It's not easy being green: Geoffrey Lean compares the continuing rise of environmental politics in Europe to its sorry demise in Britain

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The Independent Online
IN THE beginning was Hugh Hefner. Twenty-one years ago, squeezed between the bunnies, Playboy magazine carried a modern Jeremiah in the shape of Paul Ehrlich, a middle-aged American professor, announcing imminent doom. A Warwickshire solicitor called Tony Whittaker was inspired to go out and found Britain's Green Party, Europe's first.

This week Mr Whittaker will attend a party at Southport's appropriately named Floral Hall to celebrate the party's coming of age, during a conference which will launch a campaign to repeat its greatest triumph - the 2,295,695 votes it won, even surprising itself, in the 1989 European elections.

Few, even among its truest believers, expect that the party will do much to trouble the returning officers this time. Far from coming of age, the Green Party seems still trapped in adolescence - and may even perish there. Its membership, which topped 18,000 in the days of elderflower wine and organically mulched roses which followed its election success, has now sunk to little more than 5,000.

Yet elsewhere in Europe, it is different. Italian environmentalists are celebrating the first green mayor of Rome and expect to do well in the coming elections, in which Carlo Ripa di Meana, the former EC environment commissioner, will stand on their ticket. The German greens - who originally rose to prominence on the back of national outrage over the country's sick and polluted forests, but were written off after losing seats in the Bundestag four years ago - are threatening to replace the Free Democrats as the third force in German politics. And green parties in Belgium, Finland and Switzerland have been steadily increasing their representation.

But the party which gave birth to the European greens has failed to rouse what Robin Cook has called the 'slumbering giant of British political debate', despite a good record in council elections and jointly winning a parliamentary seat with Plaid Cymru in 1992. It helped bring about Margaret Thatcher's brief conversion to environmental causes but has since faded away to the political margins. During the last general election, if pollsters are to be believed, 2.5 million adults ranked the environment as one of the two or three issues that would decide their choice. But it featured little in the campaign, and the Green Party garnered only 171,000 votes. Eighteen months ago, Sara Parkin announced that she would not be standing for re-election as party chair because she had been 'forced to the conclusion that the Green Party has become a liability to green politics'.

What has gone wrong? The failure is partly to do with the Green Party's origins, partly with the nature of British politics. In the Playboy article, Professor Ehrlich predicted global famine and the breakdown of the Earth's life- support systems. He would, it appeared, be giving humanity two years to heed his jeremiad before concentrating on doing what he could for his family.

The party - originally called People and founded by Mr Whittaker, his wife Lesley and friends, through placing an advertisement in the Coventry Evening Telegraph - imbibed this spirit. Its first election manifesto was based on the almost equally gloomy Blueprint of Survival, edited by the redoubtable Teddy Goldsmith - brother of Sir James and editor of The Ecologist. He fought his father's old East Anglian constituency with the aid of a white witch as an election agent and a camel, lent by John Aspinall, to demonstrate soil erosion in Suffolk.

But, by the time of the party's launch, doomsterism was already being discredited. The greens' philosophy discouraged such environmental pressure groups as Friends of the Earth and the Council for the Protection of Rural England from lending support. When the party tried to arrange a meeting with the big pressure groups, so few accepted that it had to be cancelled. The mutual hostility remains. On the day after the huge European election vote, I contacted 10 leaders of top environmental pressure groups; only one had voted green and he was Jonathon Porritt, a former chair of the party.

The green share of the vote, 15 per cent, was the highest secured in any country but it failed to win a single seat because Britain, unlike the countries where the greens have prospered, does not have proportional representation. The German greens stormed into the Bundestag in 1983 with little more than one-third of this support. The voting system is the most important reason why the British party has done worse than its European sisters: it has never been able to translate the effort required into significant political influence.

The result was that, with some notable exceptions, the ablest, most pragmatic and most ambitious of those joining the growing environmental movement went to the pressure groups. The party remained absolutist and anarchic, rejecting both economic growth for the nation and rational organisation for itself.

A majority of the first group that gathered around the Whittakers opposed founding a political party: it split even before it was established. There was a bitter schism after little more than a year. Rows have peppered its history, almost all of them culminating in purges of those that sought to reform and organise the party and make it electorally attractive.

Just before the 1989 elections, Sara Parkin warned that 'the habits acquired after 15 years in the political twilight had left the party ill-prepared to handle any rapid growth that might come its way'.

She predicted that a breakthrough might be imminent. Margaret Thatcher, with her phenomenal instinct for, in Chris Patten's phrase, 'detecting the first stirrings of an issue in the loins of the Sun reader', sensed it, too. She underwent her 'conversion' in the autumn of 1988; when pundits explained that she was worried about a sharp rise in the green vote, nobody could understand why. But a Mori poll, shortly afterwards, showed that more than half of those likely to vote believed that environmental policies would be 'crucial' or 'very important' in determining their choice.

The vote, when it came, was artificially high - boosted by the unpopularity of the government, the collapse of the Alliance, the low turn-out, the high profile of green issues and the popularity of EC environmental policies.

Mrs Thatcher appointed three new ministers - headed by Chris Patten as environment secretary - and told them to get the environment off the agenda before the general election. The greens allowed them to do it, reverting to their internal squabbles. By 1992 their membership had dropped to half its peak. The slumbering giant had stirred, but in the end merely turned over in his sleep.

The arguments ended 18 months ago when Sara Parkin and most of her senior allies gave up, handing over control to the radicals, the New Agers and the sizeable group within the party who applauded the lunacies of David Icke, the former green spokesman who has announced that he is 'an aspect of the godhead'. Membership has continued to plunge.

In Germany, the opposite has happened. There the greens have had far greater impact, thanks to proportional representation. Even before they won their first seats in the Bundestag, their advance - coupled with the increasing damage being done to West German forests by pollution - had brought the government from the rearguard to the van of European environmental policy.

The German greens, too, have had quarrels between realists and fundamentalists: shortly before she died in October 1992, the brilliant, loquacious, infuriating Petra Kelly spoke of '11 years of internal fighting and intolerance'. But the shock of her violent death, following the greens' 1990 electoral rout (largely because they opposed German reunification) allowed the realists to take control. They share power in two Lander, Lower Saxony and Brandenburg, doubled their vote in Hamburg's city elections, and stand at about 10 per cent in the polls, with a general election due in October.

Much of the German success is built on local government, where they have more than 3,000 councillors. On a much smaller scale, this is also the British greens' greatest asset. They now have 300 district and parish councillors, working on local environmental concerns and regularly getting re-elected. A green, John Peck, held the balance of power on Nottingham City Council for three years, using his position to protect allotments and open countryside. The greens in Stroud, where they control the council, have increased the town's parkland, promoted energy conservation, and started a computerised barter service which has been imitated all over the country.

But only one force seems capable of bringing the greens back into national contention - the Government and its roads programme. The greens are closer than almost any other group to the young protesters obstructing the M11 link and other projects. If the Government presses ahead with its road programme it might provoke enough communities to stage a green revival. It would take considerable incompetence to outweigh the green's disorganisation, but there seems no one better qualified to supply it than the present set of transport ministers.

(Photograph omitted)