Caroline Lucas is leader of the Green Party of England and
Wales, and a Member of the European Parliament for the South East
England region. Third Way's Huw Spanner talked to her back
What were the values that were instilled in you as a
child? Would people who knew you then be surprised that you grew
up to become a green politician?
Yes, I think they probably would. I mean, the values I grew up
with were those of right and wrong, in a very simple way, but
discussions around the dinner table were never about anything you
could really feel passionate about - they were about, you know,
the weather or what we'd done today.
I found that very frustrating and I think it was because I felt
starved in that way that once I found people who did sit around
dinner tables and really talk about the future of the earth and
some of those bigger questions, it really excited me.
What sort of family did you come from?
My father was a small businessperson - he had a central-heating
company - and my mother stayed at home and brought up three
And were they deeply into greenery
No, they weren't. They were very, very normal.
How did you become politicised?
In my teenage years I met people who expanded my understanding
enormously and I moved from a fairly unquestioning
Conservatism, that just accepted the values of my parents and
assumed that the only newspaper was the Daily Mail, to a
recognition that there are lots of other ways of thinking. I was
basically travelling to the left, or to greenery if you like.
I think the two things that really woke me up to political
reality were the Falklands War in 1982 and the whole issue of
nuclear weapons. It was a growing awareness of some of these big
threats, if you like, and of things that just seemed wrong that got
me involved, in pressure groups first of all.
Well, CND and the Snowball Campaign [which got people to cut
single strands of perimeter wire at airbases so as to get arrested
and so help to clog up the courts]. I spent a lot of my student
years on buses going up to Molesworth or Greenham Common.(1)
Then in 1986 I read a book by Jonathon Porritt called Seeing
Green (2) and it was one of those books that completely change
your life within the space of time it takes to read 250 pages.
You had a kind of conversion experience?
I did. Until then, I'd been interested in the women's movement and
I'd been interested in the environment and I'd been very active in
CND but I hadn't made the connections between these different
things. What I discovered from Seeing Green was that all these
things are connected.
And that's one of the things that attracted me so strongly to
green politics, that it looks not just at the symptoms - at
discrimination and environmental destruction and nuclear weapons
- but at the underlying set of values or political priorities
that lead to them. It was that that really excited me and made me
put the book down and walk down the Clapham High Road to find the
Green Party office.
You talked about 'travelling to the left, or to
greenery'. Do green and red sit next to each other on the
political spectrum? Sometimes on Question Time you sound
like a bit of a utopian socialist.
I would say that green thought is an integrated philosophy on
its own. More and more parties are interested in the environment
and so forth - which is fine - but what makes green politics
different from Conservatism and Liberalism and, indeed, utopian
socialism is the way it puts sustainability absolutely at the
heart of everything.
Would you say that that is the single big idea behind
everything that comes out of the Green Party?
I don't know if you could call it the single big idea, but the
overwhelming principle that informs green thinking is that we have
to live within the natural bounds of the planet. That is where it
starts from, and that then takes you into social issues and so on.
I think there are three things that pull the party together:
sustainability, social justice and peace.
Sustainability isn't just about bolting on some environmental
policies to an economic system that just carries on as usual. It's
a radical critique of that system. It says: This system is
fundamentally unsustainable, because it's based on a form of
economic growth that requires more and more throughput of natural
resources, which is leading to a massively unsustainable way of
life, not only in the North but increasingly in the South now as
Recognising that we live on a finite planet and can't have
growth forever certainly has social as well as environmental
consequences. I think that one of the strongest arguments for the
unsustainability of our own lifestyles is the immorality of telling
poorer countries that they can't develop in the way we have while
we carry on as before. So, yes, we've got to reduce the impact of
our own patterns of production and consumption, but one reason for
doing that is to give a bit more environmental space, if you like,
to some poorer countries so that they can grow and have at least
some of the technological development they need.
Where we share the ideas of socialism, I think, is in talking
about how the economic system is inequitable and fundamentally
divisive. We don't necessarily talk about it in class terms,
though personally I wouldn't have any problems with that. But I
think what socialism in general hasn't really taken on board -
individual socialists are different - is the way we need to
change our lives so fundamentally.
It isn't only about energy efficiency or conservation, though
it is about both those things. I think it's much more fundamentally
about the goals of a national economy. At the minute, the goal of
every economy (except possibly Bhutan) is essentially to
maximise economic growth in traditional terms of GNP. But everyone
knows how flawed GNP is, because it makes no distinction in what
it is measuring. I mean, a huge oil slick can be great for GNP
because it costs so much to clear up.
I want to get away from the idea that green politics is just
about the environment. If you want to measure how environmentally
sound a party is, don't look at its environment policies, look at
its economic policies. It's actually the form of economy you
have that dictates how environmental you are and how socially just,
and the kind of lives people end up living. That's why we put so
much stress on green economics.
A lot of people would just see green politics as the
instincts of muesli-eaters and sandal-wearers…
I don't think they would say that any more. Not sitting this close
to me they wouldn't.
Isn't it all about being kind and gentle and
I think that green politics is moral, because we care deeply
about our impact not only on other people in other parts of the
world but also on future generations; but it's not a sort of
hair-shirt moralism. It's based on some clear moral principles -
and that is one of the things that attract me to it - but it's also
about looking after yourself. I think that what we do is redefine
what 'looking after yourself' means.
In the current economic system, as GNP keeps going up and
everyone keeps saying, 'Aren't we doing well?', the rates of
isolation and insecurity and depression and suicide are all going
up as well - and if you ask people, 'What kind of future do you
envisage for your children?'… I think that is a really
interesting indicator. There is so much evidence that suggests
that after a certain point more wealth does not lead to greater
What I want to see as the goal of national governments is
people's wellbeing in a much broader sense. Adopting green
politics doesn't mean having to do without things and be forever
worrying about how many resources you're using. It's actually
saying: 'What do we need to be happy?'
We've got a society where everywhere there are adverts, adverts
all the time, and all the time that consumerist culture is bearing
down on us and telling us that we're inadequate unless we do this,
that we haven't got enough unless we've got that, that we somehow
become better people by buying more products. We've got to get away
from all that. We don't need to be on this materialist
Does greenery have specifically spiritual
If you define 'spiritual' in pretty broad terms, then yes, I think
it does - both my politics and green politics generally, I think
most people would say. But then they'd probably have a big row
about exactly what they mean by 'spiritual'.
One can imagine a politics that addresses the need to
live within the natural bounds of the planet which doesn't waste
much effort trying to save the whale.
But at heart greenery is not that kind of politics, is
it? It isn't a purely pragmatic approach to things.
No, I don't think it is… It certainly gives more respect to other
forms of life than any other political philosophy, and I think
most greens would argue that this is not an optional thing. We
believe that animals do have - if I use the word 'rights', it gets
us into the philosophy of what rights are, but…
We have a duty towards them?
Yes, I think we do, and I think that is fairly fundamental to
green thinking. I think that the idea of our responsibilities to
future generations is fundamental, too. And I think this web (if
you like) is vital in a pragmatic way. I can't make the case
because I don't have the scientific background to do it, but to me
at least it feels vital in some way that I will call 'spiritual'
because I can't think of a better word.
Are you religious yourself?
Am I religious…? The spiritual dimension of life is very
important, but it doesn't necessarily mean… I like to take bits out
of different religions, so I can't say I am just one religion. I
value very much many things from many different religions. I
believe in some divine organisation which I couldn't give very
much more flesh to, and I think that those aspects of life that
can't be explained but are to do with a spiritual dimension are
Greenery is clearly much better established in Germany
and Scandinavia than in Britain -
I have a two-letter reply: PR. I honestly believe that it's not
because the people of Germany or Scandinavia are intrinsically
more green than the people of Britain. For a long, long time,
those countries have had a voting system whereby what you vote is
what you get. If 8 per cent of people vote green, that's the
numbers, more or less, you get in parliament. And where you've got
proportional representation in this country - in the London
assembly and the Scottish and the European parliaments - we are in
all those places in growing numbers. The Scottish parliament now
has seven Green members [out of 129].
Once you get a few people elected, it does break through the
credibility barrier. It's certainly the case at a local level,
where once you get one person onto the council, almost without fail
you get another one elected the next time around. People see what
our people do once they're elected and they like it. But it's
getting through that barrier…
With the Westminster first-past-the-post system it is much
harder to say to someone, 'Vote Green in this constituency and
elect a Green MP.' There are one or two constituencies - notably
Brighton [Pavilion] - where we might get someone in even under
first-past-the-post, but it's incredibly difficult. So, you have
to fall back on saying, 'Vote for what you believe in' - which I
certainly would say. I'd point back to the phenomenal 15 per cent
the Greens got in 1989 in the European elections. It didn't lead to
any seats, because then we were still under the
first-past-the-post system [in Europe], too, but I think everybody
would agree that it rocketed the whole issue of sustainability
right to the top of the agenda. So, there are lots of good reasons
to vote Green.
I still suspect that culture plays a part in this. When
we interviewed Lord Melchett five years ago (3) he told us that
when British Nuclear Fuels sued Greenpeace in the Netherlands it
took a while to find a judge in the Amsterdam high court who
wasn't a member -
But that's unimaginable in Britain, isn't it? Maybe it
is just a reflection on our judiciary - but don't you find that
our media are also pretty unsympathetic?
Well, maybe I'm being over-generous, but I wouldn't have said
that the British media were particularly hostile. I mean, just in
the last few weeks climate change has been on the front page of the
Independent half-a-dozen times, and it's pretty
prominent in the Guardian and so on.
I think what they are is incredibly narrowly focused on
Westminster politics - that's my frustration with them. Our whole
political system is centralised on Westminster and so they are,
too, and if you're not there, as far as they're concerned you don't
really exist. Anything that is happening in the European
parliament - never mind locally - is just nowhere.
Are you surprised by the lack of headway greenery has
made here? Most people (to take a trivial example) still throw
away the dishes that takeaways come in and yet they're pure
aluminium. It's insane.
It is enormously frustrating, yes, I agree. How long has the Green
Party been going? Thirty-two years. I think we thought we would
have got further than this by now. The amount of analysis that's
out there of what's going wrong - it's such a big wake-up call,
it's amazing that people are slumbering still.
It's difficult to know what the explanation is. Is it just
inertia? Is it the difficulty in conveying some of this stuff - I
mean the big stuff, not recycling aluminium but climate change, if
you like. There is a real line to be trodden between trying to get
people to recognise how serious the problem is and making them feel
so utterly powerless that they just don't feel they can make any
difference and so they just ignore it. And getting that balance
right is difficult.
I don't know how much this is specific to Britain, but I think
one of the most frustrating and frightening and depressing things
is the sense that people can't change anything. Whenever I give
talks or go into schools or whatever, the one message I want to get
across is that we can all make a difference - and if we don't, we
are all in a big mess, frankly.
Can we talk about PR as in 'public relations'? If you
asked the average Brit to name a prominent green, I guess they
would still be saying Porritt. I don't mean to be rude, but why is
there no one young and glamorous and high-profile promoting green
thinking in this country? After all, Greenpeace has succeeded in
establishing itself here as really quite a sexy
Well, I'm certainly not representing a Green Party position when
I say this, but personally I think it is partly the party's own
fault. We have such a suspicion of leadership in the party,
because there are so many (admittedly very bad) examples of leaders
who have not necessarily been good for the causes they've led, and
that has led to the view that it isn't healthy to have a single
This is a big ongoing debate in the Green Party, and in part it
is about empowering everybody and recognising that we all have
some innate wisdom about these things and we just need to have
more confidence in it and nurture it instead of looking up to one
person to tell us the way forward. And I respect that. But I think
we need to outgrow this suspicion quickly, because the message we
are trying to put across is so urgent that it is worth making some
compromises on what we think leaders should or shouldn't be in
order to get it across.
I think the reality of today's media - and culture generally - is
that people only respond to ideas when they can associate them
with a person. If you try to sell abstract ideas to people, it
doesn't work. People haven't got the time to sit and think about
them and it's not what they're used to. They're used to seeing a
person on their television screen of whom they can think, 'H'm, I
like the look of that person. They sound sensible. I can trust
them, I think.'
That might sound trivial, but we know that that makes a hell of
a lot of difference. You know, when you're doing media training,
anybody will tell you that 90 per cent of any presentation you
give on the media is about the vibes you give off by the way you
dress and you sit and you smile (or you don't) and 10 per cent is
what you actually say. We may think that's a great shame, but that
is the reality, so let's work with that and get our message
A lot of what you yourself have achieved in the
European parliament could be described as 'tweaking'
How dare you!
And yet greenery is arguably the one political
philosophy left standing that is actually
Oh, we are revolutionary. But how do you achieve revolutions?
Is it hard to hold those two things
No. It all depends where you are. It's certainly true that when
I'm in the environment committee in the European parliament and
I'm putting amendments to pieces of legislation, I'm working within
parameters and pushing people as far as I can but it's a slow,
reformist process. I am under no illusion that we are going to make
But what really excites me, to be honest, is the way that
being an MEP gives me extra leverage - not as much as I'd like - to
get green ideas across. I spend a heck of a lot of time travelling
around the country talking to NGOs, to schools, to Women's
Institute groups, to any number of residents' associations and
so on. Being an elected person gives you a certain access you
wouldn't otherwise have.
And that's where I feel I'm doing my revolutionising, by
telling people that politicians are not going to do anything more
than make a 1-per-cent change here or there unless the populace is
making it very, very clear that they recognise that we need a heck
of a lot more.
Many people say that power has migrated from political
institutions to corporations and it is the latter that now have
to be lobbied and leant on.
I disagree with that trend of thinking. What frustrates me about
it is that it lets politicians off the hook. You look at some of
the things corporations are doing - whether it's the takeovers of
supermarkets and stores that are making every single one of our
high streets completely identical or companies abusing human
rights overseas - and governments often just put their hands up
in horror and say, 'Oh dear, but what can we do?'
Well, they can do a lot if they want to. They can bring in
competition laws and monopoly rules; they could be saying to some
of these bigger companies, 'If you don't meet these standards, you
don't sell in these markets.' There are a whole range of political
tools they've just given up, or given away - but they could take
We often ask people: Are you a pessimist or an
optimist? It seems to me that you have to be both.
Yes. Yes. I am profoundly pessimistic about many aspects of the
status quo, but I'm also profoundly optimistic about the power of
human beings to get wise and do something about it.
That might be a leap of faith that proves not to be
substantiated by the facts, but… You know, you meet so many
fantastic people in this job who are beavering away at the
grassroots level. There are so many examples of individual action
that is making things a little better here and there, and if only
we could take away some of the obstacles that prevent more of it! I
do think that human beings are fantastically wonderful and, on
balance, given the right signals, would be doing the right
What sustains the people who sell Socialist
Worker, I suppose, is the belief that revolution is
historically inevitable. But the green revolution is not
inevitable, is it? Do you actually believe it is going to
Well, I think in many ways it is inevitable. I think the choice
is whether or not change is imposed upon us because the
environmental nightmare is accelerated to such an extent that we're
looking at the worst-case scenario - loss of harvests, huge
migrations of people - and, believe me, when we are, change will
happen. The question is whether we can foresee it and manage it and
mitigate the worst of it and actually get some benefits from a
different way of life or whether we are forced into a transition
that will be very, very painful and undoubtedly will cause an awful
lot of horror and misery - and death as well.
Do you have much confidence that we're going to go the
less painful route?
I believe there's a good chance we could, yes. I mean, I have to
believe that. I do believe that. But I'm also very mindful of the
1 The two RAF bases where US nuclear-armed cruise missiles
were stored in the Eighties
2 Seeing Green: Politics of ecology explained
3 'Peer Pressure', Third Way September 2000, p18.
Lord Melchett was then executive director of Greenpeace UK.
B I O G R A P H Y
Caroline Lucas was born in 1960 and educated at Malvern Girls'
College. She went on to study at Exeter University (where she
gained a first in English literature in 1983 and a doctorate in
English and women's studies in 1989) and, in 1983/84, Kansas
She joined the Green Party in 1986 and, after getting a diploma
in journalism, became its national press officer from 1987 until
She then worked for Oxfam for 10 years, initially as a press
officer and then from 1991 as a communications officer on its Asia
desk, from 1994 as a policy adviser on trade and the environment
and from 1998 as 'team leader' for trade and investment - matters
on which she advised the Department for International Development
She was co-chair of the Green Party in 1989/90 and in 1993 won
its second county-council seat, on Oxfordshire County Council,
which she held until 1997.
In 1999, she became one of Britain's first two Green MEPs,
representing the south-east of England. In her first term, she sat
on the European parliament's committees on transport and on
industry, trade, research and energy. She was vice-president of the
committee of inquiry into foot-and-mouth that reported in 2002 and
acted as the rapporteur for the transport committee on the impact
of aviation on the environment.
Since 2004, she has been a member of the parliament's committees
on international trade and on the environment, public health and
food safety. She is also a member of its permanent delegation to
Palestine. She is co-president of the cross-party group of MEPs on
peace initiatives and vice-president of the groups on animal
welfare and globalisation.
She has been one of the Green Party's two 'principal speakers'
She is a vice-president of both the RSPCA and the Stop the War
Coalition and sits on the national council of the Campaign for
Nuclear Disarmament and the advisory board of the thinktank the
Centre for a Social Europe. She is an associate of the
International Forum on Globalisation, a trustee of the Radiation
Research Trust, a patron of the Joliba Trust and a 'matron' of the
Women's Environmental Network.
Her publications include Reforming World Trade (1994),
The Euro, or A sustainable future for Britain (2000) with
Colin Hines, Green Alternatives to Globalisation (2004)
with the late Mike Woodin and the pamphlets 'Stopping the Great
Food Swap' (2001) and 'Taking the Cons Out of the Constitution'
She has been married since 1991 and has two children.
This interview was conducted in Caroline Lucas's office in the
Hop Exchange in central London on February 4, 2005.