The Tweedledum and Tweedledee of British politics

Chris Nash criticises Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer for failing in their New Year speeches to ‘name and look in the eyes’ the real issues facing us in 2023.

Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak
Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak

Image credit: "Official portrait of Keir Starmer crop 1" by Chris McAndrew (CC BY 3.0) / "Chancellor Rishi Sunak" by HM Treasury (Open Government License 3). 

Chris Nash

So we’ve had New Year visions from both Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer and now we know, neither Tweedledum nor Tweedledee have what it takes to save our country from its ever-deepening set of crises. Crises that neither of them could name and look in the eyes. Let’s summarise what they both had to say to a hurting nation. From Sunak – more of the same and a bit more Maths. From Starmer – a speech stuck in 2016, in limbo, still spinning fatally attracted to that slogan ‘take back control’. As if to emphasise that we’re watching our two leading MALE politicians fighting over the same failed centre ground, there they were in the same East London factory, robots in the background to show either how modern they are or that no matter how poor their public speaking, they are at least better guessed it, robots.

The utter inadequacy of what they both had to say was revealed by two further headlines this week. The first from the UK Met Office tells us that in 2022 the average annual temperature has been 10.03 degrees Celsius, the highest ever on record. Just to spell out what we all know – these rising temperatures mean changing weather patterns including the climate catastrophes that are becoming the ‘new normal’. Even more disastrously this changes the life cycles of natural species for whom ambient temperatures are critical to things like breeding.

Secondly, a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering leading an international team of researchers has modelled losses of between 25 per cent and 40 per cent of Earth’s glacial mass if nothing is done to control rising global temperatures. Again that has disastrous consequences for non-human marine species but we humans have to count in ‘people terms’ before we really understand things. So here we go. Glacial melting contributed significantly to the recent Pakistan flooding (Pakistan has more glaciers than anywhere outside of the Arctic or Antarctic) which put one-third of the country under water, caused thousands of deaths and will increase regional instability. Let’s bring that home. UK sea levels are rising by 0.14 inches per year. Modelling predicts that if this rate continues by 2050 the top 10 areas at risk to be underwater are Portsmouth, East Riding of Yorkshire, Arun (West Sussex), Merton (London), Chichester (West Sussex), Kensington and Chelsea, Conwy (Wales), Great Yarmouth (Norfolk), West Berkshire and Worthing. That’s over 1.3 million residential and commercial addresses.

I think we’ve moved beyond seeing scientific, computer modelling like this as alarmist. This is real and data-informed politicians know it better than any of us.

So where is the leadership?

Tweedledum and Tweedledee are politicians who are not in control, because ideologically they cannot get to the root of any of the current problems – because the root cause is not the economy (or not simply the economy). The fundamental problem is how to manage society in a post-growth world. Economic growth has all come from different forms of exploitation – slavery was a tragic engine of growth, low-wage labour was an engine of growth and more recently the migration of cheap labour has been the engine of growth. And of course, running through all of this was the senseless exploitation of the planet and its resources for growth. And now that global growth is slowing we see its shadow emerging in the form of nationalism and isolationism, populist, simplistic solutions to complex global problems. ‘Take control’ is a code for politicians who have turned their backs on the international cooperation needed to re-set the world economy towards sustainable development, in the name of shallow jingoism.

Only Green politics gets this. Only international sustainable policies can provide authentic answers.

Starmer is greenwashing Labour politics with his slogan of a ‘greener, fairer Britain’. The fact that his PR advisors have told him to do this tells us two things. Firstly that their endless focus groups are telling them environmental issues matter a lot to the British public. That word ‘greener’ wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t propelled by the data. And secondly, this tells us Greens that we must be bolder and clearly assert what that means so that Starmer cannot sell the British public a watered-down version of sustainability.

The Labour lie is plain to see, like an open goal. Labour’s ‘greener Britain’ is a ‘have your cake and eat it fantasy’, where the transition to ‘green technology’ supports the same limitless cycle of production and consumerism that has and is responsible for destroying ecosystems and biodiversity and setting off catastrophic climate events. In other words Labour is proposing that green technology becomes the new engine of growth while doing nothing to change the direction of growth itself. An economy which depends on exploiting natural resources, on consumer products with limited life cycles and on endless waste is no better if the factories behind it are driven by fossil fuels or by wind turbines.

One of the critical answers to this problem is the degree of ‘self-control’ that an ecological society has over its needs and wants. China, which has set itself the target of becoming an ‘ecological civilisation’, recognises this. The whole country is having a national conversation about what they call ‘xiaokang’ or the virtue of every person living within reasonable limits, to ensure no further environmental degradation. Nothing in the speeches by Tweedledum or Tweedledee even starts this kind of national conversation about long-term sustainable futures. Sunak put five deckchairs on the deck of the Titanic and said ‘if the 5 deckchairs are still there in a few months I’ve done a good job’. Starmer has said, ‘I’ll throw the deckchairs overboard and de-centralise the problem’.

The Tories told us they had taken back control. Starmer is self-congratulating himself on taking control of control, but neither has learned anything from the recent history of ‘control’. The whole Brexit project is based on a deeply flawed idea of control based on sovereignty and nationalism. Our politics has become a broken record about which leader can say the word ‘British’ loudest and in the most contexts under the absurd illusion that any of these problems have uniquely British solutions. Just to take one example, the refugee crisis is self evidently an international problem that needs internationally-minded politicians to find international solutions, as happened after both world wars.

The opportunity for us Greens is urgent and clear. We must break this disastrous and self-defeating ‘make Britain great again’ conversation in our media-led national echo chamber and start to talk again about the real ‘Global Britain’. The real skills of our island people are enabling international cooperation, supporting the United Nations' 17 Sustainable Development Goals, and backing sustainable development across the planet. We have sister organisations around the world. We have sister species and ecosystems whose voices need to be heard. Together we can show the hurting British public that our relationship with the Earth, is not a side issue, but the issue at the root of everything that is wrong in our society. And we will work with them to create the kind of sustainable society in which we all benefit from social and environmental justice and no one needs to worry about ‘taking control’ ever again.

In series seven of Game of Thrones, there’s a clifftop scene between Tyrion Lannister and Jon Snow talking about how to convince the world that the threat from the ‘climate change’ army of the dead is real. Tyrion observes, “People’s minds aren’t made for problems that large. White walkers, the night king, the army of the dead. It’s almost a relief to confront a comfortable familiar monster like Circe.” Sunak and Starmer are offering us ‘familiar, comfortable monsters’. We Greens know winter is coming and we know what needs to be done.