“If thou couldst, doctor, cast
The water of my land, find her disease,
And purge it to a sound and pristine health…”
- Macbeth, William Shakespeare, Act 5, Scene 1
As we knock on doorsteps in the run-up to the May local elections, I don’t think we’d find any voters who’d disagree with the diagnosis that our country is not in very good health. The question then follows, who can you trust to cure our country of all its complex symptoms?
Can anyone hand-on-heart imagine the Conservative Party as that doctor to the nation? Just two points should dispel any illusions. In Doctor Sunak we have a quack who supported the repeated cuts and pay freezes that have brought the NHS to its knees. In ‘Doctor Johnson’ we have a quack so narcissistic that he reminds me of the film ‘Paper Mask’ where an incompetent lies his way into a surgeon’s post and is only unmasked when patients start to die.
So what of Dr Starmer? Well, at least his bedside manner might be more acceptable. However, he seems just as likely as Dr Sunak to tell you that they cannot afford the treatment you desperately need. And even worse, his best professional opinion seems to be that he wants to put you on the same failing recovery plan as Dr Sunak, but that you can trust him to manage this programme better than his colleague.
Hopefully by now in our doorstep conversation the voter is ready to ask, ‘And what can you tell me about Dr Green?’ What would you reply?
My opening point would be that unlike the Conservatives and Labour, we’re not all about the star surgeon in a Westminster ‘theatre’. As a grassroots party, we’re all about the thousands of ‘junior’ Doctor Greens who are already curing assorted symptoms of this national illness wherever there are Green councillors and local representatives in power.
My second point would be that before you can cure any disease, let alone something as complex and malignant as a national illness, you must have the right diagnosis. The unique point about Green politics is that we bring natural principles to the treatment room, natural principles with holistic medicine, rather than the quackery of trying to cure the patient with ideas borrowed from finance ( the Conservatives) or industry ( the Labour Party). There’s the same fundamental flaw in the thinking of both parties, they are utilitarians, they want you, the patient, to get better soon so that you can get back to work.
We Greens want you to be healthy for no other reason than that’s what nature intended!
Enough with the metaphors! Let’s get real. Here are a few examples of how I believe a Green voice for nature would begin to heal our country.
Let’s start with the virus in the corner of the room, the pandemic. Yes, we’re at a good point now, which is exactly the right time to plan and prepare for the next mutation or the next outbreak. First let’s remind ourselves that while nationalists squabble over which country is to blame, the scientific cause of COVID-19 is objectively an environmental disaster. Relentless consumer demand drove the exploitation of resources in areas of wilderness, leading to contact with new pathogens to which we have no immunity. Therefore only politics with rigorous environmental policies, both domestically and internationally, has any chance of exercising prevention rather than cure to this problem. Nothing in the myopic isolationism of either Conservatives or Labour comes close to even recognising this dilemma. Furthermore, we currently have a belated COVID-19 Inquiry which at the pace of an establishment snail, is gathering the details of what we already knew – that the Conservative administration was woefully and tragically incompetent in the management of the crisis. And was the Labour Party in urgent opposition challenging every twist and turn of failure? No, they were playing ‘little sir echo’ with no better ideas of their own.
A Green government, based on the principles of environmental science, would not have played deadly games of politics with scientific advice, as we now know Westminster did. A Green government, based on principles of communitarianism and social justice, would have led the way in turning the hollow Westminster words, ‘we’re all in this together’ into genuine, organic solidarity.
Let’s turn to the environment itself. Labour and the Conservatives just don’t get it. In their out-of-date Anthropocene thinking, the environment is still something ‘out there’. When they think about it at all, it is a ‘thing’ to be protected by ‘greenwashing’. Such unscientific thinking is part of the problem, not the cure. Wherever we are, we are a living part of dynamic environments, both local and national, and we live in either healthy or damaging relationships with these environments every time we leave our front door. As I’ve argued in other articles, the environment is our ‘national, natural health service’. Yet this matter of life or death is nowhere in the infamous five pledges or missions of Sunak or Starmer. Why do I say life or death? A report in the ‘i’ newspaper in 2019 published research by the Max Planck Institute in Germany evidencing 64,000 early deaths per year in the UK caused by air pollution, with 800,000 per year in Europe and 8.8 million per year across the world. That is the environment with which we all interact on a day-to-day basis, where tiny particulates emitted by industry penetrate deep into our hearts, lungs and bloodstream.
And as only we Greens seem to recognise, it’s not just about us humans. Species loss and environmental degradation are critical parts of our national illness because, as we’re starting to realise, nature is essential to healthy minds and healthy bodies. Take rivers for example. What could be more fundamental to a healthy country than clean water? Yet according to the Environment Agency, only 14 per cent of Britain’s rivers are in anything like good ecological health. As you read now, untreated sewage and chemical run-off from industrial farming are killing our rivers and their ecosystems. Conservative and Labour administrations consistently fail to enforce the regulations that could prevent this and promote good environmental health.
And we have not even begun to talk about how we need Green nature-based thinking to solve the myriad problems of our cities, designed as they are along industrial ideas of urban planning, instead of ecologically based thinking which would enable humans and other species to thrive together in mutually beneficial healthy symbiosis.
However, I want to finish by looking at the health of our country from a different point of view. As well as a physical or natural environment, we also live in a cultural environment. This cultural environment is large, organic and complex and consists of all the stories that we tell ourselves about who we are and what we are doing. A healthy cultural environment is just as critical to national good health, especially mental health, as the physical and natural spaces we live in. So how healthy is our national conversation? By this, I’m not asking for puritan prudery or Victorian censorship. The sign of a healthy national culture is that it holds up a robust, crystal clear mirror to society so that everyone can recognise their strengths and weaknesses, their tragic errors and little victories and be seen with compassion. Does that sound anything like the ‘twitter-sphere’ or the battlegrounds of newspaper front pages?
This is an issue about the good health of the standards of public life.
What our society needs is an outbreak of truth-telling. We have two egregious examples of the pandemic of deceit at the moment. In the UK, Matt Hancock has exposed himself as saying one thing publicly, but ‘privately’ on WhatsApp showing disdain for the very public he was meant to serve. And in the US, Fox News commentators have been caught privately messaging each other to confirm President Biden’s victory, but knowingly lying to the public they are paid to ‘inform’, in support of Trump’s ‘stolen election’ fake news.
The unregulated, unhealthy social media sphere turns lies into truths and convictions just by their sheer volume – in the ‘who shouts loudest wins’ world of Twitter and other platforms. It does not have to be like this. Newspapers and broadcast media are subject to regulation for exactly this reason. Freedom of speech is not the freedom to lie. Just like the flow of pollution into air and water, there are regulatory frameworks that could control this verbal effluent. We need the Green common sense of social and environmental justice to begin to use these regulatory frameworks to heal the deep afflictions of this cultural disease.
As a new and ideology-free party, we must offer the British public a new covenant with decency in public discourse.
The decent majority are crying out not just for a new ‘what’ in politics but for a reset in ‘how’ politics is done. Mr Sunak’s ‘Windsor Framework’ may not have solved the problems of Northern Ireland but it has demonstrated with utter clarity that the right-wing tactics of bluster and bombast – call it Trumpism or Johnsonism – achieve nothing, except for the pitiful self-aggrandisement of the ‘lord of the lies’ and the pollution of public trust.
If you want to know how destructive this bubble of lies and ignorance we’re building around ourselves is, just look at the comparative internationalism of foreign media. For newspapers in the UK, international stories are now ‘inconvenient truths’ which cannot be allowed to threaten the front page narrative of our isolationist self-obsessed worldview. The current famine in East Africa and the deaths of over 60 migrants in the seas near Calabria are just two examples of unheard voices. Can you find any mention of these events, any connection with the fellow humans involved, or any acts of the compassion which is crucial to the global health of humanity and our fellow species? However you might judge the content, the tone of front page after front page from our British popular tabloids is outrage, anger or scorn, negative emotions which poison our national mental health. A whole sector of our public discourse has lost the humanity of empathy.
We Greens will flood clean public discourse with the compassion which is the natural instinct of the British people, a health-giving openness and connection with others, rather than this national sickness of inward-looking stress, anxiety and fear. In a resurgent healthy eco-society the current culture of national sickness, which both political parties have incubated, will wither and fade, purging our country back to its rude, natural good health.