Sink or Swim

| 20th March 2001
Opinionated and outspoken, often wildly at odds with the government’s line, the UK’s environment minister Michael Meacher is, by his own reckoning, a lone voice in the wilderness.

Michael Meacher is in something of a ministerial hurry. As we bustle down the steps of the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs a car pulls up to whisk us away. Five hundred metres down the road it stops in front of the House of Commons and we all pile out again. The minister turns to us with a smile. ‘Not a very good start, eh?’ he says. ‘The Ecologist is here to interview me and I start by doing a Prescott.’

‘Doing a Prescott’. It’s not exactly what you’d call ‘on message’. One can’t imagine finding it in the official New Labour dictionary (which is like other dictionaries except the definitions are changed with each new edition and education is listed three times), any more than one would find ‘Doing a Byers’ – to continue to lie in the face of unrelenting media pressure – or ‘Doing a Morris’ – to act with honour to save the face of one much more powerful. But neither would you expect to find ‘Doing a Meacher’, because it has never meant towing the party line.

The environment minister has made a name for himself by veering away from the Third Way to such an extent that former leader of the Labour Party Neil Kinnock dubbed him Tony Benn’s ‘Vicar on Earth’.

Last year Meacher was asked his opinion of the US policy of dumping GM food on starving African countries and calling it aid. He replied candidly: ‘It’s wicked when there is such an excess of non-GM food available. We have the means to assist, but we are playing politics over GM.’

‘Playing politics over GM’

So, with the USA accusing NGOs of leaving Africa to starve, Blair calling those environmentalists who are concerned about safety ‘anti-science’ and the public seemingly keen to keep its food GM-free – we start by asking Meacher what he feels about GM and the risks it might pose.

‘The real problem is not whether people are going to develop terrible diseases in six months’ time – which is not going to happen,’ he replies. ‘The real problem is whether 10, 20, 30 years down the track serious and worrying things happen that none of us ever predicted. It’s these sort of totally unpredicted problems that make me very, very cautious. The human race has existed on this planet for about a quarter of a million years. We have been feeding ourselves perfectly adequately, since overcoming problems of hunger in our early existence. GM is not necessary.’

So, leaving aside the small fact that the UK minister for the environment feels that we neither need GM nor can be sure if it will be safe, what does Meacher feel about the current system? As the current trials are only testing what effects GM crops might have on the environment, he says, and the government has neither the money nor the manpower to do anything else, we have to rely upon the companies to tells us if they discover any other problems, for example those related to risks to human health. ‘So the question is,’ he continues, ‘can we trust the companies and be sure that they are telling us all they know? When asked if the system is adequate, it is difficult to give the answer ‘Yes’, for the reasons I have just given. It is very trusting, and that is worrying.’

The issues of trust and corporate science have risen on the agenda in recent years. No more so that with the appointment of Lord Sainsbury as the government’s science minister. For the record, Sainsbury is a member of the cabinet biotechnology committee  responsible for national policy on GM crops and foods, a key advisor to prime minister Tony Blair on GM technology. He is also a multi-million-pound donor to the Labour Party, giving Labour its biggest single donation in September 1997 and more since, over £9 million in all. Coincidentally he was made a life peer by Tony Blair on 3 October 1997.

Sainsbury is also a major personal investor in GM agricultural biotechnology, with long-established links to two biotech companies, Innotech and Diatech.  Furthermore, Gatsby, a charity established by Sainsbury, has invested over £2m a year into setting up the Sainsbury Laboratory, which carries out research into GM crops. In case this isn’t enough, the laboratory also receives over £800,000 a year from the Biotechnological and Biological Science Research Council, for which Sainsbury is responsible in his ministerial role.  Or as Tony Bliar once put it: ‘There is no conflict of interest in David Sainsbury’s position. He has nothing to do with the licensing of GM foods.’

We ask Meacher whether he is comfortable that there is no conflict of interest there. The government line, he explains, is that whenever the relevant cabinet subcommittee – known as Sci-Bio – meets to discuss policy or make decisions then Lord Sainsbury withdraws. But this does not prevent him from influencing proceedings before the meeting. ‘Sci-Bio meets pretty rarely,’ he replies. ‘But as far as I know the only way he seeks to avoid this conflict of interest is by absenting himself when decisions are taken by these inter-departmental committees. And as far as I know that is all he does.’

Satisfied? Neither were we, so we ask the minister how he thinks this arrangement must seem to people in the outside world. Meacher smiles but declines to answer.

Turning away from GM, we enquire how he feels about Jonathon Porritt’s comment that this government is in adulation of big business.  Again he smiles and says: ‘No comment’. Then, thinking for a second, he adds: ‘When I first came into politics Labour was a party which was at best sceptical and at worst openly hostile to business. It has now gone right the other way.’ He feels that what matters most is being seen to be independent, that the government should not get too close to any vested interest, whether it is industry or the trade unions. ‘As Tony Blair keeps on saying,’ he adds, ‘we govern for all the people. And that is right and we shouldn’t therefore be in the pocket of anyone. Now I’m sure he would say that he isn’t.’

But if Blair is not in the pocket of anyone, we wonder, how does Meacher explain recent events surounding the nuclear industry, which despite years of corrupt practices was last year bailed out by the government to the tune of £650m. It would seem clear that the government  is doing everything it can to protect this lethal industry. But is it really worth protecting?

 ‘We have had a nuclear industry for 50 years and still no one is quite sure what to do with nuclear waste,’ replies the minister. ‘You’ve got 275,000 cubic metres of intermediate and high-level waste growing rapidly. There is 10,000 tonnes – which is one hell of a lot – at Sellafield alone. If we do not build a single other nuclear power station it will be half-a-million tonnes by the end of the century.’

As we sit back to take in the scale of the problem, Meacher explains what he sees as the main difficulties with nuclear power.

Waste: ‘Do you build more nuclear plants when you don’t know what to do with the waste and on such an enormous scale and at such great cost?’ Liability: ‘Do you know how much the Liabilities Management Authority are taking over with the restructuring of BNFL? Eighty-five billion pounds.’ Security: ‘After September 11 if you want do damage to any country in the world just go for the biggest nuclear installation.’ Cost: ‘This is the killer in market terms. It’s not competitive in price.’

In four straight points the UK’s environment minister makes it clear what is wrong with nuclear energy and exposes what is wrong with the government’s policy, which rather than looking to end the nuclear age is looking to expand. But he hasn’t finished. ‘Now the argument of the nuclear industry has always been, “OK, OK, OK, but for supply to meet demand there is no alternative.” But I don’t think that’s true. The big alternative is renewables. There is tremendous opportunity to make a     clean sweep and have a very big increase in renewables.’

Heck, we’re on a bit of a roll. GM, big business, nuclear power. Might as well go for the big ones: globalisation, growth, sustainable development. Famously the government tried to avoid sending Meacher to the Earth Summit in Johannesburg last year. In the end, with a group of NGOs offering to pay his ticket, it recanted and off he went. So what did he make of the world’s biggest conference?

‘The buzzword at Jo’burg – and, my God, there’s enough of them at these things – was “to make globalisation work for the poorest”. It’s a fundamental issue of a judgement as to whether that is possible or whether it is completely misguided. It is unquestionably true that we are trying to solve a lot of the problems by following the same courses which caused them in the first place. If you talk about what the model should be, of course it is absolutely true – there is a realpolitik about this – no one in the industrialised countries challenges that model, it’s just about making it work a bit better, be a bit fairer.’

Of course, this is the mantra of sustainable development, and those who chant it relentlessly as they patrol the corridors of power are wont to offer up the same golden lambs as proof of their rectitude. Ask what proof they have that globalisation works, and they point to countries such as Ghana. And when they point, they point very precisely, very specifically at its GDP. They tell you how under the IMF’s imposed structural adjustment plans Ghana’s GDP rose two per cent a year between 1987 and 1992. What they do not tell you is that it has also seen its forests give way to deserts and now boasts an unrepayable £7.2bn debt. But does the UK’s environment minister share their beliefs, the beliefs espoused by his own prime minister and, since her conversion, Clare Short, the overseas development minister?

Far from it. ‘The model on which it is based is fundamentally wrong,’ he declares. ‘It’s not designed actually to enable a country to prosper and thrive. It’s designed to put them in a position where they are a valuable, but basically ancillary, part of the capitalist trading network.’

So does Michael Meacher oppose the policies of sustainable development? ‘Ever since Reagan and Thatcher the market philosophy has gone totally unchallenged,’ he explains. ‘I don’t know how that is going to change. I go with Tony Benn’s theory that the government is the last organisation in the country that radicalises or changes. There is no way that kind of change is going to happen from this government under Tony Blair.

‘The real problem,’ he adds, ‘is that every government in the EU – the UK included – says, “Of course we want growth.” And growth does solve some problems, but we need growth of a very different kind, one that respects the environment and is generally sustainable. But it is dishonest to say that it is a long-term answer that can go on for ever.’

We ask him how bad he believes the environmental situation to be. ‘The story I like most of all is from James Lovelock,’ he replies. We are somewhat startled. To hear a minister criticise sustainable development is one thing, but to quote James Lovelock and his Gaia theory? Meacher continues: ‘If the human body becomes ill it goes into a fever. The purpose of going into a fever is to concentrate all the activities in destroying the alien virus that is destroying the integrity of the whole human frame. And either, as happens in the majority of cases, it succeeds and the virus is expelled or it doesn’t and the person dies. We are the virus.’

This conjures up an image of a meeting at Number Ten with Meacher standing up and quoting James Lovelock to a sea of astounded suits, all searching for reference to Gaia in their carefully prepared briefing notes. We ask him what would happen. He laughs uproariously. ‘I would be pleading with you for a job within 24 hours.’ He pauses and then by way of explanation adds: ‘I am constantly having to try to decide how far I can go, and I find myself going further and further. I suspect that Number Ten thinks I’m incorrigible, and they just have to ignore me as long as I don’t go too far.’

It makes no sense. Meacher is unique in that he is respected by the environment movement outside parliament, yet clearly at odds with the government. How does he remain in government? And why?

‘I think the view was, “If the NGOs and the peasants are kept quiet, we needn’t take much notice,”’ he says. So is he saying that the environment is not an important issue for New Labour? ‘Being environment minister,’ he replies, ‘is rather like being sub-postmaster in the Outer Hebrides.’

Michael Meacher Curriculum Vitae

Born November 4, 1939. Married with two sons and two daughters.

Education Berkhamsted School, Hertfordshire; New College, Oxford (BA Greats 1962). ; London School of Economics

Non-political Career

History Secretary, Danilo Dolci Trust 1964

Sembal research fellow in social gerontology, Essex University 1965-66

Lecturer in social administration: York University 1966-69

London School of Economics 1970

Visiting professor to Department of Sociology, Surrey University 1980-86

Politcal career

Joined the Labour Party in 1962

Labour Member of Parliament for Oldham West (now Oldham West and Royton) since 1970.

Contested Colchester in 1966 and Oldham West in 1968.

Under Secretary for Industry, 1974-75

Under Secretary for Health and Social Security, 1975-79

Candidate for Labour Party Deputy Leadership, 1983

Member of Labour Party National Executive Committee 1983-89

Member of Shadow Cabinet 1983-1997

Principal Opposition Front Bench Spokesman on:               

  • Health and Social Security 1983-87
  • Employment 1987-89
  • Social Security 1989-92
  • Overseas Development and Co-operation 1992-93
  • Citizen's Charter and Science 1993-94
  • Transport 1994-95
  • Employment 1995-96
  • Environmental Protection 1996-97

Since May 1997 Minister of State for the Environment and Privy Counsellor

Other affiliations

the Fabian Society, SERA and the Child Poverty Action Group.

Parliamentary representative and member of UNISON.

Current responsibilities as Minister of State for the Environment:

  • Climate change
  • Horizontal and international environmental issues
  • GMOs
  • Plant health, plant variety rights and seeds
  • Agri-environment, non-food crops, organics
  • Chemicals
  • Waste (including radioactive waste and incineration           issues)
  • Chair of Green Ministers (ENV(G))
  • Business and the environment
  • Environment agency

“ The only current minister who was a member of the 1974-79 Labour government, and one of a clutch of Old Labourites - Gavin Strang, Frank Dobson, Jack Cunningham, Ann Taylor, David Clark - who served the party in opposition for so many years. All of them have gone except Mr Meacher. What's more, he was probably well to the left of all of them - known as "Tony Benn's vicar on Earth" when he stood for Labour's deputy leadership in 1983 ” The Guardian.

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