Celebrating Caroline Lucas

Earlier this month I went to an evening event to mark the achievements of Caroline Lucas, organised by the Green Alliance. It was held in the Southbank Centre, and it was packed with 400 people. Here I’d like to share what I took home as the main messages.

It felt like the end of an era, a time when there was certainty that we had one politician who would speak out about the big environmental issues. As she prepares to leave her seat open to the winds of fate, there was a tangible nervousness in the room, and an unease that we haven’t all been appreciative enough of her lone voice. Her commitment came at a cost:

I saw so much of Parliamentary time over the last 14 years dominated – or more accurately, wasted - on the most reactionary, regressive and sometimes downright immoral of policies. As political landscapes go – it is a fearsome one to have to try to navigate – let alone try to change. And all the more so as the lone Green MP – just me and my small team trying to understand how this most arcane of places even works. Without a whip, having to understand what each vote is about and needing to make an informed, evidence-based decision every time. The days – and nights – have been long – and challenging. And I won’t deny that at times – this job has been, frankly, exhausting.

She knew a single, female voice in a loud, bullying, male, Eton-dominated, adversarial system, would mean her contribution might easily be lost in the noise. She knew from the start that profound, concrete change was not possible:

I started out with all the way back in 2010 – to change the subject that was being talked about, to change the style and the rules of the politics, and to start at least to change the system – and to assess how far we have – or, in some cases, haven’t come.

There can be no real change without breaking down the old system. Politics is broken, designed to support the few, not the many. If you haven’t listened to Caroline on The Rest is Politics podcast, it is well worth it, both she and Rory Stewart came to the same conclusion, the way parliament works is damaging to democracy.

A photo of Caroline Lucas standing on stage giving a speech

The speech was a powerful call to arms. The green movement everywhere must be louder and braver and build on the success that has been achieved and take it further, even if that means being unpopular. It is true that compared to when David Cameron described the environment movement as “green crap”, the conversation has shifted a long way, but not far or quickly enough. She feels we all must stand up, be more radical, find new stories to tell and then tell them with passionate confidence. And the next few years are crucial.

The conversation has changed for good - the environment is a core, mainstream political issue, inextricably linked to social and economic issues. Climate deniers are no longer regularly given slots in the media. Climate and nature cannot be dismissed any longer. So why, you might wonder, does polling for the wildlife trusts, out just last week, find that most people think the main parties aren’t showing anything like sufficient leadership? Partly perhaps because while we changed the subject on climate, we had less success on other environmental issues. If everyone in the world consumed natural resources at the same rate as the UK, three planets would be needed to supply them and absorb the waste. And yet resource use is too often only whispered by the environmental movement in conversations with power for fear of being shut out or sounding too radical. We know that if our strategy is to always meet the conversation where it’s at, we’ll fail.

As I stand here, 14 years on from when I was first elected to Westminster, at the same time as recognising all we have achieved together, I am also disappointed we did not do more to change the rules of politics. That, with a few honourable exceptions, our movement all too often still chooses to play by them. To focus on small incremental wins and defending against back-sliding rather than the overall direction of travel. To value having a seat round the table over speaking truth to power. To overlook radical analysis of the interconnected nature of challenges we face in favour of short-term fixes. To keep a distance from rebels and rule-breakers and instead to play it safe. Friends, I believe the current political rules are an obstacle to securing a liveable future. And that until the rule book is torn up, we must all be alert to the possibility that, rather than being the agents for real change to which we aspire, we are in fact colluding in maintaining the status quo.

…we’re still allowing one narrative to dominate political discourse: Namely, that our prosperity is defined not by our health and wellbeing, or that of the environment around us, but by the unending quest for GDP growth and corporate power. It has become an overriding, all-consuming, all-destroying national obsession of British politics. So in the name of productivity and prosperity, fossil fuel companies are still allowed to keep pumping planet-wrecking oil and gas. Water companies are still allowed to dump sewage in our rivers. Developers are allowed to destroy irreplaceable habitats. Farmers are allowed to use lethal pesticides that destroy our wildlife. And they call it progress. And it will never change unless we dismantle that corrosive mentality that sets economic expansion as the goal above all goals. And it will never change until we find much more compelling stories of who we are as a nation – of who we could be and what’s really important to us. And that weighs most heavily of all on me. Because I think the answer is so clearly that we haven’t changed the system or the power structures yet.

She ended on what I believe is the main driver of all change – giving hope. Hope is what I have tried to give and what Curlew Action is about. Even a little hope incites courage, said Samuel Johnson, and it is courage we need now.

And hope is what I want to close with. It’s where I began this journey too and has been my constant companion. None of us really know what makes change happen. In truth, it’s not one thing or another. Not one organisation or one campaign. It’s the cumulative impact of a multitude of positive actions, courage, ambition, determination, blood, sweat and tears.

But it’s always hope that shoves us out the door.

During the interview after the speech, Caroline highlighted the GCSE in Natural History as one of the things she was most proud of achieving. Tangible wins are hard to get; she is more used to what we do - shift the dial and encourage game-changing conversations with everyone involved. But the GCSE did get through the system, even though its future is not entirely certain at this moment.

I was very touched and moved by her public affirmation of the campaign and how it has spurred her to stay involved and work with me/us to ever greater milestones in making nature part of the national conversation.

My questions were: Can we continue to push the GCSE through? Can we to go further to A Level, to degrees in Natural History and to make nature education part of the working landscape? Will she continue what we started? The answer was a resounding yes.

Read more blog posts by Mary on the GCSE in Natural History and nature connection:

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