We can't trust the Commons on the climate so the Lords must take up the fight.
At the end of last year, the Today programme brought directly together for the first time the 93-year-old Sir David Attenborough and the then 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, who was guest editing the programme.
On Tuesday, when speaking in the House of Lords debate on the Queen’s Speech delivered by Prime Minister Boris Johnson in December, I reminded members about that encounter.
Given the age profile of the Lords, it is a clear model for them – as is the response of Sir David to Greta, in acknowledging the debt of gratitude older generations should have to the young.
I have to say the “Queen’s Speech in December”, for it was the third Queen’s Speech in 2019 – the third time the monarch had to set out a proposed government programme, reflecting a year of political turmoil, inertia, and failure, on the climate emergency and much else.
That’s a year of failure that crowned a decade of the same. For it is a decade since the failed Copenhagen climate talks and the global financial crash and in neither keystone of our civilisation has progress been made.
In 2009 the urgency of climate action was already evident in the science. A decade on, it is now evident on the ground, in British floods and Australian fires, in melting ice and rising temperatures.
The level of environmental collapse, of “insectageddon”, of the Sixth Extinction, is also visible to both expert and lay eye.
In 2009 the failure of neoliberal Thatcherite model of economic growth, soaring inequality and financialisation – the model propounded by Gordon Brown in his infamous Mansion House speech of 2007 – was already evident. Yet in the lost decade that has followed, we’ve failed to develop an alternative model.
Collapse, environmental and social, is the lived reality of the generation now coming to adulthood. It is their world, all they know.
A sign at the huge Bristol climate strike march last year said there was “No point in learning when the Arctic is burning”.
I talk regularly to audiences of young people who can see no economic future for themselves, their peers and communities – growing up in communities with high streets of pound shops, charity stores and betting outlets, schools with funding cut to the bone and further education disappeared, the huge weight of student debt dominating their futures.
And yet so many of them are not giving up. They’re becoming active, getting involved, fighting, on the streets, in their workplace as union organisers, in their universities and colleges.
But, as Greta regularly says, they can’t do it on their own.
The House of Lords, with its arcane terminology and theatrical pageantry, its appointment by patronage and antique idea of heredity, not to mention its age profile, might look like an unlikely champion for the climate strikers.
But it is all they’ve got to represent them in Westminster.
It is all the 56% of people who didn’t vote for a Tory government, a Tory dictatorship delivered by an undemocratic electoral system, have to represent them.
Decisions will be made in No 10 by a Prime Minister who has a record of embracing climate change deniers, who is funded by the financial sector that’s bled the country dry since the financial crash and continues to fund the destruction of the planet on which we all depend, a national leader who represents the failed ideology of decades allied with the careless populism savagery of Donald Trump.
That’s not the programme that Boris Johnson was elected on in December, or the programme that’s presented in the Queen’s Speech, but we have to fear that is what will be delivered.
The Queen’s Speech made, on climate and environment “some of the right noises”, as it did on tackling the social crisis caused by a decade of austerity added on to decades of privatisation and regional inequality.
But the Commons is not going to hold Boris Johnson to account on delivering what his manifesto offered, not going to effectively point out the failings and hold back legislation until it meets its stated aims.
The independence of mind it showed last year has been blasted away by the first-past-the-post electoral system.
The largest Opposition party is taken up by the need in defeat to seek a new leader and philosophy, the second-largest concerned entirely with the issue of breaking away from the dead hand of the ancient centralisation of Union.
It is traditional in the Lords for members to be deferential to the Commons, to bow to the power of the “elected house”, to say that they can’t overturn decisions there, but can just smooth around the edges, gently adjust, use a frown and a grumble to try to strengthen, just a little, an inadequate measure or an unduly harsh one.
And it is a commentariat standard to downplay its potential. Nineteenth-century Economist editor Walter Bagehot was only leading a large pack in suggesting: “The cure for admiring the House of Lords is to go to look at it.”
But I know from my short period in the chamber that there is a huge amount of knowledge, experience, and potential in the Lords.
We might not be graced by Sir David, but there’s a lot of people who, like him, can listen to young climate strikers, understand what they are saying, and bring that message here. And they are free of the stultifying hand of party discipline that has such an impact in the Commons.
The House of Lords can represent, far more effectively than the Commons, the young who aren’t represented in what we call “The Other Place”.
It is a tragedy for British politics, that the failure to develop a functional, democratic system of government has brought us to this point.
But if the House of Lords – leading on the existential issue of the climate emergency – steps up to its potential, demands genuine climate action, then we can offer that most crucial possibility to Greta’s generation, that resistance is possible, that hope exists.
We only have the next decade to turn this around. That’s true for the climate, and also true, I fear, for the possibility of delivering democracy in the UK.
Natalie Bennett is a former leader of the Green Party of England and Wales, a new member of the House of Lords and a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward.
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