Where is the Spirit of 45 in climate politics?


Metal badge. Element from Clare Patey’s installation for Festival of Interdependence 2009


I’ve still not managed to get to see Ken Loach’s film based on documentary footage of the birth of the welfare state, but heard the producer Rebecca O’Brien talking about it at The Story 2013. Not sure where it’s going to leave me. Wistful at past times? Cheered at humanity’s capacity to ‘get it together’ now and again? David Kynaston’s wonderful history of the period reflects the plurality of voices that added up to a radically new way of thinking about the economy and its relationship with society.

A couple of tweets over the weekend invite a knitting together of the Spirit of 45 and climate change. First Andrew Neil, BBC Politics show host, asks: ‘Here’s an existential question to which I don’t know the answer. Is the whole global warming schtick over?’ Not sure about the use of the word existential here, and not sure whether the ‘schtick’ referred to is climate research or policy, but lets just assume he enjoys stirring it up. Quite a few climate researchers politely invited him to get in touch and find out more about the current state of knowledge direct from the horse’s mouth. I sincerely hope he does. But his tweet did confirm the dismally low political ratings of climate change in Westminster – for Andrew Neil and colleagues that really is all that they generally know or care about.

Separately Alice Bell posted a question: ‘Has anyone written an essay comparing Beveridge’s “Giant Evils” with the notion of “wicked problems”?’ I’m not aware of a piece of writing that explicitly does so, but I’m finding Carlota Perez’ a useful reference point, and Michael Jacobs has been writing on green social democracy in directly relevant ways. 

My own view is that the lack of confidence in the capabilities of the state within all mainstream political parties is the largest reason why they have struggled to come up with an inspiring and imaginative response to the complex interdependent problems associated with both global environmental change issues and a globalised economy.

I’ve long found the development of welfare states a valuable reference point in terms of thinking about sustainability policies and politics. The closing essay in Do Good Lives Have to Cost the Earth casts around for historical/political comparisons that could speak to these issues. The book is a quirky multi-author volume put together at some pace. I like the pluralism and positive tone that consistently runs through the book. All the pieces work away at the question of how we might prudently respond to environmental knowledge while sustaining – even enhancing – quality of life. One or two climate contrarians have identified the book as heinous radical green campaigning, neglecting I suspect to open the cover and see David Cameron’s name attached to a chapter. Nevertheless they have used it to mark me as an ‘environmental activist’. For the record I don’t think I am one: and don’t think I’d make a very good one if I tried. I lack the singlemindedness that marks the campaigner, I change my mind too much and I don’t think any of this stuff is amenable to easy simple answers. But I do think that the best available knowledge on global environmental change issues and the last five years of economic news taken together do all point to the need for some big bold new thoughts in politics, and they will need to be rooted in ‘collective public goods’ of the present and future. Those thoughts will also have to be big enough to be sustained through changes of government much as the postwar welfare settlement was.

Philip Pullman‘s contribution to Do Good Lives quotes Samuel Johnson on effective storytelling: “The true aim of writing is to enable the reader better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.” Well said. I think it sums up what we tried to do with that book well. The true aim of politics ought to be the same surely? The Do Good Lives book came out of the Interdependence Day project, which brought together a mix of geographers, architects, artists and policy and media people to explore complex global interdependencies and test ideas and forms of communication that might help humanity to cope with them better (our ATLAS sought to gather some of the threads of a very interesting few years of meetings and events together in one place).

The opening and closing essays of Do Good Lives were jointly written by Andrew Simms, new economics foundation fellow, and myself. There are things Andrew and I have been debating for years now. I don’t agree with him on setting up ‘dates with destiny’ regarding climate change (in the manner of 100 months), although I remain at a loss as to what the right quality of urgency might be in relation to this thorny topic. I think that some of the world’s biggest businesses are important and positive change agents, whereas he is much more sceptical. I also argue against WW2 austerity nostalgia in responding to climate change, though Andrew managed to slip a couple of references into our essays nevertheless… But there are plenty of things we agree on. We think good natured, honest and lively debate matters. And we think above all that political imagination and leadership are the main missing ingredients in terms of responding to the difficult knowledge we have received over the last two decades around global environmental change issues. 

We also firmly agree that the best foundation for political leadership is to argue that the place we are going can be better than the place we are now in environmental, social and economic terms. Reference to Beveridge and the Spirit of 45 is significant for sustainability politics not because it invites a nostalgia-steeped return to a past political solution to a past moment. Rather it is powerful because it demonstrates that political imagination and leadership can combine with other cultural and economic forces to offer good responses to complex interdependent problems. One of the convictions shared by all mainstream parties in post war Britain (and in similar settlements across the developed world) was that the state can be competent and efficient, and can help provide the seedbed for economic success and social solidarity.

Here’s an extract from the Good Lives essay – pages 239 – 242:

‘[…previous section on ‘security’…] The notion of insurance, perhaps, gives us a more robust metaphor. The insurance industry developed as a means of managing risks and spreading costs across a community – whether a community of traders acknowledging the risk to their livelihoods of their cargoes at sea, or some years later, of householders sharing the costs of protection from the risks of fire damage to their homes.

The metaphor works harder than simply suggesting the spread of risks within a community. Most forms of insurance reward policy-holders who are prepared to reduce risks by adapting their behaviour – for example, fitting better window and door locks, or driving smaller, cheaper, less powerful cars. A reduction in collective costs is then rewarded with reduced premiums. This comparison with insurance will help to explain to people why certain costs must go up, why some forms of adaptation must be invested in and why some practices must change… One of the powerful things about this reference to insurance is that it neatly connects individual and collective risks, and shows a way of spreading costs. But the comparison only makes sense if the ‘insurance cover for climate change’ is universal.

The last comparison in our whirlwind tour is with the development of welfare states in mid-twentieth century Europe. An improbable coalition gathered in the 1930s and 1940s around the idea that capitalist societies needed to strike a new deal between business, Government, workers and the wider society.

Rather than striking or starting revolutions, many in the working class supported a capitalist society that guaranteed them secure work, improving wages and relative comfort in old age. Business accepted that they needed to invest in the health and education of their workforce in order to be internationally competitive (and to insulate against revolution). The state’s role was to oil the wheels of this new hybrid machine. Although the ‘rolling back of the state’ during the 1980s clouds many memories, it is important to recognize how startlingly successful this approach proved to be in the post-war reconstruction of Europe.

The fact that it was not driven by one body of interests or set of arguments, but resulted from an alignment between previously competing forces made it politically robust across several decades. It resulted in dramatic advances in education, health and life chances in the populace.

We are not trying to invoke a revival of a welfare state world repainted with a deep green tinge. The point is that there are features of that deal that resemble a deal that we can – must – make now. This deal is one where the global community might be made both secure and economically vital. The moment we are living through demands a robust coalition of the concerned citizen, the community, the entrepreneur, the NGO that will speak up for the vulnerable, and the civil servant that will weed and tend the new partnerships.

The most important seat at the table, and the one that has been left empty the longest, is for the democratically elected politician who will show compelling leadership… The reason we conclude with the comparison with the welfare state is that there was one group of actors who were essential to its success. Business, workers and the wider society were all looking for a new way forward – but they required the leadership, imagination and patient brokering of politicians to make a new moment, to frame a new direction.

The societies that formed welfare states were not unified in their interests and ambitions for the future – far from it. But they came to a deal about what the most robust next steps should be, and the deal rewarded everyone.

Achieving a good life for more than 6 billion people, without further threatening the ecological systems on which we all depend, is the greatest challenge of our age. Yet this statement – made many times by many people – easily looks dead on the page. What the authors in this book have shown is that there are so many ways in which our dominant measures of personal and economic success are incomplete – and often perverse. Taking a fresh look at the world, we can see that good lives don’t need to cost the Earth – indeed they offer our best chance of preserving it. This realization needs to become the central political idea of our time.’

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