Tony Blair - Green at heart?
by Geoffrey Levy for The Evening Standard (London) 6March 2001
This morning the Prime Minister is trying yet again to convince us he is Green at heart. Georffrey Lean says that fine words are not enough.: "I hope you mean it this time".
Tony Blair is seeking to convince us that he has been converted to environmentalism. It is the third time in five years that he has professed to have seen the green light. But we are still waiting for proof that he means it.
The distinguished audience listening to the Prime Minister this morning at Chatham House could be forgiven for having taken along a few pinches of organically harvested sea salt. For we have heard it twice before. And the unspun truth remains that he has yet to deliver on his promise, before the last election, to enshrine green issues "at the heart of government". Worse, time and again over the past four years, he has himself been the main obstruction to the greening of his administration.
As a result, he and his ministers have been repeatedly caught out by environmental issues - whether it be the countryside, hunting, GM crops, transport, fuel prices or this winter's floods. These have - in the irreverent words of Charles Secrett, executive director of Friends of the Earth - shown a unique ability "to bite this Government on the bum".
Now, senior ministers confirm, foot-and-mouth disease has already forced Mr Blair to abandon his preferred polling plan, to call an election for 5 April - immediately after tomorrow's Budget. They add that he has given himself until the end of this week to decide whether the epidemic makes a 3 May election impossible too. It is the final irony. A Government obsessed for the past four years with how it will win another term is having its plans ruined by the kind of countryside crisis it has so often done its best to ignore.
Certainly the Prime Minister was in a thoughtful mood when he met environmentalists and businessmen privately in Downing Street last Thursday. The collapse of agriculture, the floods and new predictions - by the official Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - that global warming may take place twice as fast as previously predicted showed, he said, that we were suffering the consequences of neglecting environmental issues in the past.
Top advisers say that the penny really has dropped now. Maybe they are right: there are indeed some signs that Mr Blair has finally got the point. But we have a right to be sceptical. For they said the same last time, and the time before. Naively, I believed it the first time, when a previously uninterested Leader of the Opposition made his inaugural green speech five years ago, almost to the day, at the Royal Society. It was the coda that convinced me.
After an address of impeccably green sentiments, he put down his notes and adopted his informal "trust me" tone. "This," he said, "will not be, as some of you may think or suspect, simply a one-off speech given once and then not followed up. It will be followed up with commitment in opposition. Much more important than that, if we are elected, it will be delivered upon in government."
It sounded good, but it didn't happen. It was a "one-off" speech: he didn't give another green address until last October, four-and-a-half years later. He showed precious little commitment in opposition, and the last election manifesto was virtually bereft of environmental proposals.
Though he promised, in the same speech, that green issues would not be "pigeonholed" with environment ministers, that is precisely what occurred. Indeed, when new initiatives have fluttered out of the department, he has often personally shot them down. Mr Blair emasculated Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott's radical policies for persuading people to switch from their cars to public transport. And though ministers promised after the election that road-building would be "the last resort", he has now forced through a massive construction programme.
He reneged on a commitment to reexamine the dangerous and outdated practice of nuclear reprocessing and has consistently opposed environment ministers' attempts to clean up Sellafield. He held up the right-to-roam plans for months, but initiated the illiberal (and environmentally irrelevant) drive to ban hunting. And he has been the Government's chief cheerleader for GM foods.
Worst of all, his Government betrayed the country and its own policies over fuel prices. Only yesterday, an authoritative report showed that the high cost of petrol reduces traffic growth. But long before last autumn's fuel protests, ministers abandoned the automatic increases in the tax on fuel introduced by the Conservatives. Perhaps not surprisingly, he and his ministers made no attempt to make the strong environmental case for high fuel prices when the protests did occur. It was around that time that another speech was supposed to signal a much- hyped second green conversion.
"It is time to reawaken the environmental challenge as part of the core of British and environmental politics," he began. But the speech produced no Government action, and little seemed to change. And it did not stop cuts in petrol prices to appease the protesters. Now here we go again, it seems. But maybe this time it will be different. For the record is not entirely black. Mr Blair has done well in the international negotiations on global warming, giving vital backing to his excellent team of the Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, and his Environment Minister, Michael Meacher.
He has bravely appointed the outspoken Jonathon Porritt as his main green adviser. And at last summer's G8 summit he persuaded his fellow leaders to stop using illegally felled tropical rainforest timber and to launch an important initiative on promoting renewable energy in the Third World.
WHILE he had to be pushed into his first two speeches, he proposed this one himself, to stress importance of Britain's leadership in environmental issues. Does he mean it this time? There is one good sign. He is expected to announce, either in this speech or soon afterwards, a oe 100 million boost for renewable energy such as solar power and offshore wind. This would go some way to fulfilling another stalled election promise.
I propose two further tests. First, will he be big enough to acknowledge that Mr Meacher - never a personal or political soul-mate - personifies that leadership at home and abroad, and retain (or promote) him after the election? Second, will he use his emerging relationship with President Bush to persuade him constructively to join the international negotiations on global warming that he has consistently opposed? Don't hold your breath. But maybe, just maybe, it will prove to be third time lucky.
Geoffrey Lean is environment editor of The Independent on Sunday.