Twenty years of the Green Alliance

Published by Green Alliance, in March 1999.  

The American general, Colin Powell, kept a list of his 10 precepts for success under the glass top to his desk. One of them was ‘There is no limit to what you can accomplish if you are willing to let others take the credit.’ Success by stealth and letting others take the credit has been a central part of the influence that the Green Alliance has wielded over the past twenty years. Small by design, the Green Alliance’s formal role was ‘to project the ecological perspective into the political life of the United Kingdom’. The mismatch between our aspirations and our resources led to an economy of effort and focus of attention that would be the envy of many much larger institutions.

The economy of effort required a very small staff, rarely more than three or four, for the first ten years, to learn how to leverage the work of other, larger, environmental organisations and to build coalitions, sometimes within the environmental organisations, but more often between environmentalists and others. The focus of attention meant that we concentrated our efforts on the politics of the environment rather than on policy or advocacy.

Politics and policy are often confused. Getting the policy right is a map making exercise, charting the various routes by which you can get from where you are to where you want to be. Getting the politics right is actually making the journey, together with all those who must travel with you. The latter is an considerably cruder  and more uncertain process than the former. The Green Alliance’s niche in the political ecology of Britain was therefore to act as a catalyst for, rather than as a driver of, change. Success in this role often required our hand in the matter to remain invisible and we learnt to operate well below the event horizon.

One of our key insights was that politicians only ever really listened to other politicians. From this we worked out that one way to get Britain’s main political parties to pay more attention to the environment would be to create a competition between the leaders to capture the green high ground. Politicians need headlines the way the rest of us need breakfasts. In the mid-eighties, when we began this effort, David Owen was one of the Gang of Four leading the SDP, then the hottest political story in Britain, and Michael Heseltine was just beginning his long march back from the political wilderness. We wrote major environmental speeches for both of them – and, perhaps even more importantly, made sure that they were covered in the newspapers. We were also contributing to speeches made by other politicians and public figures and keeping up a regular flow of ideas and information into the Policy Unit at No10. All the while, of course, we were pointing out to anyone in the media who would listen that something interesting seemed to be happening on the politics of the environment.

We thought that we had been very clever in keeping our role in successfully fomenting this competition quiet. It was with some surprise, therefore, that some years later I found myself listening to Michael Heseltine lay out the whole strategy during an after-dinner speech to a group of leading businessmen.

We also noticed that pretty much alone among major policy areas there was no formal statement of government policy towards the environment as a whole. Nigel Haigh, with his unerring eye for the significant detail, pointed out that there had only ever been one environmental White Paper, and that had dealt only with pollution and been published some fifteen years previously. Calls for the government to publish a comprehensive White Paper were duly written in to speeches and articles that we drafted for others, and we mentioned the idea on every platform on which we appeared. The then Secretary of State, Nicholas Ridley, was not known for his sympathy towards NGOs and dismissed the idea outright.

The moment at which we knew we might win this battle came when a very senior civil servant told us that White Paper’s were only used to publish legislative proposals and the government had none pending on the environment. A moments research with the help of the House of Commons newly computerised information service turned up 8 White Papers on buses that the government had published in the previous decade none of which contained legislative proposals. Chris Patten needed no prompting to recognise a low-cost, high-gain political move and achieved instant separation from his predecessor’s reputation by immediately announcing his intention to publish an environmental White Paper.

The Green Alliance has always been an organisation that sought influence not power, influence being the ability to shape outcomes without necessarily being able to determine them, or put more colloquially, influence is the art of using other people’s power. The ability to bring people together is a core competence for those seeking influence and it has long been a central part of the Green Alliance’s repertoire.  Although Mrs Thatcher famously, and then only briefly, went green at the end of the eighties, her first encounter with the environment movement took place at one of her Monday lunches as early as 1985 with a cast list negotiated by the Green Alliance. Having got a commitment to publish a White Paper, it was important that the environmental organisations worked together to shape its content. This led the Green Alliance to convene a series of dinners, the so-called White Paper dinners, which brought together the leaders of the main bodies to co-ordinate their lobbying efforts. This was the first time this group had ever met on a regular basis and they have been sufficiently convivial for them to have continued to the present day.

There are far too many other activities in which the Green Alliance has played a central part to recall in a short article, some better known than others. The seminal work we played in the development of the business-environment dialogue is well known, as is the outstanding role Julie Hill has played in the development of the regulatory framework for GMOs. But few may recall that it was the Green Alliance that first noticed that money made the world go round and that if you wanted the world to go round differently you had better start making the money go round differently. Many of the ideas that Tessa Tennant went on to put into practice with such distinction in the City were first discussed in the Green Alliance’s dark and overcrowded office in Chandos Place. In a rare foray into international work the Green Alliance was the organiser of the NGO participation in the Bergen Conference, one of the main preparatory conferences for the Earth Summit in Rio, where we established the model for such participation that has subsequently been used at many UN conferences.

So much for the past. It is far less important than the future. The hallmarks of the Green Alliance’s approach have been the economy of effort and focus of attention to which I referred above. The past twenty years have seen some real progress on the easy politics of the environment but, as we enter the new millennium, all the really hard politics of the environment remain ahead of us. This makes the work of the Green Alliance far more essential tomorrow than it was yesterday.

About tomburke

Tom Burke is the Chairman of E3G, Third Generation Environmentalism, and an Environmental Policy Adviser (part time) to Rio Tinto plc. He is a Visiting Professor at both Imperial and University Colleges, London. He is a member of the External Review Committee of Shell and the Sustainable Sourcing Advisory Board of Unilever and a Trustee of the Black-E Community Arts Project, Liverpool.
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