Show Hide image

Laurie Penny: Watching the Arctic melt, I realise apathy must be frozen out

We can choose abject complicity, or we can decide that it's not too late to build a better world.

There's nothing like a glacier crumbling into the sea in front of your eyes to remind you that climate change is more than an abstract reason to recycle egg boxes and wine bottles.

Right now, I'm writing from a small ship's cabin in one of the most isolated, desolate places on earth: the northern tip of Svalbard in the high Arctic, where I have come on an expedition, part of the point of which was to see what I've just seen. Which was a shelf of translucent blue ice the height of a house falling into the water like wet cake.

It's not that I didn't believe in climate change before this. On the contrary: I am of the background and generation that grew up in the mid-1990s with the notion of environmental destruction as an inevitability.

I was raised on the animation FernGully: the Last Rainforest and traumatic colouring books full of sad baby seals and herons choking on plastic bags. This gentle indoctrination was supposed to motivate us to grow up and save the planet, but by the time we were old enough to object, the forests were disappearing and the oilfields burning fast enough for it all to seem too late.

I now realise that, even before the Copenhagen Summit 2009 put paid to the prospect of a green international deal, I had decided that there was nothing I could do. At some point, I decided that my special fight was simply to make sure, to the best of my limited ability, that whatever society is left after the floodwaters settle is as fair and free as possible. I have this luxury, of course, because I grew up in a hilly place in England and my house is not going to be underwater for a while yet.

This, for the generation that grew up after the collapse of communism, is the way the world ends: not with a bang, but a bonfire. When I tried to explain the sense of finality to a friend who is old enough to have collected vinyl records before they were niche, he laughed at me. "Don't talk to me about Armageddon," he said, "when I was your age, we had the bomb to worry about."

The bomb, however, was a very different apocalypse from the inevitable, collective entropy of climate change and it demands an entirely different sort of complicity.

The greatest threat to the future of humanity is now not political brinkmanship, but paranoid indifference: the certainty that the future is both finite and short and that all we can do is burn what little of the remaining money we have and hope civilisation outlasts us.

This is a terribly foolish way to live. The anarchist thinker David Graeber writes in Debt: the First 5,000 Years that in response to the blinding obviousness of economic and ecological world buggeration, "the most common reaction - even from those who call themselves 'progressives' - is simply fear. We can no longer imagine an alternative that wouldn't be even worse." Graeber adds: "About the only thing we can imagine is catastrophe."

Little rituals

There is a bitter paradox to this apathetic fatalism that somehow incorporates its own denial. The abstract enormity of climate change and economic meltdown encourages a sort of helpless liberal Calvinism, complete with little rituals of composting orange peel and purchasing sustainable lingerie, as if such devotions might somehow spare us . Which, in a way, they will - if we are lucky enough to live in the cosseted bourgeois west, where you have to be flown out to witness a melting glacier to appreciate the cold reality.

Of course, many millions of people don't need to be told that burning half a trillion tonnes of fossil fuels has had some dodgy consequences for humanity.

At the same time as I'm on a boat watching the Arctic ice-shelf contribute theatrically to rising global sea-levels, hundreds have died in flooding in Pakistan, and over five million have been affected.

There comes a point when you have to make a choice. When a colossal wall of thousand-year-old-ice explodes right in front of you, with a noise like a very large bomb falling very far away, and you feel the chill sting of spray on your face as the ice is eaten away by human greed, you realise that a choice is still possible.

We can choose abject complicity, or we can decide that it's not too late to build a better world. My boots are still wet, so I'm for the latter.

 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 26 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The fifty people who matter

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The end of loyalty: why are we still surprised when politicians betray each other?

There was Labour’s attempted coup, now the cabinet is in civil war. Have British politicians always been so openly disloyal?

Politicians have always had a reputation for backstabbing, but recently Westminster has been a battleground of back, front and side-stabbing in all parties. The shadow cabinet trying to oust Jeremy Corbyn after the EU referendum; Michael Gove abandoning Boris Johnson to make his own Tory leadership bid; and now Johnson himself derailing Theresa May’s set-piece Brexit speech with his Telegraph essay on the subject – and rumours of a resignation threat.

On the surface, it seems Brexit has given politicians licence to flout cabinet collective responsibility – the convention that binds our ministers to showing a united front on government policy.

The doctrine of cabinet collective responsibility was outlined in the Ministerial Code in the early Nineties, but it became a convention in the late 19th century “the way in which we talk about it still today, in terms of people failing to adhere to it”, says the Institute for Government’s Dr Cath Haddon, an expert in the constitutional issues of Whitehall.

It even goes back earlier than that, when the cabinet would have to bond in the face of a more powerful monarch.

But are we witnessing the end of this convention? It looks like we could be living in a new age of disloyalty. After all, the shadow cabinet was allowed to say what it liked about its leader over nearly two years, and Johnson is still in a job.

An unfaithful history

“I think it’s nothing new,” says Michael Cockerell, who has been making political documentaries and profiles for the BBC since the Seventies. “If you think back in time to Julius Caesar and all the rest of it, this loyalty to the leader is not something that automatically happens or has been normal both in history and modern democracies – there have always been rebels, always been ambitious figures who all work out exactly how far they can go.”

He says the situation with Johnson reminds him of Tony Benn, who was an outspoken cabinet secretary under Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan in 1974-79. “He knew exactly how far he could push it without being sacked, because of the old thing about having him inside the tent pissing out, rather than outside the tent, pissing in.”

Cockerell believes that Johnson, like past cabinet rebels, knows “how far” he can go in defying May because she’s in a precarious position.

“Often if a prime minister is weak, that’s when the ambitious members of the cabinet can parade their disloyalty while still claiming they’re still being loyal,” he says. “Most people who are disloyal always profess their loyalty.”

The peer and former Lib Dem leader Ming Campbell, who has been in politics since the early Seventies, also believes “it’s always been like this” in terms of disloyalty in British politics.

He gives Wilson’s governments as a past example. “There was a fair amount of disloyalty within the cabinet,” he says. “I remember it being suggested by someone that the cabinet meetings were often very, very quiet because people were so busy writing down things that they could put into print sometime later.”

“Fast-forward to John Major and the ‘bastards’,” he says, recalling the former Conservative prime minister’s battle with trouble-making Eurosceptic cabinet members in 1993.

Dr Haddon adds the examples of Margaret Thatcher being brought down by her cabinet (and tackling the “wets and dries” in her early years as PM), and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s teams briefing against each other.

She believes “nothing changes” regarding disloyalty because of the way British government works. “The UK system really provokes this sort of situation,” she says of Johnson. “Because we have empowered secretaries of state, we have a sort of federalist structure, and then we have the prime minister in the position of primus inter pares [first among equals].”

The idea of the prime minister being a fully empowered leader in control of a team is a “modern concept”, according to Dr Haddon. “If you go back into the nineteenth century, ministers were very much heads of their own little fiefdoms. We’ve always had this system that has enabled ministers to effectively have their own take, their own position in their particular roles, and able to speak publicly on their perspective.”

She says the same happens in the shadow cabinet because of the nature of opposition in the UK. Shadow ministers don’t receive tailored funding for their work, and are therefore “often very much reliant upon their own team” to develop policy proposals, “so they become quite autonomous”.

How disloyalty has changed

However, disloyalty plays out differently in modern politics. Campbell points out that with politics developing in real time online and through 24-hour news, there is a far greater journalistic focus on disloyalty. “Previously it would’ve been in the Sunday papers, now you get it 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he says.

Dr Haddon believes pronouncements of disloyalty are more “overt” than they were because of the way we communicate on social media. Platforms like Twitter discourage the “coded messages” of past disloyal cabinet secretaries, and show infighting more starkly.

“There is this immediacy of reaction,” she says. “And that it’s constrained to 140 characters leads people to ever more brief, succinct declarations of their position. We are also living through a period in which, dare I say, hyperbole and strength of position are only exaggerated by that medium. There’s something in that which is very different.”

And even though British political history is littered with attempted coups, betrayals and outspoken ministers – particularly over Europe – there is a sense that the rulebook has been thrown out recently, perhaps as Brexit has defied the status quo.

Collective responsibility and the idea of the prime minister as primus inter pares are conventions, and conventions can be moulded or dropped completely.

“The constitution is open for discussion now to an extent that I can’t remember,” says Campbell. “You’ve got arguments about independence, constitutional arguments which arise out of Brexit, if we leave. In those circumstances, it’s perhaps not surprising that the constitutional convention about cabinet responsibility comes under strain as well.

“If you’ve got a constitution that depends upon the observance of convention, then of course it’s much easier to depart from these if you choose,” he adds. “And in the present, febrile atmosphere of constitutional change, maybe it’s hardly surprising that what is thought to be a centrepiece is simply being disregarded.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.