Labour, the Tories, and the natural world 


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Neither of the leading political parties in Britain has proper respect for the natural world, or anything like. Indeed, says Colin Tudge, both are a million miles from what’s needed  

The first thing we should ask of any political party and would-be government is that it should state its Goal.  What are they – or indeed we, people at large – trying to achieve and why? What is their — or our — vision? What kind of world are we trying to create? What do we really think matters? Or as the Cambridge literary critic F R Leavis put the matter in The Great Tradition  in 1948: 

“What for — what ultimately for? What, ultimately, do we live by?” 

And I have suggested – no doubt pretentiously, but everyone in a democracy has a right to their opinion — that the task for all humanity should be to create: 

“Convivial societies, with personal fulfilment, within a flourishing biosphere”.

All three are essential, and all are interdependent, like the legs of a tripod. If any one of the three desiderata is deficient, then the whole structure is compromised. 

But no government or would-be government that I know of does spell out its Goal. Elections are won and lost on slogans: “Make America great again”; “Take back control”; etc. Manifestoes are wish-lists, statements of intent, with little or no discussion of the underlying ideals or principles or attitudes. And with the possible exception of the Greens, no party that will fight Britain’s pending general election apparently has any conception of the need to achieve a balance between the needs and demands of individuals, and of society as a whole, and of the natural world. 

The Tories in particular have managed in their 14 years in office to achieve what the Canadian economist J K Galbraith called “private wealth and public squalor”. Labour can’t make up its mind where it stands. So it is that Mick Lynch, leader of The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) has suggested that Labour leader Keir Starmer is really just “a Tory with a different coloured rosette”, while others within the party equate Corbyn with Stalin and live in mortal dread of any perceived drift to the Left. Both the main parties emphasise the need for economic “growth” or indeed as Liz Truss bawled at us as she flitted through Downing Street, for “Growth, growth, growth!”Both the main parties emphasise their big-business friendliness. Neither is suggesting that we should seek to create a more egalitarian economy, which must include taxing the rich. 

What is clear, however — all too abundantly — is that (with the possible exception of the Greens) no political party in Britain has proper respect for the biosphere – the natural world. The attitude of the two leading parties is a million miles from what’s needed. 

The modern Tories’ record is a disgrace. The degradation of Britain’s seas and lakes and rivers in the interest of shareholders’ profits is wicked. Tougher legislation more assiduously enforced would certainly help but the neglect and wanton spoliation of our green and pleasant land and its waterways is beyond mere crime. It is a sin: a crime against God, or the cosmos. 

As for Labour: in 2021 Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves promised to be the UK’s “first green chancellor”. At least, she said, a Labour government would spend £28 billion a year on green technologies including the manufacture of batteries, hydrogen power, offshore wind, tree planting, flood defences and home insulation. 

But would-be PM Keir Starmer then reduced that pledge to an “ambition”. Rachel Reeves now tells us that we must get the economy straight first, and reduce debt, before we go squandering good specie on projects to save the natural world. And on February 8 2024 Sir Keir withdrew his party’s pledge altogether – and so rescinded on what that supreme mangler of language and mixer of metaphors Rishi Sunak memorably called a “flagship plank” in Labour’s strategy. Ed Miliband, shadow Secretary of State for Energy Security, though known as a man of principle, supported his leader’s decision. “We’re going to invest in the green economy, and we’re going to do so in a way that is fiscally responsible”, he said. The laws of physics that tell us that the world is overheating, and why, and the galloping mass extinction that is all too obviously upon us, will be held in suspension while the future Labour government, if such there will be, gets its act together. Or so Sir Keir, and Rachel, and Ed, seem to imagine. 

Thus for both the big parties, it seems, the natural world is just an add-on, a luxury to be attended to when we can afford luxuries, which will be some time in the future. Perhaps. Of course, the Green Party has a far more enlightened attitude towards the natural world but the Greens will count themselves lucky if they return one or two MPs, out of the 650 seats on offer. In short, the Greens do take the natural world seriously but have no real hope of power, while the two parties that are most likely to take the reins seem to have no deep interest in our fellow creatures and the fabric of the Earth or even in the long-term future of humankind. Instead, in accord with the neoliberal Zeitgeist, both are obsessed with the perceived need to maximize short-term wealth. This obsession, in turn, leads to the production of more and more stuff, generally in partnership with some transnational corporate, most of it designed not to enhance our lives and protect our fellow creatures but to make as much money as possible for whoever controls the means of production and the marketing. And despite the vogue for re-cycling and the commendable drive for green energy, all of it in the end is at the expense of the natural world. So we are invited to choose between vision without power (the Greens) or power without vision (the mainstream). Not exactly encouraging. 

In truth, if we seriously care about the natural world then we need to cultivate a quite different attitude towards it; a shift not just in policy that can be reversed as convenient but in mindset. The western world, rooted even in these secular times in Christianity, seems to have taken its lead from Genesis 1:26 which in the King James translation tells us that God gave us: 

“… dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth”. 

This suggests that the natural world was made for our express benefit and that we therefore have a God-given right to treat the Earth and our fellow creatures as a “resource” which in the neoliberal world can and indeed should be given a cash value and assessed accordingly. To be sure, others have suggested that “dominion” really means “stewardship” – that we have a duty of care. But stewardship still implies “us” and “them”, and that we are superior beings, to whom the rest are beholden.

What we really need is the sense of oneness: the feeling that all living creatures including us are part of a whole – part of what James Lovelock (and the great Alexander von Humboldt in the early 19th century) called “Gaia”.  The Eastern religions in general – Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Shinto – all embrace this concept. So, too, does the African tradition of ubuntu. Christianity, on the whole, does not. Indeed in the eyes of some traditional Christians, to regard our fellow creatures as equals, and ourselves as part of a larger whole, smacks of paganism, which they see as blasphemy. Many a vicar has preached and some perhaps still do that God put us on this Earth to finish His work. Tidy up the loose ends. Turn His pristine Eden into a theme park. Many have suggested that at least one Christian saint, Francis of Assisi, did have a sense of oneness. But according at least to the British scholar Roger D Sorrell, in St Francis of Assisi and Nature (1988), Francis’s attitude to our fellow creatures was chivalric rather than Buddhist. He was of his time and social status and was steeped in the chivalric sense of noblesse oblige. He preached to the birds, but he saw them not as siblings but as wards and pupils. (He talked of “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon” but I can find no trace of “Brother Horse” or “Sister Oak”. I would, however, be very happy to be corrected on this.)  

Labour has abandoned its “flagship plank” because, as Sir Keir and his shadow Chancellor assure us, we just don’t have £28 billion to spare. In truth, though, there’s an easy way to raise it.  Above all we must tap into the wealth of the super-rich. In many societies the natural world is sacred. But in modern, secular, neoliberal Britain, the only thing that’s sacrosanct is the incomes of the rich and in particular of the super-rich. More on this later. 

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2 responses to “Labour, the Tories, and the natural world ”

  1. Mary Franklin avatar
    Mary Franklin

    As Secretary of my local Green Party, I’m pleased to see that when commenting on the blindness of most of UK politics towards the need to balance the demands of individuals, society as a whole, and the natural world, “like the legs of a tripod”, Colin makes an exception (even if only a “possible exception”) of the Green Party. He also talks of the need for vision in politics and government.

    I would like to point out that the Green Party has always built policy around its vision of the interdependence of social and natural flourishing. The first sentence of the mission statement in its Political Programme reads “A system based on inequality and exploitation is threatening the future of our planet.” The whole Green Party policy recognises that we can only heal the natural world and human society in conjunction with each other.

    Thus, for example, a country’s economy cannot flourish until its rivers and soils also do. Similarly, people are not able to care for their environment while suffering abject poverty. So a key Green objective is the more egalitarian economy that Colin would like to see, to be achieved through a universal basic income and through taxing the richest 1% of the population.

    And on a note of optimism, although Colin is right to say that the Green Party has no hope yet of power at a national level, the UK now has a great many Green councillors who are all working their socks off to introduce measures locally to replace polluting car traffic with public transport and “active travel”, support food banks and shelters for the homeless, clean up rivers, introduce licensing of rental landlords, encourage organic growers and other initiatives for biodiversity, and a thousand other things that demonstrate the joined-up thinking we need. Small steps so far, but how does every journey begin?

  2. Richard Bergson avatar
    Richard Bergson

    With such a centralised political structure in this country it can be easy to conclude that we have no agency or influence on the major parties. Corporations and the global drive for profit have ensnared nearly all governments and rendered them in turn bereft of much apparent agency (or desire) on the world stage to steer a counter course. But on the question of our own agency I would venture to suggest we have more power than we might think. I have come across multiple groups and individuals with potential influence who have very similar outlooks and lobby for at least one or more elements of the 3 legged stool. What I don’t see is the banding together of all these groups and individuals who would constitute a large proportion of the population.

    What I do see is an authoritarian right that has already made great strides in gathering together those of a similar persuasion both in this country and abroad and who may well be in a much better position to take advantage of a vacuum in power when the population realises that neither of the main parties is going to tackle the most important issue to most people – a living wage. The broadly left wing leaning supporters of meaningful climate change also tend to support greater equality and a more devolved political structure but seem more interested in defining the differences in detail between their view and others broadly in the same camp rather than acknowledging these differences and seeking a greater solidarity.

    So at this level there is much work to be done to make the connections, bury the hatchet and demonstrate the efficacy of a pluralist and more democratic approach.

    Locally, we can bring practical demonstrations of regenerative growing practices, the rebuilding and conservation of our countryside and towns’ green spaces, community support for those struggling – not necessarily through financial support – and meaningful consultation with and empowerment of local people. Nothing converts people like showing them and then supporting them to do it. We are lucky to have a Green controlled council which supports this approach but local politics is a different beast to Westminster and most councils are relatively pragmatic and can often be persuaded to assist on the back of Net Zero policies that all councils have and the kudos of having helped fund popular local activities.

    Both a national and a local approach is needed to build a vocal consensus that will boost support for the Green Party, convince other parties that this approach is electorally advantageous or spawn a new party that will carry this consensus into political reality.

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