Interview with Caroline Lucas: Green shift

By Huw Spanner
April 18, 2010

Back in 2005, Huw Spanner interviewed the (now) Green Party of England and Wales leader, and Euro MEP, Caroline Lucas for the Christian culture and social comment magazine Third Way. Here are some substantial excerpts from that conversation - reproduced with kind acknowledgements. This series of interviews is intended to explore the person, beliefs and influences behind the public figure - rather than to be 'political' in the BBC Newsnight sense. The aim is to provide a fresh perspective on the subjects and their world views. More on Lucas here: We have recently republished Simon Barrow's interview with Nick Clegg - given his status as a "man in the news" right now. We'd love to publish interviews with Gordon Brown and David Cameron, too. But they have not yet said 'yes' to Third Way, and neither has SNP leader Alex Salmond.

What were the values that were instilled in you as a child? Would people who knew you then be sur­prised that you grew up to bec­ome a green pol­itician?

Yes, I think they probably would. I mean, the values I grew up with were those of right and wrong, in a very simple way, but discussions around the dinner table were never about anything you could real­ly feel passionate about - they were ab­out, you know, the weather or what we'd done today.

I found that very frustrat­ing and I think it was because I felt starved in that way that once I found people who did sit around dinner tables and really talk about the future of the earth and some of those bigger questions, it really excited me.

What sort of family did you come from?

My father was a small businessperson - he had a central-heating company - and my mother stayed at home and brought up three children.

And were they deeply into greenery themselves?

No, they weren't. They were very, very normal.

How did you become politicised?

In my teen­age years I met people who expanded my understanding enormous­ly and I moved from a fair­ly unquestioning Con­serv­atism, that just accepted the values of my parents and assumed that the only newspaper was the Daily Mail, to a recognition that there are lots of other ways of thinking. I was basic­ally travelling to the left, or to greenery if you like.

I think the two things that really woke me up to political reality were the Falklands War in 1982 and the whole issue of nuclear weapons. It was a growing awareness of some of these big threats, if you like, and of things that just seemed wrong that got me involved, in pressure groups first of all.

Which ones?

Well, CND and the Snowball Cam­paign [which got people to cut single strands of perimeter wire at airbases so as to get arrested and so help to clog up the courts]. I spent a lot of my stud­ent years on buses going up to Molesworth or Greenham Common.

Then in 1986 I read a book by Jonathon Porritt called Seeing Green and it was one of those books that completely change your life within the space of time it takes to read 250 pages.

You had a kind of conversion experience?

I did. Until then, I'd been interested in the women's movement and I'd been interested in the environment and I'd been very active in CND but I hadn't made the connections between these different things. What I discovered from Seeing Green was that all these things are connected. And that's one of the things that attracted me so strongly to green pol­itics, that it looks not just at the symptoms - at discrimination and environmental de­s­truct­ion and nuclear weapons - but at the under­lying set of val­ues or polit­ical priorities that lead to them. It was that that really excited me and made me put the book down and walk down the Clap­ham High Road to find the Green Party office.

You talked about 'travelling to the left, or to green­ery'. Do green and red sit next to each other on the political spectrum? Sometimes on [BBC TV] Ques­tion Time you sound like a bit of a utopian socialist.

I would say that green thought is an integrated phil­os­ophy on its own. More and more parties are in­terested in the en­vironment and so forth - which is fine - but what makes green politics different from Con­servatism and Lib­eralism and, indeed, utopian soc­ial­ism is the way it puts sustainability absolutely at the heart of everything.

Would you say that that is the single big idea behind everything that comes out of the Green Party?

I don't know if you could call it the single big idea, but the overwhelming principle that informs green thinking is that we have to live within the natural bounds of the planet. That is where it starts from, and that then takes you into social issues and so on. I think there are three things that pull the party to­gether: sustainability, social justice and peace.

Sustainability isn't just about bolting on some en­vir­onmental policies to an economic system that just carries on as usual. It's a radical critique of that system. It says: This system is fundamentally un­sus­­tainable, bec­ause it's based on a form of econom­ic growth that requires more and more throughput of natural res­ources, which is lead­ing to a massively un­sustainable way of life, not only in the North but increasingly in the South now as well.

Recognising that we live on a finite planet and can't have growth forever certainly has social as well as environmental consequences. I think that one of the strong­est arguments for the unsustainability of our own lifestyles is the immorality of telling poorer countries that they can't develop in the way we have while we carry on as before. So, yes, we've got to reduce the impact of our own patterns of prod­uction and consumption, but one reason for doing that is to give a bit more environmental space, if you like, to some poorer countries so that they can grow and have at least some of the technological development they need.

Where we share the ideas of socialism, I think, is in talking about how the economic system is in­equitable and fundamentally divisive. We don't nec­essarily talk about it in class terms, though personally I wouldn't have any problems with that. But I think what socialism in general hasn't really taken on board - individual soc­ialists are dif­ferent - is the way we need to change our lives so fundamentally.

It isn't only about energy efficiency or con­serv­at­ion, though it is about both those things. I think it's much more fundamentally about the goals of a national economy. At the minute, the goal of every ec­onomy (except possibly Bhutan) is es­s­entially to maximise economic growth in traditional terms of GNP. But everyone knows how flawed GNP is, be­cause it makes no distinction in what it is measuring. I mean, a huge oil slick can be great for GNP because it costs so much to clear up.

I want to get away from the idea that green politics is just about the environment. If you want to measure how environmentally sound a par­ty is, don't look at its environment policies, look at its economic policies. It's actually the form of ec­o­n­omy you have that dictates how environmental you are and how socially just, and the kind of lives people end up living. That's why we put so much stress on green economics.

A lot of people would just see green politics as the instincts of muesli-eaters and sandal-wearers...

I don't think they would say that any more. Not sitting this close to me they wouldn't!

Isn't it all about being kind and gentle and good?

I think that green politics is moral, because we care deeply ab­out our impact not only on other people in other parts of the world but also on fut­ure generations; but it's not a sort of hair-shirt moralism. It's based on some clear moral principles - and that is one of the things that attract me to it - but it's also ab­out looking after yourself. I think that what we do is redefine what 'looking after yourself' means.

In the current economic system, as GNP keeps going up and everyone keeps saying, 'Aren't we do­ing well?', the rates of isolation and in­security and depression and suicide are all go­ing up as well - and if you ask people, 'What kind of future do you en­visage for your children?'… I think that is a really in­teresting indicator. There is so much evidence that suggests that after a certain point more wealth does not lead to greater happiness.

What I want to see as the goal of national governments is people's well­being in a much broader sense. Ad­­opting green politics doesn't mean having to do with­out things and be forever worrying about how many resources you're using. It's actually saying: 'What do we need to be happy?'

We've got a society where everywhere there are adverts, adverts all the time, and all the time that consum­erist culture is bearing down on us and tell­ing us that we're inadequate unless we do this, that we haven't got enough unless we've got that, that we somehow become better people by buying more products. We've got to get away from all that. We don't need to be on this materialist juggernaut.

Does greenery have specifically spiritual roots?

If you define 'spiritual' in pretty broad terms, then yes, I think it does - both my politics and green politics generally, I think most people would say. But then they'd probably have a big row about exactly what they mean by 'spiritual'.


The rest of this interview can be read at:

Other interviews with 'high profile' political, cultural, social, scientific and (occasionally) religious figures in Third Way magazine are available at: Most require a subscription to view.

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