Richard North, 28/10/2021  

The fate of the nation is already miserable enough but, according to some, the intervention of Rishi Sunak is likely to see any economic recovery delayed as the state spends a greater proportion of our wealth, and levies an increasing burden of taxation to feed its insatiable appetite.

But those pundits who hold out for a better future as we seek to chart our way out of the abyss do not seem to have not taken account of prime minister Johnson's attachment to his irrational "net zero" policy. Left unchallenged, this is likely to choke off any chance of economic recovery, keeping us colder, darker and poorer than any of us deserve.

Thus, there can be no question that the Telegraph was on the ball yesterday, running the results of a YouGov survey on attitudes to a referendum on Johnson's "net zero" plans.

It turns out that 42 percent of adults said they supported a vote on the plan, whilst 30 percent opposed it, and 28 percent did not declare a preference. When the "don't knows" are excluded, a majority of 58 percent wants a ballot on the issue.

The findings, writes Lucy Fisher - who has authored the piece for the Telegraph - will come as a blow to Johnson "just days before the start of the Cop26 climate change summit in Glasgow on Sunday". While he is preparing to convince global leaders to take tougher action, she adds, "the survey suggests more work is needed at home to convince voters that reducing carbon emissions to net zero by 2050 is necessary".

In this context, the idea of a referendum is entirely appropriate. Even those who currently support Johnson's plan acknowledge that, for it to succeed, it must have the people's consent. And there is no better way of demonstrating consent than to put the proposition to the people by way of a referendum, in order to seek their permission to proceed – which is the essence of consent.

Arguably, as it stands, Johnson could claim that he has an electoral mandate for his policy, as the Conservative Party Manifesto for the 2019 general election did commit to leading "the global fight against climate change by delivering on our world-leading target of Net Zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, as advised by the independent Committee on Climate Change".

But, at several levels, it would be entirely disingenuous to assert that this constituted a mandate. Currently, it has taken Johnson's administration 367 pages to articulate the substance of his plan, so the short paragraphs set out ibn the manifesto on climate change could not be taken as setting out the detail of his policy.

That goes to the single, all-important concept of informed consent – the electorate should have been fully advised of the nature and consequences of such a policy. A brief, opaque mention cannot be considered sufficient.

At another level, it has to be said that the 2019 election was not fought on climate change. The defining issue of the election was, indisputably, Brexit, with Johnson campaigning on the promise that he would "Get Brexit done". And there will be few who would disagree that he won the election on that promise.

But, had climate change been an issue in the election, there could have been no meaningful choice for the electorate. In its manifesto, Labour committed to kick-starting "a Green Industrial Revolution", aiming to "achieve the substantial majority of our emissions reductions by 2030". Although the term "net zero" was not used, the effect of the policy, had it been implemented, would have been little different to the Conservative offering.

Nor were the Liberal Democrats any different, with an explicit commitment to achieving the "net zero climate goals" set by the 2020 UN climate conference in Glasgow.

In many respects, this mirrored the situation on the European Union, to the extent that no general election could be taken as a public endorsement of our membership as all the major parties were in favour of staying in the union. The only way this question could be settled by the electorate was by the mechanism of a referendum – which indeed it was.

In her piece, Lucy Fisher alludes to this dynamic, citing Lois Perry, director of, who says: "We must not let political consensus drive us into carbon poverty. Let the people take control of the wheel". Perry accuses an "arrogant, remote elite" of "charging ahead in pursuit of costly and futile carbon policy" without due consideration for the families that will have to pay the price.

Basically, this is where the fault line shows up in our system of governance, where the general election – and non-binding manifestos – are treated as a carte blanche to adopt all manner of policies even though the mere mention could hardly be taken as invoking informed consent.

It is this weakness, we felt, struck at the very heart of our pretentions to be a democracy, when we framed The Harrogate Agenda, after our inaugural meeting in July 2912. At the very heart of our six demands, framed in the manner of the original Chartists, is the concept of the people's consent.

No law, treaty or government decision, we wrote, shall take effect without the consent of the majority of the people, by positive vote if so demanded, and that none shall continue to have effect when that consent is withdrawn by the majority of the people.

The "positive vote" in the particular circumstance of "net zero" is the referendum, addressing a crucial deficiency in our system: the absence of restraint on legislative incontinence. Johnson is making laws without our consent. We need a mechanism to get rid of those laws that we do not want, if that is the wish of the majority.

To that effect, Niall Warry – who is director of The Harrogate Agenda – has launched a petition on the UK government and parliament website, calling for a referendum on whether to keep the 2050 "net zero" target. Writes Niall:
I believe net zero target lacks legitimacy and without a referendum the current climate change policy lacks the explicit consent of the people, as argued by The Harrogate Agenda. This exposes a massive democratic deficit in our system of government.
It took the parliamentary petitions committee a week to vet and approve the wording of the petition which, with minor amendments, was posted yesterday here. In a remarkably short time, and without any media publicity, it has attracted nearly 700 signatures. Readers of this blog should easily be able to add a couple of thousand.

At 10,000 signatures, we are guaranteed a government response to the petition and, at 100,000 signatures, it will be "considered" for debate in parliament. This is a far from perfect mechanism, but it is a start.

Furthermore, if we do get the requisite number of signatures, it is a win-win situation for us. If we get a referendum then, once again, the principle of people's consent will have been tested and we are closer to making it the norm.

On the other hand, if a referendum is refused, we can rightly say that the "net zero" policy lacks democratic legitimacy, leading to what will undoubtably become a widespread popular rejection of those parts which require public participation.

And, as long as Johnson insists on pursuing a policy which leaves us colder, darker and poorer, I have no doubt that, should we actually be given a referendum, it will be decisively rejected.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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