“They have fine ideals, they’re just very naïve.” So remarks a resident of Brighton & Hove about the Greens, the party running the local council. Even a cursory glance at how the authority has been managed since 2011 when the Greens took office reveals a great deal to support this view. They doubled parking charges in the city centre – but this did not discourage the use of cars, as hoped: instead, residents parked for shorter periods and hence did less shopping, to the detriment of local businesses. They declared the city a ‘Frack Free Zone’, a nice gesture which hopefully made many town residents and Green supporters very happy – but this is somewhat risible given no shale gas is actually present under Brighton. Establishing an ‘eco camp’ for the promotion of alternative lifestyles was similarly laudable – until it became a haven for alcoholics and drug addicts, and had to be closed at the taxpayer’s expense.
What appears to be a blend of high principles and ill-judgement extends to the party’s leader, Natalie Bennett. She is now well known for a series of (let’s be generous) faux pas. Most memorably, there was her excruciating interview on LBC, when it emerged that she had no idea how a Green government would implement her party’s plan to build 500,000 new homes. Earlier that month she suggested on the BBC’s Daily Politics that it should not be a criminal offense for British citizens to join ISIS and before that asserted to the Economist that it was better to be poor in India than in Britain because at least in the former, “everyone else there is poor, too”.
The end result is that political pundits – and the broader public – have branded the Greens an idealistic, but impractical, political movement. According to this logic, they are unsuited to Government because the purity of their views, and their unabashed desire to prescribe them, means they lack the prudentialism and tacitism necessary to be practically effective national administrators.
Yet such a depiction in some ways makes the party appear better than it is: it loans the Greens a nobility which sets them above the morally grey work of current UK governance. It suggests that in a morally more enlightened world, where people were less cynical about putting aspirational ideas into practice, the Greens would be the natural party of government. Hence, it is indicative of the fallen state of politics – where a party’s fitness to govern is judged on the performance of its leader in a seven minute radio interview – not the Greens that they are not as such.
Such a view is bunkum. It rests on the hypothesis that a party’s competency in government is always inversely proportional to its moral sincerity and ideological cogency. Yes, there is some truth to this, but the prevailing wisdom that because the Greens fare poorly on the former they must, by necessity, do better on the latter than the major parties is false. In reality, the Greens manage to combine managerial incompetence with moral weakness and ideological amnesia.
For one, the Greens are just as capable of being economical with their principles for the sake of popularity as any other party. During the Scottish referendum, the Scottish Greens (a constitutionally separate entity to the English Greens) were the only Holyrood party campaigning with the SNP for independence. Anyone living south of the border, however, could be forgiven for not noticing this because the English Greens kept very quiet on the issue. The leadership recognised the groundswell of pro-Union sentiment that swept across England in the final months of the campaign. They feared the popular backlash of being perceived as the only English party in favour of ‘breaking up the United Kingdom’, as the separatist cause has become known down-south. Torn between supporting the separatist aspirations of the Scottish Greens and English opinion polls showing how unpopular the separatist cause had become, team Bennett created a shallow fudge. If pressed, the party line was that it was a matter for the Scottish Green Party as it was a Scottish issue; as such, the English Green Party took no visible stance. The result was that while the other main party leaders were voicing, and prescribing, their opinion on the biggest constitutional issue the United Kingdom had faced in three hundred years, Natalie Bennett, and the rest of the English Greens, cowered silently behind a technicality.
The party has quite notably employed a similar tactic on foreign affairs and defence. While it’s fairly common knowledge that the Green Party support nuclear disarmament – a position shared by the SNP and many within the Labour and Liberal Democrat Party – it is less recognised that the party seeks a withdrawal from NATO, a position shared by no one of note except Respect’s George Galloway. Yet unlike Mr Galloway who (admirably or shamelessly, depending on your view of the man) hawks his rather niche view on the matter, the Green Party’s leadership is again taciturn. Russian aggression is testing many western powers’ commitment to the collective defence articles of the treaty, and many foreign policy experts advocate some sort of UN-backed NATO presence (stopping short of boots on the ground) in the Middle East to stem the Islamic State’s growth, the future of the alliance is a very hot topic.
An opportune time, then, for the Greens to make known their unique stance on the issue. So why the silence? Because the party’s leadership are savvy enough to realise that any talk of leaving NATO would alarm an electorate increasingly concerned by a volatile world and seeking the security of a collective defence organisation too big and strong to be attacked. However, the Greens will not change their stance.
Besides alerting people to what their previous stance was, embarrassingly, such a move would also upset the hard left, the biggest part of the membership, on whom the leadership rely to do the bulk of their campaigning. The only option, therefore, is to talk about the issue as little as possible. The same is true for a whole host of other Green policies which diverge widely from the mainstream of public opinion: from abolishing private schools to republicanism, their stance is not one of a principled yet naïve determination to fight consensus, but rather one of silence and changing subject to areas where they have more traction, such as a Citizens’ Income (although they are silent about how they would fund this £280 billion idea). Sound familiar? It’s what the other, supposedly more cynical, mainstream parties are doing constantly.
But there is actually a more fundamental reason why the Greens are not the principled movement they appear. To be truly principled, one’s values must be coherent. Contrary to popular belief, the Green’s values are not. Essentially, the Green Party has three divergent ideological strands: communal and social libertarianism (e.g., decriminalisation of drugs; local direct democracy), state socialism (e.g., a Citizens’ Income; housing and green energy building programmes) and environmentalism. Each strand conflicts with the other two. The communal/social libertarianism clashes with state socialism because in advocating that as much power as possible should be devolved to communities so they can decide, democratically, what’s best for them, the central government is inevitably weakened in its ability to implement its vision across the country. For example, the socialist Green state government might demand that all local government employees be paid the minimum wage. However, the communally libertarian Green local council will only take such an action if the people of the locality ratify it in a referendum. If the referendum returns a negative response, the state is stymied in its aims.
State socialism and environmentalism are no more compatible. Socialism’s purported telos is economic empowerment for all; this manifests itself in ideals such as full employment, universally decent pay/pensions/welfare and housing for all. The ultimate aim of environmentalism is a society that lives in total accordance with nature, although most 21st century environmentalists would accept simply a society that has virtually no harmful greenhouse gas emissions and assiduously preserves the eco-system. A Green government is therefore faced with a series of dilemmas: does it close down the heavily polluting textiles factory and so risk leaving thousands of people unemployed? Does it build thousands of new homes and create more units of pollution while damaging local eco-systems in the process? Greens will always attempt some form of tightrope-walking parsimony to illustrate that for each case there is a supposedly happy middle-ground, but the reality is economic empowerment and environmental conservation (of all types) are normally mutually exclusive: to achieve the former (until scientific advances provide us with an alternative) we exploit resources that undermine the latter.
Even communal/social libertarianism and environmentalism are unhappy bedfellows. As a social libertarian it is my right not just to have any relationship and gender status I feel best matches my identity (an area Greens are very prominent on), but to orientate my whole life to my choosing, so long as I do not directly and tangibly harm the liberty of another individual. Therefore, would a Green government be allowed to stop me living the wasteful and polluting life I wish to lead? Moreover, what if the libertarian commune in which I live votes overwhelmingly to act against the principles of environmentalism for short-term material gain? Yes, these are thought-experiments, but they illustrate the fact that the Greens have not fully considered the ramifications of theit various ideological strands. Each is a distinct system whose interests very rarely converge with the others, but very frequently diverge.
A Green future?
So why have the Greens not become more ideologically coherent? Surely if they were the noble utopians many believe them to be, they would clarify which utopia it is exactly they wish to create for us? They have no intention of changing because the current ad hoc fusion of different value systems fulfils their short-term aim: increasing their vote share. Riding three ideological horses allows Natalie Bennett & co. three messages to fire at three different groups of people: she can attract support from disaffected Liberal Democrat voters with talk of local direct democracy and communitarianism, while wooing students with the more social side of the libertarian ideology (e.g., decriminalisation of drugs; general moral relativism); the state socialist pitch appeals to the hard left disenchanted with a Labour Party that keep ceding ground to economic neo-liberalism; the environmentalist line has some resonance with students but primarily exists to placate what many Green insiders call the ‘grey beards’ – the vanguard vote that helped the party achieve popular lift-off during the eighties.
The Green leadership calculates that keeping this motley coalition together until the election will at least keep their only Green MP, and former leader, Caroline Lucas, safe, and potentially garner another seat. It is identical to the shallow ideological positioning and re-positioning done by the other major parties, just on a slightly smaller scale. The party, therefore, has no intention of attaining ideological purity and cogency of any kind; to do so would suggest they are visionary and virtuous enough to clearly perceive a societal telos they wish to direct the country towards. They don’t. Instead, like every other modern party, the Greens simply want to do better at the next election than the last. And if that means having a range of values that they insincerely hop between, while engaging in the cognitive dissonance that they are somehow complimentary, they don’t care.
As a nation, we patronise our Green Party. We never let it near any meaningful governance, yet permit it a series of little victories and treat its missteps with an indulgent smile (for example, the media forgave Natalie Bennett for her 7 minute train wreck on LBC quicker than they did Ed Balls forgetting the surname of a single business liaison in the Labour Party), secure in the knowledge that, while completely unready for executive office (cf. Brighton Council) they are a refreshingly principled, sincere and ideologically committed organisation. In reality, the party is as Machiavellian as the rest. We just don’t notice it because we don’t suspect it, and because we adopt the linear view that because the Greens are awful civic administrators, they must have a naivety, and therefore moral goodness, that extends to their political operations. This belies a failure to distinguish between being naïve office-holders, which the Greens certainly are, and naïve office-seekers, which the Greens no longer are.
In treating the Green Party with such leniency, we excuse it the need to reform and mature, as happened with Labour and the Conservatives after 1992 and 2005, respectively. What really suffers, therefore, is the cause the Greens propose to champion above all: environmentalism. When Natalie Bennett addressed The Wilberforce Society on nuclear power at the Cambridge Union two years ago, she spoke with knowledge and clarity and, through a series of measured arguments, managed to convince a crowd of sceptical Cambridge students that nuclear power was not a long-term, carbon neutral answer to the UK’s energy problem. Her speech was in many ways tragic, because for those thirty minutes, she encapsulated what the Green Party could and should be – a reasoned force that aims to show how a modern market economy and environmental welfare can go together with a bit of inventive thought. But, for the foreseeable future, it never will be that, because most of us haven’t acknowledged just how poor our Green movement actually is.