Letter to a Green Party colleague

I don't for a moment doubt your sincerity in what you've done, nor your commitment to the green cause, indeed I am conscious that for many years you have regarded the ecological imperative as the most urgent item on the political agenda. In a very specific sense - that of survival - that view is manifestly accurate, but in the context of making that imperative effective, I believe that the existence of a Green party is fundamentally flawed and, paradoxically, that it militates against the achievement of precisely that for which it fights.

It is the crucial difference between a green movement and a Green party which, if accepted, could produce a glimmer of hope for this planet, otherwise I fear for the very basis of my grandchildrens' civilised existence. It may even now be too late but, of course, we have to work as if there is still the possibility of resurgence. To have the chance of grasping the remaining opportunities to reverse the fatal march towards that incremental global cataclysm requires an acceptance by all parties of the stark ecological analysis and a willingness to act in the light of such an acceptance. In other words, there is, frankly, no future for any of us if the mainstream political forces compete for electoral ends on the level of exploitation of the planet rather than accept the - to you and me - vivid and clear reality and thereafter compete on the development, promotion and enactment of policies compatible with that reality.

Just by way of parenthesis, this view is not particularly recent and, having all my life been a "working" politician, I have sought to grasp fleeting opportunities to do something about it. For instance, in 1989 I was at the Policy Studies Institute. In fact, PSI rescued me after a couple of very difficult years when no-one wished to employ a Liberal ex-MP! At that time a close Leeds colleague, Jerry Ravetz, was Director of the Council for Science and Society. We shared the same political instincts and philosophy and we conceived a grand idea to get a joint PSI-CSS project going which would bring together eminent scientists and elder statesmen from the major parties to produce a report along the lines that here is immutable and uncontrovertible truth on the ecological situation, and that it was intellectual dishonesty and political adventurism to ignore it and to continue to compete economically and socially as if there was no crisis. I hoped that if such a group - say Callaghan, Heath, Grimond and appropriate top scientists - could be unanimous it might have a salutary effect. To our chagrin, neither Jerry nor myself could raise any interest in funding the proposition - not even from the Quaker trusts - and it ran into the sand. I have the tear stained papers for the scheme before me now!

Fundamentally, for a healthy democracy, political parties must be based on political philosophy. There is no other basis which can underpin an intellectually consistent and sustainable representative edifice, encompassing an executive and a legislature, and enabling an involved citizenry to enjoy the maximum participation at all levels of the democratic process. The fact that, particularly in Western Europe and the USA, we have an increased and continuing superficialisation of politics enfeebles governance in all its facets. Frankly, I suspect that for all that we aim to export democracy to the developing world, our own democracies are in a very vulnerable condition. We have used economic growth to buy off deep seated problems, such as our ongoing pension provisions and our NHS myths, and it simply cannot continue indefinitely.

I see this point very vividly in new or young democracies. Parties based on tribe, region, religion, ethnic group, or charismatic leaders proliferate and are invariably unable to grapple successfully with the country's profound problems. Indeed, particularly in Africa, democracy can exacerbate the situation when parties based on tribes succeed electorally and simply legitimise tribal domination. There is the additional point that liberation movements, whose raison d'être was a concerted opposition to an oppressive regime, usually turn themselves into a dominant political party and are then puzzled as to why they do not have the philosophic coherence to succeed in government or even, sometimes, to carry them through the full term of their electoral mandate.

Both points apply to all Green parties. Their basis is not a philosophy but a fact! It is not a view of society, but an analysis of the global condition. For those who subscribe to it - and to some other, usually Liberal, politicians - that analysis, unlike a political philosophy, is not open to subjective choice as to where one draws a line, or how much of it one should have. One can, for instance, debate were one draws a line between centralisation and devolution, or how much or how little state involvement there should be in the economy, but for greens one cannot in the same way discuss how much or how little truth there is in the green analysis. It is a fact, and, what's more a fact which all political philosophies have to take into account, and which all political programmes have to build on. It is akin to basing a party on the fact that the earth is round and not flat.

The "liberation movement" syndrome also applies. If the single unifying factor in drawing individuals into a party is an objective analysis of the global crisis then the membership will be so philosophically diffuse as to make the formulation and propagation of coherent policies well nigh impossible. It would not, I think, be unfair to suggest that even in its present attentuated state, the Green party has displayed evidence of this problem over the years. Of course, the larger a Green party became, the more acute this problem would become - as the German example demonstrates.

Neither the correctness nor the importance of the cause can provide an escape from this problem. What more legitimate cause could there have been than that against apartheid. But now the ANC is facing the dilemma of how to transform itself from a liberation movement into a party whilst retaining political power. I have had the opportunity to be privy to some of its internal discussions on the subject and am aware of the difficulties involved.

Moreover, the broader and the more influential a Green party "coalition" became, the more acute the problem would become, not just in the context of a lack of common ground on philosophy and policy but also because of the additional problem of denuding the other parties of their green base. The fewer activists sound and passionate on fundamental green issues they retained, the more the parties would develop anti-green campaigns to confront a growing external threat. They would not be able to compete on green issues with a Green party and policy would become polarised, putting the crucial ecological imperative at considerable peril. One ought not to run away with the idea that the necessary green policies and all that they imply for life styles are spontaneously popular with the electorate at large. They require persuasion and effort and this will not be best served by an increasing green versus anti-green confrontation. The advancing ecological disaster does not arrive suddenly on our doorsteps, clothed in the vivid apparel of doom, it insinuates itself bit by bit, so that the argument that it isn't really as bad as the greens say is all too seductive to a credulous populace already fed by the superficialisation of our politics and the current government obsession with managing the media.

The ultimate irony is that, if by some phenomenal chance, all green sympathisers, from all political persuasions, were united in a Green party and it gained political power, this would be an immense disaster for our ecological cause and for democracy, as such a party would have become, in Ralf Dahrendorf's words, "the party to end all parties" and would not be able to countenance the possibility of an avowedly anti-green opposition coming into office and thus thwarting its righteous aims. This is why it is crucial for those, like yourself and, I trust, myself, who perceive so clearly the looming threat to our existence, to be in all parties therein to win the case in order to ensure the entrenchment of this perception and the consistency and continuity of policies designed to avert the impending catastrophe. To extract the best and most forthright green activists into a Green party does not, alas, do anything for the green cause.

Politics begins with people, and, for Liberals like you and me, with the primacy of the human spirit with all its potential for greatness and for evil. We have to treat the electorate as a large jury which can hear and absorb the intellectual case for and against the issues of the day argued before it with zeal and passion, and which responds as individuals but with that remarkable collectivity and respect for evidence over and against prejudice that juries often demonstrate. We cannot rely on the bludgeon or the sleight of hand and we must stand out against the current anti-intellectualisation of politics. The green argument is overwhelming and inexorable - and far too vital to be left to a Green party. Let us unite with all of like mind in the green movement but let us strengthen the Liberal party.

Michael Meadowcroft
March 2000