Jonathon Porritt: A subtle transition from green to shades of grey

Paul Vallely@pvall
Thursday 16 January 2014 02:10

It seemed like a good idea at the time. After all, the environment must bring in some votes. So why not appoint the nation's most high-profile "green", Jonathon Porritt, to be the Prime Minister's chief environment adviser and give him a Sustainable Development Commission to chair. That should keep everyone happy.

You can hear the New Labour spin-doctor logic. But spin has a short-term perspective. Beyond tomorrow's helpful headline lurks the danger of a far less palatable one in the future. And so it was this week when, some two years after Porritt's appointment as chief eco-adviser, he used the post as a platform to launch a withering attack on Tony Blair's government on the eve of the Earth Summit in Johannesburg.

True, he tried to be balanced. Compared with previous UK governments, he said, this was the best on sustainable development, and among a handful across the globe which could report environmental progress since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio. Aid budgets had increased, debt relief had been tackled from the front, a levy on climate change had been introduced, as had a carbon emissions trading scheme, water quality had been improved, efforts had been made to transform the Common Agricultural Policy and an annual Quality of Life report had been instituted.

But Mr Blair was also prone to displaying a "naïve adulation" of the business world. On domestic transport and waste management, the performance has been "deeply flawed" and "deplorable". Elsewhere, thinking was "patchy, piecemeal, incremental and not done on a strategic level". From the top "there just hasn't been the level of quality leadership needed". Ouch.

Some will wonder what took him so long. Jonathon Porritt made his name with 25 years of uncompromising campaigning on environmental issues, which began when he was a teacher with the Inner London Education Authority in the mid-Seventies. In the early years he was an activist with the Ecology Party, the forerunner of the modern Greens, for which he stood repeatedly for election to local councils, the Commons and the European Parliament. He ended up as chairman of the party.

But eventually he lost patience with it. "He and other moderates failed to convert the party into something electable because of all the wild, woolly, bright greens in it who wouldn't compromise their purist 'no leaders here' idealism," said one insider from those days. Porritt became frustrated with the tendency of the party to level down all talent. "He wanted to make it effective in political terms." He made some enemies. "He was the David Owen of the environment movement," recalls one intimate from those days. "He was clever, handsome, a great speaker and, some would say, like Owen an arrogant man who became a politician without a party."

Most who know him insist that is unfair. "He could be abrasive in his younger days but not now," says another friend. "He still thinks like a teacher, but he can now take criticism with good humour. He has mellowed over the years."

Yet not too much. Porritt quit party activism in 1984 to become director of a little-known pressure group called Friends of the Earth. "He thought he'd do it for three years and then go back to teaching," says one friend. But over the six years which followed Porritt transformed it into one of the most powerful lobbying and research organisations in the country. Under his leadership, its number of supporters rose from 12,700 to 226,300. With it rose his personal profile.

But then in 1996 he left – to set up a charity called Forum for the Future, which aims to persuade individual businesses to improve their environmental performance. Since then some in the green movement feel his influence has diminished. "He's not as important as he once was," says one leading environmental writer. "Once he was the top green in the country, really on the cutting edge. Nowadays – despite all the TV appearances and journalism – you're not really sure what he does."

If so, it is because Porritt has undergone a remarkable and rather admirable transformation. Certainly the radicalness of his views has not shifted much. His attack on the Government shows that. But if his radical edge is undulled, his strategy has shifted significantly. "After 20 years of being against things, he decided that he wanted to do something positive," said one close friend. "An important part of his personality had been sidelined by his campaigning. It was the part that wanted to celebrate the good things in modern life. There was something about that relentlessly negative campaigning which had affected him spiritually. He needed to change."

What had motivated his campaigning was a powerful sense that beneath today's ecological crisis lies a crisis of the human spirit. "As we have degraded the Earth so, caught up in a frenzy of suicidal consumerism, we corrupted our souls," Porritt once wrote. What was needed was some kind of spiritual renaissance to address the crisis.

It is this underlying eco-spirituality which explains his affinity with Prince Charles, to whom he is an official adviser. (They also share a social background: Porritt is an old Etonian whose father was surgeon to Charles's grandfather, King George VI).

"The prince is much more radical than anyone in the Government on issues like globalisation, food and trade, and genetic modification," commented one insider. "Jonathon is not a personal friend of Prince Charles, but he is a close adviser and their exchanges are philosophical and values-led as well as scientific and business focused."

It is that combination of values and economic realism which undergirds Porritt's Forum for the Future project. There has been, he feels, a real change in the policies and performance of dozens of global companies since the Rio Summit 10 years ago. "To deny the importance of that contribution is dishonest," he has said. It is also highly damaging to the radically different approach which is needed to save the environment through what he calls a "cross-sectoral partnership" between governments, councils, the voluntary sector and the business community.

But engaging with industry is a messy undertaking. "It is an extremely difficult enterprise, staying true to the business of 'speaking truth to power' and yet finding constructive opportunities to move things forward," says one of Porritt's closest colleagues. Forum for the Future works with individual companies "on training, capacity building and on specific projects", which means that Porritt "very often finds himself quite torn about whether certain organisations are appropriate partners" or whether they are just using him for a bit of PR. "In the end it's a risk you have to take," says the colleague. "But he's had to change the way he works. Providing good stories to the media is now secondary."

Porritt's old world was one of black and white certainties. Now, he realises – as he has recently written – that "in fact, it's almost all grey out there." This new approach of positive complexity is what he has taken into the Government's new Sustainable Development Commission. "We see ourselves very much action-oriented – the very last thing we want to do is to spend our time preparing reports recommending action by others," he wrote a year after taking the Blair shilling. "Instead, we want to do things ourselves – working alongside policy makers, business leaders, and others whose actions can make a real difference to sustainable development, helping and encouraging them to move in the right direction."

The tension of working with business is paralleled by the ambiguity in his relationship with the Government. He felt, he has earlier said, "some inevitable nervousness about the Commission's dual remit of acting both as adviser to the Government and as auditor of its performance". That unease has grown over the past six months.

Porritt is known to feel that the Commission has had some success in shaping a working model of a "diverse, sustainable and competitive" food and farming industry for the UK with Sir Don Curry's Commission on Food and Farming, which is due to report by November. But the reason he went public with his criticisms before this week's Earth Summit was an increasing sense of frustration that the Government was taking little notice of the advice he was giving it in private.

"The environment has got a low order of priority for New Labour," said one of the 15 members of Porritt's Commission. "It has no real purchase. There is no senior level buy-in from No 10 or the Chancellor. Porritt's access to Margaret Beckett [the Environment Secretary] isn't bad, but he doesn't get to see the PM anywhere enough. It's always 'Yeh, yeh, yeh, don't bother me now, my mind's on more important things'."

For Porritt, politicians' inability to distinguish between what's really important and what's just immediate is not the only problem. Sustainable development is not yet a central concern for this Government. It's compartmentalised and left to Michael Meacher, the junior Environment minister who fought hard for the Commission to be independent and have as strong-minded a chairman as Porritt. "Meacher's good, but he's too low down the political food chain," said one insider. "What's needed is for the Government to build sustainable development into all its economic, environmental and social goals."

"Governments have never taken the lead on these issues," says Porritt in an article for The Independent's special Earth Summit supplement today. "They've always had to be dragged, kicking and whining, into belated and half-hearted measures that never quite get on top of things."

Whether by saying such things publicly Jonathon Porritt has blown his chance of getting the private ear of Tony Blair ever again remains to be seen. Porritt, one suspects, thinks it's a risk that must be taken.

Going against the global grain, Earth Summit supplement, page 5

Life story

Born: 6 July 1950, in London

Family: Eldest son of Kathleen Mary Peck and the Olympic bronze medallist and surgeon to King George VI, Sir Arthur Espie Porritt GCMG, GCVO, CBE. Succeeded to the baronetcy in 1994 but does not use the title. He and his wife Sarah, whom he married in 1986, have two daughters

Education: Eton;
Magdalen College, Oxford (First in Modern Languages)

Career: Comprehensive school teacher (English and Drama) 1975-84 in London. Stood as a candidate for the Ecology Party (now the Green Party) in the 1977 local elections, and in 1979, 1983 and 1984 general and European elections. Chair of the Ecology Party 1979-1980 and again in 1982-1984. Director of Friends of the Earth, 1984-90. Director of the Government's Sustainable Develop-ment Commission since July 2000

Books: Seeing Green (1984); Coming of the Greens (1988)
Where on Earth are We Going (1990)
Save the Earth (1991)
Playing Safe: Science and the Environment (2000)

They say: "Jonathon has been one of the most prominent voices promoting green issues over the last 25 years" – Tony Blair

He says: Government thinking on the environment is "patchy and piecemeal"

"The naive adulation of New Labour for big business is bizarre. It's demeaning and bad for democracy"

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