The Green Futures interview: David Miliband

12th January, 2007 by Anonymous

 David Miliband talks to Roger East about a planet out of balance - and his schemes to re-engage us with our rights and responsibilities.

Everyone says he’s ambitious, and clever - frighteningly so. In person, though, environment secretary David Miliband is less intimidating than that. Bright, certainly, but engagingly eager to talk. About policy and ideas, that is; he’s not big on anecdotes.

He wasn’t seen as being that big on the environment, either, until he was offered the top job at Defra last May. So I asked him if he’d been sorry to say goodbye to the old job - and all that stuff about empowerment and ‘double devolution’ that he’d been developing as minister of communities and local government. And he barely paused for breath…

“I don’t applaud the ‘ministerial carousel’, which means you’ve just understood what is going on and then you get moved. I don’t want to say I regret moving, that would suggest that I am not pleased to be here, but I wasn’t seeking a move.

“My political lineage is a red-green one.”

But the ideas of empowerment I was working on [as minister for communities and local government] are also critical to Defra’s work. The sense of disempowerment that people feel in respect of the environment… it’s important, and it has made me definitely feel that I was barking up the right tree.

Part of being on the progressive side of politics is that (whatever your religion or lack of) you don’t believe in ‘fallen man’; you have a sense of the better side of human nature coming through. So you don’t fear empowerment; what you fear is disempowerment, which breeds not just apathy but anger. 

What would you say were the roots of your own interest in the environment?

My politics were brought up around the idea that social justice was at the heart of progressive politics - but that you couldn’t think about social justice without its environmental component. So in that sense I would see my own political lineage as being a red-green one. It would have been hard to become politically active in the 1980s and not understood the centrality of environmental issues to democratic politics, to the choices we have to make as politicians.

Did you have a ‘road to Damascus’ moment back then?

Damascene conversion is not quite my iterative method. [Don’t politicians rehearse ‘soundbite’ answers to questions like this - folksy anecdotes with that human touch? That’s not the Miliband way.] I think that, like many people, I have been struck by the accumulating evidence of what now transpires to be ‘three planet living’. Even though I was very bad at science at school, I have always felt that scientific evidence was a very important part of politics - an underestimated part. And I suppose I have been progressively more convinced that the intuition one had that something funny was up with the weather, has been confirmed by the science that something very serious was up with the weather.

Have you become a particular spokesman for the ‘environmental’ perspective within government now?

Obviously I am secretary of state for the environment, and in this department people have a strong sense of the importance of living within environmental limits and they come to work with a passion for their subject.

But to the extent that I talk about climate change, I want to get it out of the environmental pigeonhole and into an economic, social and security debate - at the local, national and international level. It can’t all be done from Defra, and it is very important that I don’t try to do that. This department has established a position for itself as rooted in science, as serious about hard arguments - not just about posturing… But if it was only Defra that was talking about climate change, we’d have real problems. At a presentation by Nick Stern today about his report to government [the Stern report came out the week after this interview], you had a sense of agreement across all departments that climate change is important, even integral, to the way they’ve got to think.

“‘Sustainable development’ doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue…”
You frequently refer to ‘one planet living’. Do you just find this easier to communicate than the term ‘sustainable development’?

Sustainable development has real intellectual and political roots that you don’t want to lose… But it doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue - it’s not that easy to get across. Yes, part of our job is to champion SD. But we can have a ‘USP’ in ‘one planet living’, without stealing the WWF trademark in that phrase. People can understand the concept of give and take, which for me is at the heart of one planet living. They have a sense that you’re taking more than you’re giving, and that it’s dangerous because it’s out of kilter.

So when you talk to farmers about one planet farming, for instance, do you think they get it?

You should ask them. [He’s sounding prickly, then hesitant, until he hits his stride.] It can sound glib, but only if you don’t try to back it up. If in the end there is substance behind it, the idea will fly, the slogan will fly. If there isn’t, it won’t…

You have also floated the idea of people signing up to an ‘environmental contract’, as a way of redefining the relationship between the ‘governed’ and the government.

Again, it’s about getting a sense of balance. I think people do get the basic idea behind this - that we don’t make any progress if individuals do their bit, but government and business don’t. And also the other way around, that if government does its bit, but business and individuals don’t, then it isn’t going to work.

A lot of all this sounds quite cerebral…

[A giggle.] You think we’ve got conceptual overload?

Well, concepts are sometimes best captured by iconic policies - getting ideas across in practice.

I think the idea of a personal carbon card is pretty iconic. Carbon trading all round Europe is pretty iconic.

Doesn’t that seem pretty complex to most people?

It is complex. It is complex. If it was easy, someone else would have thought of it. That’s just the nature of policy. Policy is always complex.

People often say we’ve got too many policies. But we have got to have a substantive agenda… dealing with issues like avian flu, floods, payments to farmers - you have to get all that done properly. And we have to have high impact policies, for instance in international negotiations on climate change…

“Strong government shouldn’t be commanding government. There’s a difference…”

Of course we’ve got to lead, to set a framework. That’s why the anti-state people are nowhere in this, because you need strong government. But strong government should not be commanding government. There

is a difference between leading and commanding. Governments lead only in part through legislation and regulation. [They also] lead by example, and through empowerment - double devolution.

Isn’t it much more difficult for government to learn to do that?

Much. It was easier to be a Fabian, easier to be a Bonapartist and do it all from the centre.

And won’t it mean a proliferation of initiatives at the local level?

I hope so. That is a good thing. I can’t say I’m for double devolution, and then say I don’t like the fact that people come up with ideas. The big measure of their effectiveness, as far as this department is concerned, will be: Which is going to be the first one planet city? Which local authority is going to do most to reduce its carbon footprint? Who’s going to follow Woking? And it will take strong leaders to do that at local level, because they’ll get flak for doing things differently.

What about national targets - in a climate change bill?

Legislation just for gestures will disappoint people. Annual emissions cuts sound good. But say the weather gets worse one winter, and you miss a target? If there is a sanction for that, who is the sanction on? The Tory answer is fining ministers. I think that’s demeaning, in two senses. Firstly, you don’t go into politics if you want to be a millionaire. Secondly, what does that do for the climate?

Doesn’t it symbolise personal accountability - something which the Tories are bringing more to the forefront?

[Slipping briefly into uncharacteristic ‘political bruiser’ mode, Miliband tries a jibe about Cameron cycling to work with a car following along behind with his luggage, and the damage done by such stunts in undermining people’s confidence in politicians. But he is quickly back to his basic mantra - that politicians are best judged by their policies.] I think it’s good that the Tories have come out of the Stone Age, and I welcome the idea that there will be serious policy competition between now and the next election to see who can come up with the best plan, but legislating for targets is not the same as legislating for the means to achieve them. In the end it is substance that counts.

“I’m not a saint. I never set myself up as one.”
Would you be happy to sign up to an ‘environmental contract’ yourself?

I never set myself up as a saint, I’m not a saint, but I recognise that we’ve all got to change our behaviour. And I hope I would do that even if I wasn’t preaching about it as part of my job.

But you don’t want to be in competition with Cameron as rival ‘green Davids’?

No. In the end it’s important that there’s a private sphere and a public sphere. As secretary of state you want your actions to be consistent with what you’re doing, but it should be the leadership you offer in policy terms that is the most important.

At the same time, you have become known for web-savvy communications initiatives like your blog and wiki, which also send out signals about the kind of person you are…

It is who I am! Politics is about learning, opening yourself up to risk. You have to give people a chance to say things about you and to challenge you, because that is what a post-deferential age is about. The whole point about communication in the modern age is that it is not ‘one to many’; it is many to many.

If we were to jump forward to 2020, what one big thing should be different? You won’t be environment secretary then…

We will put a price on every action that involves emitting carbon or its equivalent. So that, instead of being an externality, it will be internalised.

Through personal carbon quotas?

Well, they’re right the way downstream. The alternative is to do it right upstream, with a supplier obligation. Maybe you need both. But everything we do that involves carbon emitting has to have a price on it - using a whole range of instruments.

Does taxation have a big role in that?

It does have a role. But you’re trying to change behaviour, not raise money. Governments are used to raising money; they’re not so good at figuring out how to change behaviour…

Climate change is about ‘life or death’, but we’re also concerned with quality of life, conservation of nature, biodiversity. The ‘beautiful Britain’ strand is a big part of this department’s agenda.

And how do we measure success on quality of life?

People have a smile on their face...? There’s an interesting LSE project on wellbeing, where they are asking people on a London housing estate what makes them feel better.

When you ask those questions, who talks about climate change? Nobody?

‘Nobody’ is too strong. People do think there is something funny about the weather. But they have day-to-day concerns. Local security is important, local green space, air quality. It is a privilege of wealth to have the space, and the time, to think in a more strategic way. Global warming is a symptom of a way of life that is out of balance. So is a life without enjoyment of nature. So maybe they’re not so far apart. My job is to make them connect.”

Contraction and convergence“One of my first parliamentary questions as a callow backbencher was about contraction and convergence [C&C - the proposition that regions with high per capita carbon emissions must contract them progressively to converge with those of current low emitters at a level that is globally sustainable]. I think any international agreement is going to have those principles at its heart - shared responsibility, equitable burden-sharing. But for the UK or the EU just to go nap on C&C is not the way that international negotiations work. We have got to make sure that the US, Brazil, South Africa, all countries make their contributions.”

The EU as an ‘Environmental Union’ “The EU thrives when it has an issue that genuinely engages people’s passions, That is what peace and war did in the ’50s, and I think environment can do the same in the 2000s. Think big…

There are some things that you can regulate away, things like standby switches for example. This has got to be done EU-wide - otherwise you’re really making a mess of things, making it difficult for business to compete.

I want aviation brought within the EU emissions trading scheme [Miliband’s a big fan of emissions trading] as a ‘high emissions sector’. So if people want to fly more, they have got to do less of something else, or pay for it. And our revealed preference (in the ETS) has been to have pretty tough caps.”

Ask Michael Meacher what he thinks of Miliband... ...and it sounds for a moment as though he’s going to choose his words carefully.

“Well… he’s intelligent certainly; he’s capable… And he’s ambitious - he’s clearly seeing himself as the next prime minister but one - or two.”

Then the caution slips. “But he’s so totally tied up in the whole Blairite project - there’s no real sense he’s got it.”

‘It’ is climate change: described by Meacher as “the overriding political issue today”. Check out his blog ( calls for radical action to curb carbon sit alongside less politically fashionable causes like freedom of information and nuclear disarmament - none of them exactly flavour of the month with the Labour leadership.

It’s clear that there’s no love lost between the former environment minister and his boss - or, come to that, his boss’s likely successor. “Tony Blair is to the extreme right, and Gordon Brown is only just on his left,” says Meacher bluntly, castigating what he sees as the government’s excessive timidity in the face of the business lobby and the US.

The environment looms large in ‘Labour’s Big Change Campaign’, led by Meacher alongside fellow left-wingers such as Alan Simpson and David Chaytor. “We will never have food security, water security, or energy security,” it declares, “unless we give absolute priority to combating climate change.”

So what does he think of the Tory leader’s conversion to the cause? “It’s welcome, obviously. He’s certainly helped push climate change up the agenda. But I’m sceptical Cameron can ever break free of the old Tory heartlands…” They will always be suspicious of the level of state intervention required to curb carbon emissions, Meacher believes.

The banner at the top of his blog reads, without apparent irony: ‘Michael Meacher - Labour’s Future’. So despite recent denials, is he planning to stand for the deputy leadership? “Well, I’ve always said that politicians shouldn’t put themselves forward unless they have a programme on which to stand… [But] the programme’s in place now, so all I can say is: watch this space!”

Interview by Martin Wright. Michael Meacher is a visiting teacher at Schumacher College (

Roger East is editor of Green Futures.

Stimulating and very interesting.

David Gee, European Environment Agency

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