was leader of the Green Party and a member of the European Parliament when Huw Spanner met her on 4 February 2005. She was voted Politician of the Year by readers of the Observer in 2007, 2009 and 2010, and in 2008 was listed by the Guardian among ‘50 people who could save the planet’.
Photography: Andrew Firth
What were the values that were instilled in you as a child? Would people who knew you then be surprised that you grew up to become a green politician?
Yes, I think they probably would. I mean, the values I grew up with were those of right and wrong, in a very simple way, but discussions around the dinner table were never about anything you could really feel passionate about – they were about, you know, the weather or what we’d done today.
I found that very frustrating and I think it was because I felt starved in that way that once I found people who did sit around dinner tables and really talk about the future of the earth and some of those bigger questions, it really excited me.
What sort of family did you come from?
My father was a small businessperson – he had a central-heating company – and my mother stayed at home and brought up three children.
And were they deeply into greenery themselves?
No, they weren’t. They were very, very normal.
How did you become politicised?
In my teenage years I met people who expanded my understanding enormously and I moved from a fairly unquestioning Conservatism, that just accepted the values of my parents and assumed that the only newspaper was the Daily Mail, to a recognition that there are lots of other ways of thinking. I was basically travelling to the left, or to greenery if you like.
I think the two things that really woke me up to political reality were the Falklands War in 1982 and the whole issue of nuclear weapons. It was a growing awareness of some of these big threats, if you like, and of things that just seemed wrong that got me involved, in pressure groups first of all.
Well, CND and the Snowball Campaign [which got people to cut single strands of perimeter wire at airbases so as to get arrested and so help to clog up the courts]. I spent a lot of my student years on buses going up to Molesworth or Greenham Common.1The two RAF bases where US nuclear-armed cruise missiles were stored in the Eighties
Then in 1986 I read a book by Jonathon Porritt called Seeing Green,2Seeing Green: Politics of ecology explained (Blackwell, 1984) and it was one of those books that completely change your life within the space of time it takes to read 250 pages.
You had a kind of conversion experience?
The overwhelming principle that informs green thinking is that we have to live within the natural bounds of the planet
I did. Until then, I’d been interested in the women’s movement and I’d been interested in the environment and I’d been very active in CND but I hadn’t made the connections between these different things. What I discovered from Seeing Green was that all these things are connected.
And that’s one of the things that attracted me so strongly to green politics, that it looks not just at the symptoms – at discrimination and environmental destruction and nuclear weapons – but at the underlying set of values or political priorities that lead to them. It was that that really excited me and made me put the book down and walk down the Clapham High Road to find the Green Party office.
You talked about ‘travelling to the left, or to greenery’. Do green and red sit next to each other on the political spectrum? Sometimes on Question Time you sound like a bit of a utopian socialist.
I would say that green thought is an integrated philosophy on its own. More and more parties are interested in the environment and so forth – which is fine – but what makes green politics different from Conservatism and Liberalism and, indeed, utopian socialism is the way it puts sustainability absolutely at the heart of everything.
Would you say that that is the single big idea behind everything that comes out of the Green Party?
I don’t know if you could call it the single big idea, but the overwhelming principle that informs green thinking is that we have to live within the natural bounds of the planet. That is where it starts from, and that then takes you into social issues and so on. I think there are three things that pull the party together: sustainability, social justice and peace.
Sustainability isn’t just about bolting on some environmental policies to an economic system that just carries on as usual. It’s a radical critique of that system. It says: This system is fundamentally unsustainable, because it’s based on a form of economic growth that requires more and more throughput of natural resources, which is leading to a massively unsustainable way of life, not only in the North but increasingly in the South now as well.
Recognising that we live on a finite planet and can’t have growth forever certainly has social as well as environmental consequences. I think that one of the strongest arguments for the unsustainability of our own lifestyles is the immorality of telling poorer countries that they can’t develop in the way we have while we carry on as before. So, yes, we’ve got to reduce the impact of our own patterns of production and consumption, but one reason for doing that is to give a bit more environmental space, if you like, to some poorer countries so that they can grow and have at least some of the technological development they need.
Where we share the ideas of socialism, I think, is in talking about how the economic system is inequitable and fundamentally divisive. We don’t necessarily talk about it in class terms, though personally I wouldn’t have any problems with that. But I think what socialism in general hasn’t really taken on board – individual socialists are different – is the way we need to change our lives so fundamentally.
It isn’t only about energy efficiency or conservation, though it is about both those things. I think it’s much more fundamentally about the goals of a national economy. At the minute, the goal of every economy (except possibly Bhutan) is essentially to maximise economic growth in traditional terms of GNP. But everyone knows how flawed GNP is, because it makes no distinction in what it is measuring. I mean, a huge oil slick can be great for GNP because it costs so much to clear up.
I want to get away from the idea that green politics is just about the environment. If you want to measure how environmentally sound a party is, don’t look at its environment policies, look at its economic policies. It’s actually the form of economy you have that dictates how environmental you are and how socially just, and the kind of lives people end up living. That’s why we put so much stress on green economics.
Being green is not a sort of hair-shirt moralism. It actually says: What do we need to be happy?
A lot of people would just see green politics as the instincts of muesli-eaters and sandal-wearers…
I don’t think they would say that any more. Not sitting this close to me they wouldn’t.
Isn’t it all about being kind and gentle and good?
I think that green politics is moral, because we care deeply about our impact not only on other people in other parts of the world but also on future generations; but it’s not a sort of hair-shirt moralism. It’s based on some clear moral principles – and that is one of the things that attract me to it – but it’s also about looking after yourself. I think that what we do is redefine what ‘looking after yourself’ means.
In the current economic system, as GNP keeps going up and everyone keeps saying, ‘Aren’t we doing well?’, the rates of isolation and insecurity and depression and suicide are all going up as well – and if you ask people, ‘What kind of future do you envisage for your children?’… I think that is a really interesting indicator. There is so much evidence that suggests that after a certain point more wealth does not lead to greater happiness.
What I want to see as the goal of national governments is people’s wellbeing in a much broader sense. Adopting green politics doesn’t mean having to do without things and be forever worrying about how many resources you’re using. It’s actually saying: ‘What do we need to be happy?’
We’ve got a society where everywhere there are adverts, adverts all the time, and all the time that consumerist culture is bearing down on us and telling us that we’re inadequate unless we do this, that we haven’t got enough unless we’ve got that, that we somehow become better people by buying more products. We’ve got to get away from all that. We don’t need to be on this materialist juggernaut.
Does greenery have specifically spiritual roots?
If you define ‘spiritual’ in pretty broad terms, then yes, I think it does – both my politics and green politics generally, I think most people would say. But then they’d probably have a big row about exactly what they mean by ‘spiritual’.
One can imagine a politics that addresses the need to live within the natural bounds of the planet which doesn’t waste much effort trying to save the whale.
But at heart greenery is not that kind of politics, is it? It isn’t a purely pragmatic approach to things.
No, I don’t think it is… It certainly gives more respect to other forms of life than any other political philosophy, and I think most greens would argue that this is not an optional thing. We believe that animals do have – if I use the word ‘rights’, it gets us into the philosophy of what rights are, but…
We have a duty towards them?
I can’t say I am just one religion. I believe in some divine organisation but I couldn’t give very much more flesh to it
Yes, I think we do, and I think that is fairly fundamental to green thinking. I think that the idea of our responsibilities to future generations is fundamental, too. And I think this web (if you like) is vital in a pragmatic way. I can’t make the case because I don’t have the scientific background to do it, but to me at least it feels vital in some way that I will call ‘spiritual’ because I can’t think of a better word.
Are you religious yourself?
Am I religious…? The spiritual dimension of life is very important, but it doesn’t necessarily mean… I like to take bits out of different religions, so I can’t say I am just one religion. I value very much many things from many different religions. I believe in some divine organisation which I couldn’t give very much more flesh to, and I think that those aspects of life that can’t be explained but are to do with a spiritual dimension are incredibly important.
Greenery is clearly much better established in Germany and Scandinavia than in Britain –
I have a two-letter reply: PR. I honestly believe that it’s not because the people of Germany or Scandinavia are intrinsically more green than the people of Britain. For a long, long time, those countries have had a voting system whereby what you vote is what you get. If 8 per cent of people vote green, that’s the numbers, more or less, you get in parliament. And where you’ve got proportional representation in this country – in the London assembly and the Scottish and the European parliaments – we are in all those places in growing numbers. The Scottish parliament now has seven Green members [out of 129].
Once you get a few people elected, it does break through the credibility barrier. It’s certainly the case at a local level, where once you get one person onto the council, almost without fail you get another one elected the next time around. People see what our people do once they’re elected and they like it. But it’s getting through that barrier…
With the Westminster first-past-the-post system it is much harder to say to someone, ‘Vote Green in this constituency and elect a Green MP.’ There are one or two constituencies – notably Brighton [Pavilion] – where we might get someone in even under first-past-the-post, but it’s incredibly difficult. So, you have to fall back on saying, ‘Vote for what you believe in’ – which I certainly would say. I’d point back to the phenomenal 15 per cent the Greens got in 1989 in the European elections. It didn’t lead to any seats, because then we were still under the first-past-the-post system [in Europe], too, but I think everybody would agree that it rocketed the whole issue of sustainability right to the top of the agenda. So, there are lots of good reasons to vote Green.
I still suspect that culture plays a part in this. When we interviewed Peter Melchett3Then executive director of Greenpeace UK in 2000, he told us that when British Nuclear Fuels sued Greenpeace in the Netherlands it took a while to find a judge in the Amsterdam high court who wasn’t a member –
But that’s unimaginable in Britain, isn’t it? Maybe it is just a reflection on our judiciary – but don’t you find that our media are also pretty unsympathetic?
Well, maybe I’m being over-generous, but I wouldn’t have said that the British media were particularly hostile. I mean, just in the last few weeks climate change has been on the front page of the Independent half-a-dozen times, and it’s pretty prominent in the Guardian and so on.
The one message I want to get across is that we can all make a difference – and if we don’t, we are all in a big mess, frankly
I think what they are is incredibly narrowly focused on Westminster politics – that’s my frustration with them. Our whole political system is centralised on Westminster and so they are, too, and if you’re not there, as far as they’re concerned you don’t really exist. Anything that is happening in the European parliament – never mind locally – is just nowhere.
Are you surprised by the lack of headway greenery has made here? Most people (to take a trivial example) still throw away the dishes that takeaways come in and yet they’re pure aluminium. It’s insane.
It is enormously frustrating, yes, I agree. How long has the Green Party been going? Thirty-two years. I think we thought we would have got further than this by now. The amount of analysis that’s out there of what’s going wrong – it’s such a big wake-up call, it’s amazing that people are slumbering still.
It’s difficult to know what the explanation is. Is it just inertia? Is it the difficulty in conveying some of this stuff – I mean the big stuff, not recycling aluminium but climate change, if you like. There is a real line to be trodden between trying to get people to recognise how serious the problem is and making them feel so utterly powerless that they just don’t feel they can make any difference and so they just ignore it. And getting that balance right is difficult.
I don’t know how much this is specific to Britain, but I think one of the most frustrating and frightening and depressing things is the sense that people can’t change anything. Whenever I give talks or go into schools or whatever, the one message I want to get across is that we can all make a difference – and if we don’t, we are all in a big mess, frankly.
Can we talk about PR as in ‘public relations’? If you asked the average Brit to name a prominent green, I guess they would still be saying Porritt. I don’t mean to be rude, but why is there no one young and glamorous and high-profile promoting green thinking in this country? After all, Greenpeace has succeeded in establishing itself here as really quite a sexy brand.
Well, I’m certainly not representing a Green Party position when I say this, but personally I think it is partly the party’s own fault. We have such a suspicion of leadership in the party, because there are so many (admittedly very bad) examples of leaders who have not necessarily been good for the causes they’ve led, and that has led to the view that it isn’t healthy to have a single figurehead.
This is a big ongoing debate in the Green Party, and in part it is about empowering everybody and recognising that we all have some innate wisdom about these things and we just need to have more confidence in it and nurture it instead of looking up to one person to tell us the way forward. And I respect that. But I think we need to outgrow this suspicion quickly, because the message we are trying to put across is so urgent that it is worth making some compromises on what we think leaders should or shouldn’t be in order to get it across.
I think the reality of today’s media – and culture generally – is that people only respond to ideas when they can associate them with a person. If you try to sell abstract ideas to people, it doesn’t work. People haven’t got the time to sit and think about them and it’s not what they’re used to. They’re used to seeing a person on their television screen of whom they can think, ‘H’m, I like the look of that person. They sound sensible. I can trust them, I think.’
That might sound trivial, but we know that that makes a hell of a lot of difference. You know, when you’re doing media training, anybody will tell you that 90 per cent of any presentation you give on the media is about the vibes you give off by the way you dress and you sit and you smile (or you don’t) and 10 per cent is what you actually say. We may think that’s a great shame, but that is the reality, so let’s work with that and get our message across!
I am deeply pessimistic but I’m also deeply optimistic about the power of human beings to get wise and do something about it
A lot of what you yourself have achieved in the European parliament could be described as ‘tweaking’ –
How dare you!
And yet greenery is arguably the one political philosophy left standing that is actually revolutionary.
Oh, we are revolutionary. But how do you achieve revolutions?
Is it hard to hold those two things together?
No. It all depends where you are. It’s certainly true that when I’m in the environment committee in the European parliament and I’m putting amendments to pieces of legislation, I’m working within parameters and pushing people as far as I can but it’s a slow, reformist process. I am under no illusion that we are going to make dramatic changes.
But what really excites me, to be honest, is the way that being an MEP gives me extra leverage – not as much as I’d like – to get green ideas across. I spend a heck of a lot of time travelling around the country talking to NGOs, to schools, to Women’s Institute groups, to any number of residents’ associations and so on. Being an elected person gives you a certain access you wouldn’t otherwise have.
And that’s where I feel I’m doing my revolutionising, by telling people that politicians are not going to do anything more than make a 1-per-cent change here or there unless the populace is making it very, very clear that they recognise that we need a heck of a lot more.
Many people say that power has migrated from political institutions to corporations and it is the latter that now have to be lobbied and leant on.
I disagree with that trend of thinking. What frustrates me about it is that it lets politicians off the hook. You look at some of the things corporations are doing – whether it’s the takeovers of supermarkets and stores that are making every single one of our high streets completely identical or companies abusing human rights overseas – and governments often just put their hands up in horror and say, ‘Oh dear, but what can we do?’
Well, they can do a lot if they want to. They can bring in competition laws and monopoly rules; they could be saying to some of these bigger companies, ‘If you don’t meet these standards, you don’t sell in these markets.’ There are a whole range of political tools they’ve just given up, or given away – but they could take them back.
We often ask people: Are you a pessimist or an optimist? It seems to me that you have to be both.
Yes. Yes. I am profoundly pessimistic about many aspects of the status quo, but I’m also profoundly optimistic about the power of human beings to get wise and do something about it.
That might be a leap of faith that proves not to be substantiated by the facts, but… You know, you meet so many fantastic people in this job who are beavering away at the grassroots level. There are so many examples of individual action that is making things a little better here and there, and if only we could take away some of the obstacles that prevent more of it! I do think that human beings are fantastically wonderful and, on balance, given the right signals, would be doing the right things.
What sustains the people who sell Socialist Worker, I suppose, is the belief that revolution is historically inevitable. But the green revolution is not inevitable, is it? Do you actually believe it is going to happen?
Well, I think in many ways it is inevitable. I think the choice is whether or not change is imposed upon us because the environmental nightmare is accelerated to such an extent that we’re looking at the worst-case scenario – loss of harvests, huge migrations of people – and, believe me, when we are, change will happen. The question is whether we can foresee it and manage it and mitigate the worst of it and actually get some benefits from a different way of life or whether we are forced into a transition that will be very, very painful and undoubtedly will cause an awful lot of horror and misery – and death as well.
Do you have much confidence that we’re going to go the less painful route?
I believe there’s a good chance we could, yes. I mean, I have to believe that. I do believe that. But I’m also very mindful of the alternative.
This edit was originally published in the May 2005 issue of Third Way.
Caroline Lucas was born in 1960 and educated at Malvern Girls’ College. She went on to study at Exeter University (where she gained a first in English literature in 1983 and a doctorate in English and women’s studies in 1989) and, in 1983/84, Kansas University.
She joined the Green Party in 1986 and, after getting a diploma in journalism, became its national press officer from 1987 until 1989.
She then worked for Oxfam for 10 years, initially as a press officer and then from 1991 as a communications officer on its Asia desk, from 1994 as a policy adviser on trade and the environment and from 1998 as ‘team leader’ for trade and investment – matters on which she advised the Department for International Development in 1997–98.
She was co-chair of the Green Party in 1989/90 and in 1993 won its second county-council seat, on Oxfordshire County Council, which she held until 1997.
In 1999, she became one of Britain’s first two Green MEPs, representing the south-east of England. In her first term, she sat on the European parliament’s committees on transport and on industry, trade, research and energy. She was vice-president of the committee of inquiry into foot-and-mouth that reported in 2002 and acted as the rapporteur for the transport committee on the impact of aviation on the environment.
Since 2004, she has been a member of the parliament’s committees on international trade and on the environment, public health and food safety. She is also a member of its permanent delegation to Palestine. She is co-president of the cross-party group of MEPs on peace initiatives and vice-president of the groups on animal welfare and globalisation.
She has been one of the Green Party’s two ‘principal speakers’ since 2003.
She is a vice-president of both the RSPCA and the Stop the War Coalition and sits on the national council of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the advisory board of the thinktank the Centre for a Social Europe. She is an associate of the International Forum on Globalisation, a trustee of the Radiation Research Trust, a patron of the Joliba Trust and a ‘matron’ of the Women’s Environmental Network.
Her publications include Reforming World Trade (1994), The Euro, or A sustainable future for Britain (2000) with Colin Hines, Green Alternatives to Globalisation (2004) with the late Mike Woodin and the pamphlets ‘Stopping the Great Food Swap’ (2001) and ‘Taking the Cons Out of the Constitution’ (2005).
She has been married since 1991 and has two children.
Up-to-date as at 1 March 2005