Could the Stig go Green?

Signing up Johnny Ball to talk on nuclear power is like the fur industry getting Beatrix Potter on-s

It wasn’t quite ‘within days’ of my last blog, but we have now received the government’s official confirmation that they are planning for a new wave of nuclear power stations to be built across the UK.

The announcement was made by John Hutton on Thursday, but not before we heard from the government’s own Nuclear Consultation Working Group that the second public consultation process had failed hopelessly to make up for the deficiencies of the first. This was drily underlined by Jonathan Dimbleby who called a straw poll on Friday’s Any Questions and couldn’t find a single person in the audience who felt they had been involved in a meaningful debate on the issue.

I won’t go into all the many arguments against this decision here, since Green MEP Caroline Lucas has done such a sterling job elsewhere on this very website. Enough to say that, given the likelihood of another legal challenge to the decision-making process, I’m not too downhearted but that it has made for an eventful week.

As soon as the announcement was made, public debate did at last spring up in all media outlets, so every Green and LibDem spokesperson (and a couple of Tory and Labour dissidents) were called out to argue against the madness.

I wrote a joint letter with two of my fellow candidates for London Mayor, Ken Livingstone and Brian Paddick, which was published in the Evening Standard. In what the Guardian called ‘a rare show of near-unanimity’, we condemned the decision and said: “We believe that we can meet our city’s energy needs through becoming much more efficient with our energy use, local energy generation and exploiting our renewable resources.”

Indeed we can and, with trains carrying highly dangerous nuclear fuel already passing through central London, we will also have to bear a large share of the risks of this policy. Boris Johnson refused to sign the letter, showing a worrying rejection of the interests of Londoners in favour of party discipline.

The debate I enjoyed most this week was rather unexpected. I really wasn’t looking forward going on Talksport radio on Thursday night, especially when I found hummer-driving James Whale would be in the chair and that I’d be arguing against Johnny Ball.

I have been almost in mourning since I first saw him acting as a roving spokesperson for the nuclear industry a year or so ago. Mr Ball and his seminal 1980s science programmes were directly responsible for my chemistry set and therefore indirectly responsible for my choice to study science at university – something I’ll be eternally glad I did. But, to my surprise, our exchange ended up very good natured, fact-filled and even interesting, and that’s despite an outbreak of nonsensical climate denial breaking out towards the end.

It is, I have to admit, a stroke of PR genius for the nuclear industry to have signed up Johnny Ball. If anyone’s image says ‘friendly, trusted scientist’ to my generation (who are statistically most opposed to nuclear power) then it’s him. And he must be having an impact; it’s like the Fur Council signing up Beatrix Potter as an advocate or, indeed, like an investment bank taking on a Labour Prime Minister. It’s about time the forces of good stole this tactic and gathered a few unlikely allies of our own. Perhaps the Stig should expect a call?

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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Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the 70-minute gathering was remarkably fractious (with PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatening to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, said that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question (though she emphasised it was right to "question" renewal). She vowed to listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and promised to soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible, with improving technology, that large submarines could easily be tracked, detected and attacked by drones. She said it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

Former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained, however, that she had failed to understand how nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it went "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year (a fait accompli), the real battle is to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.