Looking ahead in 2008

Sian Berry looks ahead to a busy year including the possibility of running for London mayor alongsid

2008 is going to be another eventful year for green and civil liberties campaigners.

In January we’re expecting announcements on two major campaigns I’m working on. Transport for London will soon release the results of their consultation on new Congestion Charge bands for high and low emission vehicles. By the looks of a recent opinion poll, which will also inform TfL’s decision, charging gas-guzzlers more remains popular amongst a big majority of Londoners (not surprising when nearly half of us in London don’t even own a car).

Later this month, we’ll also hear the government’s decision on who will be running the next census in 2011. I’ve blogged here before about our campaign to prevent arms manufacturing and intelligence gathering giant Lockheed Martin from getting the contract and undermining public confidence in the census. With recent government carelessness raising security concerns among the public about personal data, a decision in favour of Lockheed is looking increasingly self-defeating, as do plans to impose ID cards on us all.

Radio 4’s iPM programme picked up on the census issue a couple of weeks ago, and their interview with the Office of National Statistics showed they are taking the concerns we have raised into account and seeking to prevent the Patriot Act from sending all our details to the US intelligence agencies. The Census Alert petition is nudging into the top 150 of more than 8,000 on the Downing Street website, which isn’t bad but still maddeningly far behind the ‘Make Jeremy Clarkson Prime Minister’ petition. Perhaps Jeremy should join me in running for Mayor – even I’ll admit he makes more sense than Boris Johnson.

And at least Transport for London and the ONS seem to be taking the concept of public consultation seriously, unlike the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. According to the Independent, ‘within days’ new nuclear power stations will get the go-ahead from BERR following the government’s re-run ‘consultation’ on the issue.

This second exercise in coaxing a positive reaction out of hand-picked members of the public has been even less convincing than the first, which was thrown out by the High Court last February after a legal challenge by Greenpeace. The situation hasn’t fazed Secretary of State John Hutton. The Indy quotes sources in his department who are oddly proud of the underwhelming fact that, “dozens of individuals and organisations have contributed to the consultation.” Not sure that will impress the judge when the decision is challenged again by Greenpeace. They and other green organisations pulled out of the second process after being ignored and sidelined and are signalling their intention to take the matter back to court.

Later in 2008, the Climate Change Bill will continue its path through Parliament. With science telling us loud and clear that we must set emissions targets that will keep warming below two degrees, we will be watching closely to make sure the government commits to real action at last. Personally, I’ll also be keeping an eye out for the policies that will enable 7,000 new offshore wind turbines to be built by 2020. This intention was announced in a grand speech by John Hutton (him again) a month ago, but the details of how this will be achieved are thin, if not non-existent. Given that German-style feed-in tariffs, guaranteeing higher prices for clean energy, are by far the most efficient way of funding new renewables, we might just see the government’s perverse commitment to the comparatively useless Renewables Obligation dropped.

Aside from big projects, carbon savings in our daily lives will need to be stepped up this year too. Unfortunately, as outlined in an Observer article last week, polling organisations report worrying signs that the efforts of the other parties to make greener lives appear difficult and expensive may be paying off, with ‘green fatigue’ threatening to set in. People are reluctant to pay green taxes and change their lifestyles mainly because they don’t see the issue being taken seriously by business or government. “There's cynicism because on the one hand we're being told [the problem] is very serious and on the other hand we're building runways, mining Alaskan oil; there's a lot going on that appears to be heading in the opposite direction,” says Phil Downing of MORI.

Keeping the public behind green policies will therefore be a major challenge this year. Since last January, when I blogged about a new high for the environment in MORI’s ongoing ‘most important issues’ poll at 19%, the proportion of people bringing up environmental concerns with MORI’s researchers has dropped back to a much more modest 10% - still way higher than pre-2006 levels but now heading in the wrong direction.

It’s hardly a surprise people lost enthusiasm during 2007 when they saw so little of it from their political leaders. It couldn’t be more obvious that Gordon Brown is looking for an excuse to drop green issues from his agenda: climate change doesn’t even appear on his ‘big issues’ webpage. The Tories also gave the game away last year when their green policy document was repudiated with the ink still wet as soon as an election looked imminent. And, despite their good intentions, the Lib Dems’ mantra of ‘more green taxes’ is surely doing more harm than good to the public’s perception of green issues.

No, it looks like it will be up to us real Greens to make the case that action on climate change can be good for the pockets of ordinary people, not just for our consciences.

Refreshingly, some political previews of 2008 have given airtime to the concept of peak oil, and the fact that high oil and gas prices will become a permanent fixture this year and beyond. In this context, the policies we have planned for London – free insulation for homes, improved public transport with lower fares, more local food, more small and green businesses not complete reliance on the volatile financial sector – start to look like pure common sense, not just for green reasons, but for economic ones too.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.