Unlikely radical continues family tradition of 'doing the right thing'

GM crops trial: Environmental campaigners celebrate victory, but legal experts say similar protests may not be successful in court

Michael McCarthy,Environment Correspondent
Thursday 21 September 2000 00:00

It would be hard to imagine a man whose public life has more sharply diverged from his background than Peter Robert Henry Mond, 52, Fourth Baron Melchett and executive director of Greenpeace UK, cleared yesterday of criminal damage in leading a raid to destroy a field of genetically modified crops.

It would be hard to imagine a man whose public life has more sharply diverged from his background than Peter Robert Henry Mond, 52, Fourth Baron Melchett and executive director of Greenpeace UK, cleared yesterday of criminal damage in leading a raid to destroy a field of genetically modified crops.

On the one hand - with the background - all is privilege, all is Establishment. Hereditary peerage. Eton and Cambridge. Eight-hundred acre Norfolk estate. Great-grandfather, Sir Alfred Mond, founder of Britain's chemicals giant ICI. Father, Julian Melchett, the Third Baron, founder of British Steel. Mother, Sonia Melchett, perhaps the most celebrated London literary hostess of the past 50 years. (It was at her Chelsea salon that the broadcaster Anna Ford threw a glass of white wine over Jonathan Aitken in an Eighties row over breakfast television.)

On the other hand - with the man himself - all is radicalism. Socialist. Vegetarian. Trainee probation officer. Cannabis researcher. Reporter on pop festivals. Demonstrator at United States air bases. Non-marrier of the mother of his two children. Non-user of his title (he calls himself Peter Melchett, plain and simple). Three-year president of that scourge of the landed nobility, the Ramblers' Association. And for the past 11 years, Greenpeace boss.

For the first 10 of them, until the summer of 1999, Lord Melchett was a figure little-known by the public, a much admired and very popular Greenpeace leader but one who had neither attained nor wanted the high profile of his one-time counterpart at the head of Friends of the Earth (and fellow Etonian), Sir Jonathon Porritt.

All that changed in the rosy dawn of 26 July last year when Lord Melchett personally led a raid at Lyng, Norfolk, on six acres of maize genetically modified by the German agrochemicals company Aventis to be tolerant of one of its weedkillers, and being grown as part of the Government's farm-scale trials of GM crops.

The clash at Walnut Tree Farm between him and his 27 fellow activists, and the three enraged farmers whose maize it was, William Brigham and his brothers, Eddie and John, has become the stuff of legend. It could equally well be the stuff of Monty Python: the Brighams chased the white-overalled eco-warriors and their mower and their flat-bed truck around the field in tractors, ramming them several times until the boys in blue arrived and calmer tempers prevailed.

It was a classic Greenpeace "action", imaginative and eye-catching, right up there with the battle over the Brent Spar oil rig and hassling whaling ships, and the media loved it. They loved it even more when the beak refused his lordship bail and he was banged up in Norwich prison until a judge released him the following day.

Suddenly, everyone was focusing on this unusual man and his contradictions: socialist lord, green toff, anti-establishment member of the Establishment. He had been a decade in the background, and now he was the news. Why had he emerged?

The answer lies in the fact that Lord Melchett, despite his background, is not a New Labour champagne socialist, nor an aristocrat dabbling in eco-chic, but a real radical. Opposition to GM crops is something he feels very deeply, not least because the estate he inherited at Ringstead, near Hunstanton (about 20 miles from Mr Brigham's place at Lyng), he now farms organically.

GM crops are a threat to the very existence of organic agriculture because the possibility of long-distance pollen transfer means that it is very hard to guarantee that an organic crop is GM free if a GM site is anywhere in the vicinity.

This point was emphasised last year by a report commissioned by the Government from Europe's leading GM research institute, the John Innes Centre, and published just six weeks before the raid at Lyng. In essence, it said that it was impossible to guarantee that any foods grown in Britain could be GM free if GM crops were also grown here because of the huge distances pollen could travel.

That was the basis for the raid on Lyng, the Greenpeace activists say - to remove the maize before its flowering (which was imminent) and the consequent "genetic pollution" of other crops or countryside plants. It was the basis of their defence of "lawful excuse" for the damage which they freely admitted they had caused.

That, and his own local interest, caused Lord Melchett to lead the raid. "I am a farmer in Norfolk, and if I didn't do it myself it might have seemed that I was letting other people take action on my behalf," he said.

His radicalism cut short a promising political career which would probably have led to cabinet rank. Harold Wilson and James Callaghan brought him into their governments in the mid-seventies as a young Labour peer and he was a minister of state at the Northern Ireland Office at the age of 28, a post he held for three years. But in the Eighties the lure of direct action drew him away from conventional politics.

Why? There was no Damascene conversion. Lord Melchett himself points to his family's own tradition as business tycoons on the radical side. "Sir Alfred Mond was one of the first employers to give his workers paid holidays," he said. "He spoke out on many issues such as women's rights and Ireland." A family tradition of radicalism, then? He says: "More a family tradition of trying to do the right thing."

He seems in many ways an unlikely radical himself, cherubic-faced and curly-haired with a ready and very warm smile. He is measured and sane in debate and, unusually for someone who went to Eton, he does not sound like an Etonian. He sounds normal. But the Fourth Baron Melchett, rallyer of Britain's eco-warriors, is a long way from being ordinary.

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