Environmental viagra and the Green Goddess…

I heard on the Sunday of conference that I had been elected as the new female Principal Speaker of the Green Party, which is nice. Slight understatement; in reality it’s incredibly exciting, and a huge honour to be trusted by the Greens with being the public voice of the party, particularly as I’m taking over from Caroline Lucas MEP who has done such a fantastic job over the past three years.

Whenever I speak to anyone from outside the Greens, Caroline is always the person they know best from our elected representatives and always their favourite too. If we’re honest, she’s head and shoulders above the rest of us in public speaking terms and an almost impossible act to follow. I didn’t get into this for an easy life though, so I’ll press on and see what happens.

The title ‘Principal Speaker’ probably requires a bit of explanation too. In keeping with our radical roots, we eschew the ‘traditional’ models of leadership of the other parties, and the Shakespearean notion of concentrating power in one fragile individual. Instead we have a whole team of people who share the running of our affairs, including an executive committee with a Chair and a regional council made up of reps from the various regions, which performs check-and-balance type functions on the executive. Within the executive, we have two people - one man and one woman - who fulfill all the public functions that a ‘Leader’ from the other parties might. These include speaking engagements, TV and radio appearances and so on – hence they are called our ‘Principal Speakers’.

There you go, all perfectly simple, but most journalists refuse to include the above 128-word paragraph in their articles in order to explain our progressive stance on this matter. I can’t imagine why.

The first bit of coverage for my new role was an interview with the Independent on Sunday, who met me on the Friday of conference and then went away and produced this article. It was a pleasingly large bit of coverage, and the way they arranged the pictures with me on one side versus the three leaders of the other parties on the other (each with their eco-betrayals splashed across their portraits) was great, but the various nicknames I was given were a bit grating. ‘Green goddess’ is just too obvious and the best response I’ve had so far to the ‘pure environmental viagra’ line was from one of my day-job colleagues: “Nice work, keep it up!” Worth a prize I think.

I’m meeting the Daily Mail later on today. Given that the viagra comment came from the IoS of all places, it will be interesting to see what they come up with.

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
Photo: Getty
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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.