Saturday, 10 April 2010
Democracy: It’s a Pagan Thing
I don’t suppose politics is something that bothers Pagans too much.
Too individualistic to be Labour, too weird to be Tory, I doubt there are many paid up party members amongst us. We might show some interest at the possibility of telling the boss you’re taking Samhain as a religious holiday, or worry about the ban on carrying athames, but generally I suspect we are fairly agnostic about the machinations of Westminister.
Perhaps though it’s about time we reclaimed parliamentary democracy as our own as it’s a pagan idea through and through. The democracy bit came from those pagan Greeks. Then there was the tradition of the pagan Irish electing their kings, and the pagan Anglo-Saxons had something similar with their Witan as well as their moots for local politics.
The parliament bit though was added in 930AD when those still unashamedly pagan Icelanders had their first thing. It possibly wasn’t the romantic scene imagined by W.G. Collingwood, but it was the origins of modern democracy. Whilst the Christians preferred the ‘Divine Right of Kings’, the Icelanders, and their fellow followers of the Northern Tradition, sent their representatives to meet as equals and to thrash things out according to the law.
The Danes brought their thing to Britain and this is remembered in place names such as Thingwall in the Wirral. These things were no idle talking shop either. In 1018, for example, the King of Sweden was told in no uncertain terms by his thing that they were in charge and not him. In Britain it took another 600 years and a civil war before we reached the same happy situation.
For the Icelanders though, colonists of one of the most fragile eco-systems on the planet, the thing was also a vital survival tool. Life on Iceland’s thin soils meant living within the limits nature set and it was at the thing that the vital decisions that ensured the colony’s survival were made.
Like the Icelandic colonists, we too live in a fragile eco-system that we have the power to destroy, most immediately by Climate Change. However we are a millennium behind the Icelanders. You’re more likely to hear a debate about global warming down the pub than in Westminster. But there are some hopeful indications that things are changing.
A sign of this new mood is that job of Environment Minister is now actually of some importance. Previously the job was given to ageing politicians who had become an embarrassment to their parties. John Gummer was given the job by John Major after he failed to persuade his daughter to eat a BSE beef burger, and Tony Blair gave the job to Michael Meacher, a veteran who was too unreformably Old Labour to be given a better job. To be fair to both men they gave it a good go. John Gummer, a very devout Christian, even seems to have had a sort of ‘road to Damascus’ conversion whilst in the post, and continued turn up at green conferences after the Tories had been booted out of office, sometimes having to sit with the Greenpeace delegation because his old department wouldn’t speak to him.
The last two environment ministers, by contrast, have been of the ‘up and coming’ variety. As luck would have it I’ve met them both - a perk of living in a marginal constituency.
First we had David Miliband, one of Labour’s bright young things who was earlier in the year being tipped as a rival to Gordon Brown for the job of PM. He resisted the temptation and was ‘rewarded’ by being made Foreign Minister, where he‘ll have to go round being nice to foreigners, which is never popular with the voters and so should permanently scupper his plans for the top job.
His brief sojourn as Environment Minister though was enlightening. By his own admission he’d not taken a detailed interest in the Climate Change debate. When he got to see the reports from the scientists he was apparently genuinely shocked. His personal bugbear appeared to be the number of green energy schemes currently stuck in the planning system - enough to meet a quarter of the UK’s base load. In particular he appeared to have little time for ‘Nimby’ anti-wind farm protests.
He was in my neck of the woods in 2007 to celebrate 75 years since the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass, an event compared by folky comedian Mike Harding. I may have happened to mention to Mr Miliband that Mr Harding had said some harsh words about wind farms recently, and indeed his speech featured a little ad lib directed at his host about the need for more renewable energy in the countryside.
When Miliband left shortly afterwards for the FO his place was taken by Hilary Benn, the International Development secretary who was so desperate for votes in the Labour Party Deputy Leadership election that he even canvassed me, clearly mistaking me for someone who cared. In the past he has expressed support for Contraction and Convergence, a mechanism for both reducing global CO2 emissions and levelling out the inequality between first world and developing world. Whether or not he remembers he said this now he’s a minister though is uncertain at present.
The person who tells him what to remember is our new Prime Minister. His record on green issues is somewhat patchy; some token green taxes but a steady rise in private car and aeroplane use. The government has set a target of a 60% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050, by which time the Prime Minister will then be pushing a 100. Until the recession lent a hand the country was nowhere near meeting its short term targets on CO2 emissions, so perhaps Brown is hoping his successor will sort the problem out.
The other lot
And who might that successor be? Well the man who hopes to get the job is the Old Etonian sat on the benches opposite, a place where there have been some strange things going on recently. The party that in the early 1990s promised ‘the biggest road building program since the Romans’ is now led by a man who cycles to work. Okay, so a car follows behind with his shoes, but it‘s still a big change for the party of the Iron Lady who used to boast she‘s never been on a bus.
Whilst there was no doubt about Mrs Thatcher’s scepticism of all things green, David Cameron has so far left everyone confused about which way he’s really leaning. The various policy reviews he’s commissioned haven’t helped much.
On the one hand there’s the Quality of Life Group which is chaired by John Gummer (him again) and Zac Goldsmith, heir to James Goldsmith‘s billions and former editor of The Ecologist magazine. Anti-European, pro-foxhunting and until recently an non-dom tax dodger, Zac’s politics are more Countryside Alliance than Socialist Alliance and he seems to have found a spiritual home within the strand of the Conservative party that regards the Industrial Revolution as the time when it went wrong. The Quality of Life Group had some intersting ideas and called for an 80% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050, which is more ambitious than Labour’s target, but you'll be hard pressed today to meet a Tory who admits it even exists.
In the way of balance we also had the report from John Redwood’s economic competitiveness group which called for more roads, more nuclear power and bigger airports. When discussing the Tories these days it’s hard to believe we’re talking about one party.
As for the other political parties, apart from the loony right wing fringe they’re all a lot greener than either Labour or Conservatives. Unfortunately our electoral system doesn’t give them a chance of forming a government. The Green Party hasn’t even got an MP, although they do get a bit closer every time in Brighton.
However the purpose of writing this wasn’t to tell you how to vote, but how to influence those who we elect. What would it take to push Climate Change in particular, an the environment in general, up the political agenda?
David Miliband’s answer was that it would take something like the Make Poverty History campaign that accompanied the G8 conference in Gleneagles five years ago. I’ve no reason to believe he wasn’t being honest, after all a quarter of a million people marching through the streets isn’t something any politician can ignore. However it may also be that Make Poverty History was the sort of fluffy campaign, with fairly vague objectives, that politicians don’t really mind being targeted by.
However the anniversary that Mr Miliband was in Derbyshire to celebrate showed that this isn’t the only way to get things done. The original 1932 trespassers probably had more in common with the G20 protestors than the Make Poverty History brigade. There were only a few hundred of them, and whilst the moderate, aristocratically patronised rambling groups patiently negotiated rights of voluntary access to the hills, these mainly communist ramblers decided to take direct action to get things done. Some were beaten up by gamekeepers and several were imprisoned, but the public rallied behind the ramblers. That did the trick. Once the small matter of the Second World War was out of the way, parliament passed the legislation that brought in our National Parks.
So vote away please, it’s a pagan thing, but once the formality of the election is over lets get back to some serious protesting.