was elected co-leader of the Green Party of England and Wales in 2016. Until then, he was best known as the co-director (and founder) of the radical Christian thinktank Ekklesia.
Huw Spanner met him in Lambeth Town Hall on 30 January 2020.
Photography: Andrew Firth
You were quite a latecomer to national politics, after many years as an activist and commentator. Have you found that you have to be more guarded than in the past?
At first, no one really cared what I said, but when in 2016 I asked Caroline [Lucas1Interviewed for High Profile in February 2005] to run for the co-leadership with me, she took a big gamble because we didn’t know each other very well. She put a lot of faith in me and I think I was probably more worried about letting her down than anything else.
I’m naturally a very open person. I just feel more comfortable if people know exactly who I am and what I think – if anything, I’m a bit too candid.
When did you realise that your head is now well above the parapet?
I’d often talked, on TV and radio, about having [once] killed someone in a car accident2bit.ly/3dg10Kp – I think I talked about it on The Big Questions [on BBC1]. But when I talked about it on Talkradio for the first time as leader, [the station] put out a press release and suddenly it becomes a national news story. I think that was the first time that it kind of hit home that if there was anything that could be seized upon, it would be seized upon.
Some people like to quote Jesus’ line ‘The truth shall set you free.’3‘Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free’ (John 8:32, NIV) There isn’t much evidence, is there, that honesty is the best policy in British politics.
I think people want honesty. Maybe they saw a refreshing honesty in Jeremy Corbyn originally, when he was elected leader [of the Labour Party]. I think a bit of disillusionment set in when people realised that he had to play the game like everyone else.
I have a natural distrust of government – [people] do whatever they can to hold on to power through deceit. Maybe it’s more out in the open now in this country than it has been
I think it’s less that the truth will set you free and more that the truth will hold people to account. I think it can change whole debates and agendas when you’re able to speak truth to power – in theological terms, when you’re able to expose the idols of the system.
I’ve always worn a white poppy [around Remembrance Sunday]. When you start to pick apart the way we do remembrance in this country, the glib phrases like ‘They did not die in vain’ – well, of course many people died in vain, in both world wars. ‘They laid down their lives for our freedom’ – my uncle was a Spitfire pilot, my dad was at Normandy and then in the Far East and they knew that a lot of people were shit-scared and would rather have been anywhere else. When you start to tell the truth about these things, people can feel threatened and you often get a violent reaction.
It’s the same when you start to talk about the humanity of refugees, which has been one of my passions for the last three years. One of the first things I did [as co-leader] was go to Calais and spend time in ‘the Jungle’ before it was destroyed. I’ve been back several times since. To me, it’s a scandal that we had a refugee camp 26 miles from our coast, and millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money funding the police to keep them out.
Haven’t the last four years demonstrated that the truth is actually quite ineffectual?
The last 4,000 years of history have demonstrated that! You know, I have a natural distrust of the state and government, and those that fill those positions do whatever they can to hold on to power through deceit. Have we seen an obvious example of it in this country recently? Yes – but there are plenty of other places in the world where it’s a lot worse and is institutionalised.
Maybe it’s more out in the open now in this country than it has been. The hatred that was unleashed in the days after the  referendum…
Did that come as a shock to you?
I think we’ve always known that it was there, haven’t we? I remember as a kid going to football matches at Crystal Palace and the racist chanting that went on and no one batted an eyelid. In a sense things have become more visible now.
Let’s talk about your upbringing. Your father was 20 years older than your mother, so in a way you were brought up by two generations at once.
It was a very traditional upbringing. They got married when my mum was 21 and she was expected to give up work because that’s the way things were done. For 10 years before I came along, she was just doing community stuff.
Were you the eldest child?
I was the only one.
Were you a ‘little emperor’?
My mum’s dad was quite a gambling man – he put an accumulator on the horses and won eight races in a row. I love risk, and that, I think, comes down my mum’s side
It was not like that at all! We didn’t have a lot of money – my dad had been a doctor in the NHS all his life and even when he retired, at the top of his profession, he was earning only £30,000 a year. We never took holidays anywhere. All my clothes were secondhand. The one car we had was a rusty old Austin Maxi that we just ran into the ground.
I was quite lonely as an only child. My best mate was a guy called Edward who lived next door, who was a year older than me. We did everything together. And then he went off to boarding school at the age of eight or nine and I never saw him that much again. It was like losing a brother.
I went to Dulwich College and I really hated it. My passion was playing the drums and they didn’t really do any of that stuff. I was always a year [ahead] and it was not fun – playing rugby, everyone else is a year bigger and a year stronger and a year faster. I struggled all the way through. My parents always kind of regretted sending me there.
Was it a Christian household?
Yeah. My dad was more traditional evangelical; my mum was very Charismatic.4Charismatic Christianity emphasises the activity of the Holy Spirit, especially as expressed in ‘spiritual gifts’ and ‘signs and wonders’, and looks for tangible experience of God. My mum is very emotional, she feels a lot – which is a wonderful quality. They were both ‘converted’ through the Billy Graham ‘crusades’ around the time they were engaged.
You’re descended on your mother’s side from the early prison reformer Elizabeth Fry, and your uncle, the fighter pilot, was married to the actress Deborah Kerr.5bit.ly/3ddCr0x Did that bestow a sense of glamour on your family?
No – though it was fascinating to hear all the stories. My father’s side were originally Irish farmers, but my grandfather ended up as a magistrate in the British Raj and was knighted. I have an aunt who is over 100 years old, who was one of the code-breakers at Bletchley Park.
My mum’s dad was quite a gambling man and he put an accumulator on the horses and [won] eight races in a row and that paid for the education of my mum and her sister and brother. But then he was a name at Lloyd’s and there was a massive shipping disaster and he lost the house and everything.
So, there’s a kind of gambling [streak in me]. I love risk, and that, I think, comes down my mum’s side – my dad was very cautious.
What sort of values did they instil into you?
This will give you an idea of what my dad was like. He told me a story [that once] someone was being deported back to America for selling nuclear secrets. He got ill on the plane and they had to make an emergency landing in London and he was taken to Brixton Prison. My dad was the doctor on call and was asked to certify whether this guy was fit enough to fly.
I would have said, ‘No, he’s not’ whatever condition he was in, because he was going back to face certain death on charges of treason. But my dad told me: ‘Of course, I did the right thing. He was perfectly fit to fly and I sent him on his way.’
To me, there’s a difference between telling the truth and being compassionate, which is the embodiment of the truth.
Was he not conflicted about it?
No, not at all! He would always ‘do the right thing’ – [although he was also an] immensely compassionate man.
He had a huge sense of personal responsibility. When I was about eight, I nicked a bottle of his red wine and got totally pissed on it, and when he found out he started pouring all his wine away. He said: ‘We can’t have any alcohol in the house if my son is going to drink it.’
You said recently: ‘I didn’t behave that well as a young person … I was quite wild as a teen.’6bit.ly/2yscHPh
I was. Looking back, there were a few times when I might have ended up in prison.
It started quite young. I’ll tell you the younger stuff, as it doesn’t seem so bad. So, I got drunk when I was eight and I was smoking at that age as well, and playing with fireworks.
Were you rebelling against your parents’ respectability?
I think it was rebellion. It’s like Marlon Brando – you know: ‘What are you rebelling against?’ ‘What have you got?’7In The Wild One That’s what it felt like to me. I don’t know why, I just wanted to push boundaries and, I guess, explore.
You’ve mentioned the fact that when you were 17 you killed a young man who stepped in front of your car late at night. In that case, you were not driving recklessly, were you? You were completely exonerated.
I was, yeah. There was an inquest and a verdict of accidental death was returned. He’d been drinking and he kind of wandered out into the road. I didn’t see him until the last minute.
You have described it as ‘the single event that has had the greatest impact on my life’. How did it change you?
It changed me hugely. I still think about it all the time – every now and again it kind of catches you off-guard when you don’t expect it. Whenever I see a road traffic accident, it comes flooding back.
How did it affect you at the time?
I woke up the next morning feeling that I was responsible for killing someone and that I deserved to forfeit my own life – that was the only way I could see of ever trying to make it right. My mum took me to see [our vicar] and he laid it on the line – words to the effect that ‘whatever you’ve done, Jesus has paid the price and so you don’t have to forfeit your life.’ It made sense to me [at the time] and in that moment I felt a weight lift off my shoulders – it was the most powerful thing.
Now, I’ve reflected on this and was it healthy? Did it allow me to work through all the underlying issues that I needed to work through, or did it just deal with the [sense of] guilt at that point? I don’t know. I have [problems with] penal substitution8The idea that when he was crucified, Jesus in effect ‘took the punishment’ for all the sins the human race had committed or would commit in future. as a theology; but I can’t deny what happened in that moment, so it’s an interesting paradox for me.
Were you a Christian in those days?
I always thought of myself as a Christian growing up – and I had a number of conversion experiences. I went on these Easter camps run by the Officers’ Christian Union and, you know, you go on a camp and you feel guilty for not living the way you have been told you should and you rededicate your life [to God] and you sincerely mean it! It was a pretty common experience for people my age who grew up in evangelical families.
Why did you choose to read social policy at university?
Growing up as an evangelical, everything had been ‘biblically based’. Suddenly, I realised that I could hold different views – non-violence, gay equality – and reconcile them with my faith. I felt liberated
Honestly? I said I struggled at school. I’d applied to do accountancy and finance at Manchester or Lancaster; I needed two Bs and a C and I totally cocked up my A-levels and got two Cs and a D. I worked in the City for four months to earn a bit of money, which allowed me to then play the drums for a year – I did big gigs all round London, played all the venues. Then, I travelled for a year with [the Christian mission agency Youth With a Mission].
And then, I think more to keep my dad happy than anything else, I looked at a list of universities and said: ‘Right, London School of Economics, I’ve heard of that one. What can I get in to do with CCD?’ And I saw this course, Social Policy, and I thought: ‘That looks interesting. I’ll give it a go.’ And, literally, that was it.
And I loved it. I particularly loved the political theory. I had a natural affinity with the anarchists – I loved Tolstoy…
We need to backtrack here. You’ve said that by the time you completed YWAM’s ‘discipleship training course’ you were ‘rabidly capitalist and pro capital punishment’.9bit.ly/2yufpUD
I was 18 years old then. We were out evangelising in Thailand, Malaysia, India, Nepal. We were based in Hawaii, which I loved – I loved the sun, I loved the sea, I loved the women. I had so much fun! But I think I felt obliged to take on the worldview that prevailed at the time, which was very much anti-abortion, pro-free-market, right-wing Republican Christianity. It makes me shudder now to think of it!
In your second year at the LSE, you did another, very different theological course, run by the Anvil Trust,10workshop.org.uk/circle/anvil-trust and, you said later, ‘it transformed not just my outlook on life, but the way I lived it.’
Yep. It revolutionised the way [I thought]. Imagine, you come [back from] America with these views and you start a course in social policy at the LSE, which is a left-wing institution, and suddenly everything is challenged. And all the time I’m working through my faith. It was a massive journey.
Growing up as an evangelical, everything had been ‘biblically based’. Suddenly, I realised that I could hold different views – non-violence, gay equality – and reconcile them with my faith. I felt liberated.
Those were not values your upbringing had instilled in you…
No, no, Dad was not a pacifist. I was smacked as a kid.
That ‘massive journey’ led you to Anabaptism. Can you explain what that means?
To me, it’s taking Jesus pretty much at face value, when he talks about loving your enemies,11See Matthew 5:43–46. turning the other cheek…12See Matthew 5:38–40 (but see also www.ekklesia.co.uk). It has a big focus on the way that you live rather than doctrinal statements. A big distrust of the alliance [between] Christianity and power that [began] with Constantine in the fourth century and [continued] within Christendom for the next seventeen hundred years.
How did you work out which of all these conflicting values and beliefs were really yours? And what was their source?
That’s a really interesting question. I’ve honestly never stopped to think about it.
Ten, 15 years ago, I could have told you: ‘This is what I think. This is what I believe. This is why.’ Now, I’ve found out more about the world. I’m more open to questions. I don’t know
I think I’ve just gone on gut. (Over the years, my faith has become much less an intellectual exercise and much more a gut thing for me.) Ultimately, I guess it comes down to faith and belief in love and compassion. ‘Love your neighbour as you love yourself’ has become my guiding principle.
Before, it was always ‘Love your neighbour’ with caveats. There was a very strict moral code. I guess that [now] my understanding of what love should be is much more libertarian: If you love someone, you set them free.
[The morality I grew up with was] like a wall: pull out one brick and the whole edifice comes tumbling down. And I was, like, pulling out bricks and it was tumbling down and I was trying to [put bricks back] and it wasn’t the same wall at the end of it. Maybe it’s a different structure completely now. Maybe it isn’t a structure, I don’t know.
I think if you ever become entrenched in your views, that’s a really dangerous place to be. I hope I’m always learning, always changing, always willing to see things that are new.
Do you still look in the Bible for answers?
I don’t look at Bible verses and think: This is how I should live. You can pick and mix verses to justify pretty much any position that you like – you know, the Bible appears to endorse polygamy!
It’s more [about the] values of Jesus. The bottom line is who you think God is, and the character of God, and who you think Jesus is, and the character of Jesus. It comes down to which Jesus you follow.
But people follow the Jesus who suits them.
They do. And I don’t recognise the Jesus that some people profess to follow. It’s just a different person.
How do you know that the Jesus you follow is the real one and not just the one that suits you?
I don’t. I don’t. I can only go on what I believe, and it’s a matter of faith. We all ‘see through a glass darkly’.131 Corinthians 13:12 (There’s a Bible verse out of context, probably!)
If we’d had this conversation 10, 15 years ago, I could have given you: ‘This is what I think. This is what I believe. This is why.’ Now, I’m like: I know so much less than I did five years ago. I’ve found out more about the world. I’m more open to questions. I don’t know.
Let’s go back to what we do know. Environmental campaigners have often been accused of exaggeration, sometimes justifiably.14See, eg, bit.ly/35zd5YG. What is your feeling about the importance of telling the truth – the whole truth and nothing but the truth?
Up until two years ago the general consensus among environmental NGOs and, indeed, green-minded politicians was not to tell the truth about the climate emergency. The feeling [was] that if you tell people exactly how bad things are and how much change has to happen, you’re not going to bring anyone with you. Everyone will throw their hands up in the air and [say,] ‘There’s nothing we can do. It’s too big!’ And they’ll become apathetic and no action will be taken.
Do I believe that we’ve got 10 years to complete what we need to do to avoid absolute disaster? Yes, I do. I absolutely believe it, completely
Greta Thunberg just blew this up and said: ‘The house is on fire. We need to tell the truth.’15bit.ly/2KZewG9 And one of Extinction Rebellion’s three [demands] is to tell the truth.16https://rebellion.earth In an age when we [are told] more lies than ever, people haven’t been told the truth [about the environmental crisis] until now – and now they are being told it. That’s a very distinct political shift, and I think it needed to happen.
What is your own personal sense of what we are facing?
Do I genuinely believe that we’ve got 10 years to complete what we need to do and make the transformation to avoid absolute disaster? Yes, I do. I absolutely believe it, completely.
One of the big challenges of my job is to give people hope, because everything looks really shit. I feel like I’ve got to summon up every day the hope that people need more than anything else right now – and I don’t always know where to find it.
I’m not just talking about the climate, I’m talking about the environment, society, what the new landscape means for public spending and the support the state provides over the next 10, 20 years. And just the way things are, the toxicity in the debate. I feel very worn down by it.
I’m most fearful for my son, who’s about to turn 18, who’s got cerebral palsy and spina bifida. I worry what’s going to happen when I and [his mother] are gone. Will he ever get a job? Will he ever find something meaningful to do with his time? I don’t know. The comfort is that he’s got two sisters, one older, one younger, who are absolutely lovely and will support and care for him. But the immediate future is enough to concentrate my mind right now.
You first came to national notice in 2010 when you argued with David Cameron over his party’s policy on special-needs provision in schools.17See wikipedia.org. Mr Cameron, too, has a severely disabled son. Can you understand how someone like him could have a similar experience to you and yet be a Conservative?
So, you don’t feel that your experience has pushed you inexorably towards the left?
I mean, it has, but I can understand how you’d have a different view. You know, I’ve got friends in all political parties – one of my mates was until recently a Cabinet minister.
What the Conservatives have done is, in my view, hugely, hugely wrong. They have been responsible for misery, responsible for [many] deaths – the refugee children we haven’t let into this country who have died, the people who have died as a result of austerity, the suicides from benefit sanctions. But are they themselves evil people? Most of them, no. Genuinely, I know these people and many of them have gone into public life for the right reasons, because they wanted to make the world a better place.
And that [understanding] is really lacking in our politics right now, because it’s too easy just to demonise others and not engage [with them]. If as a country we are going to heal our divisions, we have to stop seeing everyone that we disagree with as an evil bastard.
Do you see the environmental crisis as a spiritual crisis?
My instinctive reaction is probably that it’s part of a spiritual crisis. The solutions need to be political, but I think spirituality runs through everything, politics included. I think we are failing to flourish spiritually, right across the board, and it impacts us in every way – we have environmental destruction, rampant inequality, a mental-health epidemic. What the hell is going on? You know, we need a different set of values. We need to reprioritise.
There’s a huge lack of awareness about our world and about each other. I grew up in a culture where thinking about your own feelings was somehow selfish – my grandma always told me: ‘Never talk about yourself’ – but over the last few years I’ve been doing some therapy, I have given myself permission to do personal development and I’ve benefited from it hugely, I think. (It’s probably part of my political journey as well.)
I try to meditate, and I know that I’m a hell of a lot better off when I do. I’m trying to learn mindfulness. Someone has said that being green is ‘not an “issue”, it’s a way of being’18bit.ly/3c6gikE and that really, really resonated with me.
How do you relate to the natural world?
I don’t see it as something separate. Again, I’ve been on a journey in terms of my response to it over the last few years – I was staggered to learn of a study that found that if you are in hospital, your recovery is faster if you can see trees than if you can’t.19See science.sciencemag.org. I didn’t believe it at first.
I see [now] that everything in the natural world is interdependent and we are very much part of it. I see life running through absolutely everything.
Have you found any conflicts between your Christian principles and the Green Party agenda?
I genuinely feel that the Green Party agenda is the outworking of my faith. When I read the party’s policies for the first time, they were really beautiful to me – you know, that sense of radical inclusion, of embracing everyone, of everyone having a place, so that if you’re disabled, if you’re vulnerable, you know that you aren’t just someone to be cared for and just someone who has rights, but you have something to give, you’ve got something to benefit everyone, from our diversity, our difference and learning from one another, those values that put people back at the centre.
I find Kate Raworth’s [‘doughnut’] economics beautiful.20www.kateraworth.com/about That to me is a kind of spiritual economics.
Can you think of any Green Party policy that is to the right of where Labour stood under Jeremy Corbyn?
I’m struggling to think of one. I don’t know if we proposed in our  manifesto to nationalise quite as much stuff, simply because we couldn’t find the money. We were actually proposing to raise much more money than Labour were, but I think we were spending it on other things.
The origins of your party – in the People Party and then the Ecology Party – were hardly left-wing, and yet the Green Party today is on the radical left. Does that seem to you necessary? I mean, does it arise inevitably out of fundamental environmental principles?
Well, the first thing to say is, I think the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ are increasingly irrelevant, when they relate to a system that is dying and on its knees. There used to be a saying in the Green Party: ‘Not left nor right, but forward.’
‘Grow, grow, grow’ means a massive consumption of resources and quite widespread environmental destruction. The alternative is [to] redistribute the wealth that we [already] have. It’s a cliché that social justice and environmental justice are two sides of the same coin, but I can’t see how you get to where we need to be without a massive redistribution of wealth.
[ + ]
|1.||⇑||Interviewed for High Profile in February 2005|
|3.||⇑||‘Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free’ (John 8:32, NIV)|
|4.||⇑||Charismatic Christianity emphasises the activity of the Holy Spirit, especially as expressed in ‘spiritual gifts’ and ‘signs and wonders’, and looks for tangible experience of God.|
|7.||⇑||In The Wild One|
|8.||⇑||The idea that when he was crucified, Jesus in effect ‘took the punishment’ for all the sins the human race had committed or would commit in future.|
|11.||⇑||See Matthew 5:43–46.|
|12.||⇑||See Matthew 5:38–40 (but see also www.ekklesia.co.uk).|
|13.||⇑||1 Corinthians 13:12|
|14.||⇑||See, eg, bit.ly/35zd5YG.|
Jonathan Bartley was born in London in 1971 and was educated at Dulwich College. He left school at 17 to play the drums semi-professionally, and then spent a year with Youth with a Mission, first at its University of the Nations in Hawaii and then in ‘outreach’ in South-East Asia. He returned to Britain to read social policy at the London School of Economics, from which he graduated in 1994.
He worked at the Palace of Westminster as a researcher and assistant to MPs and peers of different parties, which included running the all-party parliamentary group on Central Asia. In 1995, he volunteered on John Major’s campaign team when the then Prime Minister contested the leadership of the Conservative Party with John Redwood.
He was appointed general secretary of the Movement for Christian Democracy in 1997, and then from 2000 to 2001 was editor of the new web portal xalt.co.uk, which aimed to ‘both entertain and inform the Christian community’.
In 2002, he founded Ekklesia, a not-for-profit news agency and policy forum whose website soon became one of the most visited religious sites in the country. He was its director until 2016 – from 2005 (after the Independent listed Ekklesia among Britain’s ‘top 20 think tanks’) sharing that role with Simon Barrow.
In 2008, he helped to set up the Accord Coalition, which works to end religious discrimination and segregation in the English and Welsh school systems. From 2010 to 2017, he was a director of the Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education.
He joined the Green Party in 2010. Later that year, he was made vice-chair of the official cross-party Yes to Fairer Votes campaign for the referendum on electoral reform held the following year. He subsequently served as vice-chair of the Electoral Reform Society.
In 2012, he stood as the Greens’ paper (or ‘non-target’) candidate for Lambeth and Southwark in the London Assembly elections, and won 11.5% of the votes cast. He was also employed as the party’s press officer for the concurrent mayoral campaign.
In 2014, he narrowly failed to win a seat on Lambeth Council. Later in the year, he began speaking for the party on work and pensions. He was the paper candidate for Streatham in the 2015 general election and increased the party’s share of the local vote fivefold.
He sought the nomination to be the Green Party’s candidate in the 2016 London mayoral election, but was defeated by Siân Berry. Later that year, he was elected as national co-leader of the party with Caroline Lucas, but he did not run for Parliament in 2017.
In 2018, he won a seat on Lambeth Council, on which he became leader of both the Greens and the official opposition. He was later re-elected as national co-leader of the party with Siân Berry.
In the 2019 general election, he stood for the Green Party/Unite to Remain in Dulwich and West Norwood, where he pipped the Conservative candidate to come second.
He is the author of The Subversive Manifesto: Lifting the lid on God’s political agenda (2004) and Faith and Politics after Christendom: The church as a movement for anarchy (2006), and co-author with Lucy Bartley of Your Child and the Internet (2004); and with Simon Barrow co-edited Consuming Passion: Why the killing of Jesus really matters (2005).
He is a regular contributor to BBC1’s The Big Questions. He has ‘thought for the day’ on BBC Radio 4’s Today, contributed to ITV’s The Moral of the Story and been a guest on Radio 4’s The Moral Maze. He has been a columnist for Third Way and the Church Times and has written for the Guardian.
He is the drummer with the British blues-rock band The Mustangs, who played the Glastonbury Festival in 2017. Their 11th album of original material, Watertown, was released in 2019.
He married in 1997 but is now divorced. He has three children.
Up-to-date as at 1 May 2020