcllhagga that your Grand Tour didn’t take you to the idyllic village of EAST BERGHOLT. Famous as the home of John Constable it was also the final home of Churchill’s drunken son Randolph, who was known disparagingly as “the beast of Bergholt” by local tradesmen, due to his parsimonious behaviour. Many years ago I recall one local muttering “Apple doesn’t fall far from tree”.

Recently the tranquilly of this sacred space has been destroyed by the construction of two huge housing estates, one to the north and one to the south, thus holding the village in a crab/vice like grip. All this off course after a most vociferous and acrimonious planning battle, that even had the village attempting to an abandon Suffolk and join neighbouring Essex! All to no avail, and all this with a then Tory Council and so called Tory Government! It is the greatest disaster to befall the place since Wolsey failed to complete the Church tower in circa 1530.

However the supposed surge in Green nonsense is surely ephemeral and will disappear if and when some true Tories emerge?

ps. Odd that you made no mention of Ronald Blyth the author of that seminal work on Suffolk, ‘Akenfield’, but perhaps that was before your time. Incidentally Blyth died last year at 100.

Peter B
PB
Peter B
3 months ago

Wolsey Church tower development good, local housing bad !
But I take your serious point. Development can and should be done properly. But our beautiful villages were all built by humans, so it clearly isn’t impossible.
I read Akenfield a few months ago. I’d recommend that to anyone. It just seems familiar to me (born in the 60s), but to anyone born later it might have little resonance. But it really does show just how much and how fast rural life has changed in the last 100 years. “Men of Dunwich” about the now submerged Suffolk town is also very good.
PS – and slightly off-topic – I’d quite like to see the Lincoln Cathedral spire put back on. That was once the tallest building in the world.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

Yes it was it not over 500’? But a lead covered timber frame rather like its rival Old St Paul’s, so not as impressive as say Strasbourg or Salisbury IMHO.
My choice would be to complete the central tower at Beverley Minster, perhaps the most unknown ‘Cathedral’ sized church in England.

Christopher Posner
Christopher Posner
3 months ago

You are repeating a common misinterpretation of Burke. By “little platoons” he meant not “local churches, families, charities, and civic associations” but class. See the relevant passage from Reflections on the French Revolution below
“Turbulent, discontented men of quality, in proportion as they are puffed up with personal pride and arrogance, generally despise their own order. One of the first symptoms they discover of a selfish and mischievous ambition is a profligate disregard of a dignity which they partake with others. To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections.”

Charles Stanhope
CS
Charles Stanhope
3 months ago

That’s a little too erudite for UnHerd.

Daniel Lee
Daniel Lee
3 months ago

“‘They admit to voting Conservative,’ says Patchett, ‘You’d then ask them their views. “We like the environment, we like nature. We believe in all these things as well.” That’s how we are flipping Conservative voters.’”
The Left has always been expert at this stealth undermining of natural opposition by co-opting its language to cover a hidden iceberg of a Progressive agenda. At a time when the British Right seems determined to out-liberal the liberals, it naturally leaves normal conservation minded conservatives with nowhere to go and vulnerable to such bait-and-switch tactics.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
3 months ago
Reply to  Daniel Lee

If you know your political philosophy you will know that the “conservatives” are supposed to want to conserve things (e.g. the environment) and that Conservatives (i.e. the party) are actually liberals who let the free market destroy what it likes. The modern Conservatives only seek to conserve business interests and a hackneyed kind of racial purity; the rest is free game.
It’s nothing to do with your weird paranoid liberal agenda thing. The “Conservatives” are actually the ones trying to slip in a radical philosophy iceberg.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 months ago

These Greens, as termed here, sound like what used to be called conservatives – people who tend to oppose change for its own sake and favor the tried and true over the trendy. What is wrong exactly with being judicious about the location of a solar farm?
Lest anyone forget, NIMBYism is not confined to one-time Tories in the UK, or people on the right in general. In the US, the reliably progressive folks at Martha’s Vineyard who parroted all of the dogma about diversity and inclusion on cue did a 180 when faced with a small deposit of illegals on their doorstep. Champions of green energy will fight tooth and nail to prevent wind turbines from blocking their vistas. Police defunders are suddenly tough on crime after becoming victims of it.
It’s easy to support policies that one never expects to live by; it’s quite another matter when people are forced to walk their own talk. Maybe this is just another case of moneyed interests protecting parochial interests at the expense of broader society. It wouldn’t be the first time.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
3 months ago

Funny how it seems revolutionary that Conservative voters want to vote to conserve things… Are the voters wrong or the party?

Andrew H
AH
Andrew H
3 months ago

“We’re obviously not against solar power. But we are against solar in inappropriate places.” Of course! This just confirms what I’ve long believed: there are few ideologies more conservative than environmentalism. This boils down to nothing more than NIMBYism, in fact they’re BANANAs – build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything.

John Riordan
JR
John Riordan
3 months ago

This looks very much like a bunch of NIMBYs who have discovered a more effective protest vote than the LibDems. None of these people can possibly endure the tax, transport and degrowth policies that the Green Party would introduce if they got the chance.