Leading Article: The main parties need a deeper shade of green

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The Independent Online
There is mayhem on the M42 and the usual suspects are paraded - motorists' love of their cars, the false sense of control and security imparted by a metal box 15mm thick, selfishness on wheels, the permanent British ability to be surprised by the inherently changeable weather patterns of these islands. It does not do to over-elaborate the causes of such accidents. Stupidity and ghoulishness account for a lot. But traffic incidents do not occur out of the blue. Understanding road use takes us, almost immediately, into discussing road building, the car culture, how it has affected the physical lay-out of town and country and the availability of public transport. These are all "environmental" policies.

Turn the pages of this newspaper: we are a nation beset with environmental concerns. The dry winter will lead to water and vegetable supply problems in the summer, with effects for business and leisure as well as the comfort of domestic life. The safe disposal of diseased carcasses seems too difficult for government to manage. Air quality is dangerously poor in some cities. Everywhere we are embroiled in arguments which are directly environmental, and others (rail privatisation, engagements with the World Trade Organisation) which affect our use of resources and our physical environment. Even fiscal wheezes such as the imposition of VAT on fuel show the interconnectedness of local and household decisions about consumption, with the bigger politics of scarcity and atmospheric degradation.

But if we have environmental scares and are sunk in environmental gloom, what we don't have much of is environmental politics. John Major and Tony Blair give ritualistic speeches, yes, but decisions by the wielders of power (or those who aspire to hold it) are not informed by any special or consistent environmental awareness.

In that, perhaps, they are not out of kilter with the public. Our worries about the planet, and these small green-and-concrete islands in particular, have not produced any sustained environmentalist pressure. The roads and animal rights demonstrators are tiny guerrilla bands in an ocean of apathy. Some ministers (notably John Gummer) make high-toned speeches of global import about how people should change their ways. But so far as the focus groups and the swing voters of Middle England go, they show little inclination so to do. Whether they live in Worcester or Basildon, people are - politically speaking - unconcerned with matters green.

The unveiling yesterday by the Green Party of its manifesto for the forthcoming election is unlikely to change that. They are a fringe diversion, a splintered electoral nothing. Compare Germany, where the Greens are a political presence, locally and nationally - there is even talk of their being the pivot of a new ruling coalition. In Britain, after that blip in Green Party performance in the 1989 European Parliament elections, they virtually disappeared. Greens hold a handful of council seats and, though they are contesting four-score parliamentary seats, their percentages are likely to be risible.

The reasons are not hard to find. Fringe political groups are centrifugal; the Greens have more than their share of fanatics and messiahs. We find fundamentalism no more attractive in green than any other colour. Ordinary British people do not take kindly to being lectured at by the self-declared possessors of virtue. And yes, the Greens do suffer from the unfair British electoral system (though on present numbers they would not necessarily pass the likely threshhold tests of most schemes for proportional representation).

Of course, the Greens may yet claim the future. Who knows ... perhaps after a Blair government has been in office for a term and enacted measures for constitutional change, the political landscape will open wide and through the fissures will come new movements. Perhaps, as some argue, the green political movement is comparable with, say, the Independent Labour Party of the 1890s, a sect developing advanced thoughts in isolation from the parliamentary mainstream only to come into its own within a decade. Greens have no solid social base like the trade unions, but the green rallying cry might be taken up by some social formation yet to cohere - young people always respond enthusiastically to opinion poll questions on the environment, and might in their thirties come to vote that way.

Meanwhile, the organisational weakness of the green tendency in Britain ought to be a source of regret. Single-issue parties tend to make bad governments but as candidates, ever threatening to succeed but never quite making it, they can be immensely valuable in keeping the mainstream parties thoughtful and honest. The task ahead is to fit environmental concern with other priorities: there is no point pretending people's wish for better incomes, more jobs and the enhanced economic growth on which they depend is somehow going to be dissipated in a green haze. So, for the time being, the best deliverers of environmental progress will be political parties with a broad social and policy base.

The question is how to prod and push them. The environmental utopianism personified by Swampy and his tunnelling and tree-climbing pals only goes so far. What we need is old-fashioned political leadership by MPs who are able to lift their sights, and by speaking well and often, lift our sights too. It is sad that the same environmental issues which cloud so many citizens' brows are barely discussed by their political leaders. It is a democratic failure. The job of Messrs Major, Blair, Ashdown and the rest is partly to challenge us, make us think harder, and ready us for the inconvenient, sometimes unpleasant, but essential changes to our lifestyles necessary for a better husbanding of our islands. And so across the globe. Only by billions of daily decisions to behave differently will the planet be saved.