When I first heard rumours that Michael Gove was planning to go round the country with his environmental Gestapo, ripping out our wood-burning stoves in order to heal the planet, greenwash conservatism and reduce an imaginary 36,000 deaths a year, I must admit that a small part of me felt ever so slightly relieved. Of all the desirable accessories that I’ve coveted in my life, I don’t think any has quite disappointed me as much as the wood-burning stove now staring at me accusingly as I sit at my desk.
It looks very handsome and room-furnishing, as cast-iron stoves do. And when it gets going, it really does pump out lots of heat. But there’s a reason, you eventually realise, why western civilisation graduated from such 18th-century technology to central heating. One is easy and convenient; the other, a massive pain in the arse.
Sure I totally get the theory of hygge. Yes, I find log-chopping delightfully therapeutic, and stacking my logs and kindling so that the ends form an even wall enormously satisfying. But just like making your own sour-dough bread — which I’ve also put on hold — these activities are really only suitable for two types of people: backwoods survivalists living totally off the grid; and chaps who recently sold their hedge funds and can now afford the immensely labour-intensive pursuit of living the simple life.
I’ve similar doubts about the Rayburn in my kitchen, which works on wood and coal. You’d think this would be cheaper than electric or oil-fired, but not in my experience. Perhaps it would be if you took delivery of huge piles of bog-standard coal. But not if you buy bags of those heat-intensive briquettes and you get your logs kiln-dried (as you pretty much have to do because any moisture will quickly ruin your oven and mean it requires expensive relining).
Then there’s the filth. The Fawn dreads winter because it’s so much harder to keep the house clean. All that particulate matter from coal and wood floats around the air and quickly blackens every surface. Heaven knows what it’s doing to our lungs.
All that said, if I’m ever going to get rid of my wood-burning stove and Rayburn, it should be my decision, not that of the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs. Yes, I know Michael Gove’s plans aren’t quite as draconian as they’ve been cracked up to be — he’s not (yet) coming after your old stoves; he’s not (yet) banning them altogether — but they’re still way too intrusive and nannying for a minister who is supposed to be conservative.
As you know, I absolutely adore the Gove on a personal level: he’s as loyal, entertaining and cherishable as any friend could be. But as a reputedly right-leaning secretary of state in a Tory administration, he’s proving a grievous disappointment. Maybe he has just given up the struggle; maybe there’s a glitch in his brain that makes him more susceptible to nonsense from the Green Blob than he was to nonsense from the Education Blob. All I know is that if his stint at Education will go down in history as his Battle of Britain, his Defra incumbency is his Dieppe and his Dardanelles.
A couple of months ago, he made a speech at Defra that might have come verbatim from a Greenpeace press release. On sea levels, on ice sheets, on biodiversity loss, on rainfall, on coral atolls, on the costs of combating climate change, on the Sahara, on hurricane activity, on California wildfires, he trotted out a litany of junk-science hysteria claims which have been comprehensively debunked by real world data.
As Roger Scruton and others have argued, there is nothing unconservative about caring for the environment. But true conservatism is grounded in empiricism — on facts, logic and cost-benefit analyses, not on emotive ‘narratives’ — and on those terms, pretty much everything Gove has done at Defra represents a massive betrayal of the conservative cause.
His war on wood-burning stoves (and coal, and idling cars, and diesel, and scented candles) is a case in point. It’s part of a government plan to reduce particulate emissions by 30 per cent by 2020, and by 46 per cent by 2030. Apparently — does anyone believe this? — tackling air pollution will save £5.3 billion a year from then on and significantly reduce those supposed 36,000 annual deaths. ‘The evidence is clear,’ said Gove, launching his Clean Air Strategy. ‘While air quality has improved significantly in recent years, air pollution continues to shorten lives, harm our children and reduce quality of life.’
Actually though, the evidence isn’t at all clear. He’s right about the ‘improved significantly’ part: since 1970, fine particulate matter emissions (PM2.5) in the UK have fallen from 500 parts per thousand tonnes to well below 200 parts. On almost every measure, from particulates to sulphur dioxide content, our air is less polluted than it has been in centuries. What’s far more questionable is that 36,000 deaths figure, which comes from a heavily discredited report by the Royal College of Physicians, based not on counted deaths but estimates. Yet on this flimsy basis, Gove assumes the right to tell us how we may heat our homes.
When it comes to the future of conservatism in Britain, you’re either Team Truss or Team Gove. Treasury Secretary Liz Truss — who once mockingly referred to ‘wood-burning Goves’ — believes in fiscal rigour, limited government, free markets, economic growth and the end of such virtue-signalling exercises as subsidies for green energy. Gove thinks the only problem with the EU’s excessive environmental legislation is that there isn’t quite enough. I’m Team Truss.
Now listen to James Delingpole and Fraser Nelson talk about 'wood-burning Goves' in this week's Spectator Podcast.