Book Review – The Green Book: New Directions For Liberals in Government
I’ve been a member of the UK’s third political party, the Liberal Democrats, for the best part of a decade – and an elected Councillor here in Newcastle for most of that time (full disclosure!). When I first joined, the party seemed so far from power that its earnest and sometimes fiery debates on policy seemed somewhat quaint, but the 2010 General Election changed everything.
With no clear majority for either the incumbent Labour Party or the opposition Conservatives, the decision to go into coalition with the latter, on the grounds they got more of the vote than anyone else, sent shockwaves through the party, the ‘Westminster bubble’ and the electorate. Suddenly what the Lib Dems did or said meant something – for better or worse.
The central thrust of this new tome, The Green Book, is that the party should focus on its strong reputation on environmental issues to define the next stage in its history. The editors make the case on three grounds:
- Moral: many environmental pressures are now hitting critical levels and the time for action is now;
- Economic: a green economy could rescue the UK economy from its current torpor;
- Political: as the Conservatives’ initial ambition for ‘the greenest Government ever’ has faded, the Lib Dems have continued to fly the flag, providing clear green water between the coalition parties.
What follows is a collection of 31 essays designed to set out a vision for eco-liberalism, as distinct from the eco-socialism championed by the Green Party. The authors are predominately MPs and party insiders, but many of the latter are sustainability professionals in their day jobs, and they are augmented by heavyweight guest authors. As a result, the majority of the pieces are intellectually hefty pieces of work, going way beyond the usual political blandishments. Here are some of the key themes I distilled:
- The need for political leadership: across the UK economy, companies are sitting on mountains of cash which could be invested into greentech, if they the confidence to do so;
- The need for a narrative: too much of the environmental debate has consisted of barrages of data and statistics, we need a narrative to take people with us on the quest for sustainability;
- The need to sell the wider benefits of a green economy as well as the risks of inaction: energy security, rebalancing the economy, job creation etc;
- The need to tackle the (politically more difficult) demand side of the economy as well as the supply side;
- The need to understand and work with prevailing culture: “Persuading people to change their behaviour is, in general, only likely to succeed when it goes with the grain of their lifestyles and beliefs.” (fits with my concept of Green Jujitsu);
- The need for finance: for example, 3% of companies in the Cambridge greentech cluster have venture capital funding, compared to 36-40% in sectors such as healthcare or IT;
- The need for policy integration: only the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) sees a green economy as more than a standalone issue, the need to see resource management as more than a waste issue etc;
- The need to break up vested interests and cartels to open up markets and devolve solutions to the local level.
Given there are more than two dozen authors, the book provides a smorgasbord of potential solutions to these issues rather than a tightly defined manifesto. The ideas range from high level principles, most well understood in the sustainability sector such as the circular economy, to some quite specific solutions, such as how to allow the Green Investment Bank to borrow to invest without upsetting national finances. There is however a significant job left to do to weave these together into a cohesive whole and, more importantly, develop that narrative to make a compelling case to the electorate – we’re still deep in policy wonk territory here.
Obviously this is a party political publication, and non-party supporters will have to put up with a degree of Lib Dem braggadocio, but there’s plenty of red meat in here for environmental policy geeks no matter what their political viewpoint. As many psephologists are predicting another coalition Government after the 2015 election, and the party leadership has adopted its key thrust, The Green Book could become very influential indeed.