The Liberal roots of the Green Party


I have always been interested in green politics. I even bought Lord Beaumont’s GO (Green/Orange) pamphlets – before he defected to the Green Party and stopped publishing them.

In some ways, thinking back over what some would class as my ‘career’, I have always found myself divded between the world of Westminster politics (I stood as a Lib Dem parliamentary candidate in 2001) and the wackier, more enlightened world of greenery (I worked at the New Economics Foundation for three decades).

I believed then – and I still believe – that they both have a great deal to learn from each other.

I know there are links between the two. Jonathon Porritt and some of those who started the Green Party – previously the Ecology Party, previously Eco, and previously PEOPLE – cut their teeth as Liberals. Paul Ekins became a Lib Dem.

My great-grandmother, who held me at my christening, but I’m afraid I don’t remember – who always carried a copy of Liberal News in her handbag – spent the 1950s campaigning on strontium-90 from nuclear testing. (You can read more about the role strontium-90 played in radicalising people against atmospheric testing in my new book Oppenheimer: A world destroyed).

When I was first living in Oxford, my cousin Penelope Newsome was involved with the Oxford Ecology Movement which eventually merged with the Greens.

So I have thought about the links between Greenery and Liberalism a great deal. Perhaps if I had become politically aware later, I might not have done perhaps. But the Liberal MPs were holding the government to a parliamentary vote on expanding the Windscale nuclear reprocessing plant in 1978, the same year that their assembly passed their motion that endless economic growth, “as conventionally measured, is neither achievable nor desirable”.

So I didn’t, and that division has carried on through my life – so I have been involved in launching two new thinktanks in recent years. One is the respectably radical centrist Radix Big Tent (see you in York!), and the other includes refugees from the great days at NEF, and is called New Weather.

Why am I talking about this? Because my local town voted Green this time. Steyning now has two Green councillors – just as Horsham district voted overwhelmingly Lib Dem.

I had hoped for some kind of Lib Dem-Green coalition to run Horsham. But in this case, the Lib Dem majority is now too big. They are in the same position Blair was with Ashdown in 1997.

But I don’t just want to reunify my own life. I am horribly aware of how much groupthink and conservatism can undermine new Lib Dem administrations – I saw it over and over again during the 1990s, in Aberdeenshire, Sheffield, Tunbridge Wells and Bromley.

These mostly began with disagreements involving felling mature trees to make way for agreed developments, when the administration would close ranks to back their compromise. Having Greens inside a coalition would make that much less likely to happen.

Unfortunately, I fear the groupthink is already too powerful.   

Ever since the Green Party was formed in 1972 as PEOPLE, it has attracted Liberal radicals. It is in some ways their radical fringe. The Tories and Labour have struggled to involve their own radical fringes – and, for the Lib Dems, this is theirs.

There is already bitterness and resentment on both sides, and – if they carry on fighting each other – that can only get worse.

The problem of course is the gap between Green activists and voters. They have always been led by a cadre of highly effective, motivated, and usually rather beautiful activists. But their membership has more than a whiff of misanthropy about it. The same cynicism that G K Chesterton discerned among socialists.

Many are definitely not liberals – hence their election slogan ‘For the greater good’, which could have been used throughout history to justify any number of abuses.

Their main activist base is Left, when their main voter base is Right. They have even more difficulties with that than the Lib Dems do.

And the main seats which have nay chance of swinging Green is the university seats which used to provide such a focus for the Lib Dems.

In 1988, the former Young Liberal chair Felix Dodds launched a series of ‘Green Voice’ meetings between people like me from the Liberals and leading Greens. It failed, in the end, to lead to any kind of re-unification – mainly because, the following year, they unexpectedly won 15 per cent in the Euro-elections.

But by the end, I remember one of the Greens saying that felt – having talked to us in depth – that the only real difference betwen us was that we were more prepared to compromise and to rank our objectives according to their priority.

I thought to myself: wait until you rre running a local authority and then we can talk again… (and they are now doing to in Suffolk)…

Because the roots of environmentalism are the threat to human freedom, it seems to me – from pollution, motor fumes, or global warming. Or of course radioactive Strontium-90.

That is why I hate it when I see my Liberal friends embracing a kind of politically correct scepticism about the threat from compulsory vaccination, or 5G phones – simply because that might be what Trump supporters might say.

People who are concerned that governments would lie to them about such things if they could are Liberals in the European sense of the word – although they might not be American liberals.

So this is a plea for Greens and Lib Dems to work more closely together, now and in the future – and especially if they live in or near Horsham.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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