Beyond political prejudice

A surprising graduation talk on climate change causes Sally Feldman to question her biases

November 27, 2014

It’s not often that students at a graduation ceremony will burst into spontaneous applause during a formal acceptance speech. But that’s what happened at the University of Westminster’s event at the Royal Festival Hall on 10 November, not once but twice. And even more unexpectedly, the speaker they were cheering was an old-style Tory veteran from the governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major: none other than Lord Deben, better remembered as the Right Honourable John Selwyn Gummer.

Until he was presented with his honorary doctorate the ceremony had followed the usual protocol: the brass fanfare as the platform party entered, the chair’s welcome, the dean’s address. The honoured guest had beamed benignly as graduands from every continent and every culture streamed across the stage: some of the women wore colourful saris, some paired their mortar boards with hijabs, and most of them, regardless of their backgrounds, teetering on unfeasibly spindly stilettos.

It was only when he began to speak that it became clear that this was not going to be the usual cocktail of polite platitudes. Not content with congratulating the university on its diversity, he expanded on this theme and began to emphasise the benefits of such a cosmopolitan mixture. How fortunate, he went on, to be studying in London, the world’s only truly global city. Long may London, and Westminster, continue to welcome people from all over the world.

Dissidents are marginalised because they don’t belong in our outmoded two-party world. It’s that system that is now having to change

And it was that remark which prompted the first rapturous reception from these young people who were, after all, from among the 150 or so countries making up the student population at the university.

But the second burst of applause greeted a rather more surprising sentiment from an arch Conservative. Gummer went on to explain why migration, the moving of people, the breaking down of national barriers, was so vital. For now “the age of imperialism” was passing, there is a chance for all countries to join together against a common threat: climate change.

And he should know what he’s talking about. Gummer served in a variety of Cabinet roles for 16 years. But his dream job was as Secretary of State for the Environment, where the green community called him “the best Environment Secretary we ever had”.

One of his proudest achievements in this role was negotiating the original international deal on climate change within the European Union: the foundation of the Kyoto Protocol. He voted that Britain would do more than its share so that poorer nations could contribute less. That principle, he told his attentive audience, remains basic to climate negotiations.

But of course a major obstacle to progress is the number of those who refuse to accept the evidence of global warming. Gummer is exasperated by these deniers because their objections are based not on rational argument but on pre-existing political positions.

It’s a problem for green politics that is diagnosed in George Marshall’s new book, Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change. “Everyone, experts and non-experts alike,” Marshall writes, “converts climate change into stories that embody their own values, assumptions and prejudices.”

The real problem, Marshall argues, is a tendency, especially in the US, to categorise simplistically in terms of Left and Right politics. “Attitudes on climate change…have become a social cue like gun control: a shorthand for figuring out who is in our group and cares about us.”

So, for example, if you’re a Tea Party supporter, then you will assume that anything environmentalist is left wing and must therefore be wrong, regardless of the facts. It’s this unconscious cultural polarisation that needs to be addressed, Marshall suggests, if we are to make significant progress on global warming.

And standing on the stage that day, enthusiastically clapping the honoured guest I’d just introduced, I realised that as a liberal-minded, left-leaning academic I, too, was guilty of that entrenched bias. Listening to Gummer’s passionate views on environmental urgency and on the value of diversity I experienced the same disquiet as I did when recently hearing Kenneth Clarke on Radio 4 extolling the value of the European Union, or when watching the Conservative MP Anna Soubry on Question Time cogently defending the benefits that immigrants bring to the UK.

How, I wondered, could these views be coming from Tories? How did I find myself agreeing with some of what they had to say but still being opposed to so much more? How, for example, could Gummer himself advocate the redistribution of wealth, but be so adamantly against a woman’s right to choose abortion? My worldview was getting worryingly blurred.

In The Times on 13 November David Aaronovitch identified a similar cultural dissonance. “There are modernising Tories,” he points out, “their voices completely drowned out by their Europhobic fringe, who are more Christian Democrat than Ukip. There are Labour left-wingers who yearn to be in Britain what Podemos and Syriza are in Spain and Greece – the populist and popular basher of ‘neoliberalism’.”

And these dissidents are silenced or marginalised, argues Aaronovitch, because they don’t belong in our outmoded two-party world. It’s that system that is now having to change. “After the election new associations and political clubs will be formed seeking, in essence, a clear way out of the mire.”

So our future political landscape is likely to be more diffuse, more of a mosaic of colliding and intersecting principles and ideals – a more realistic reflection of a complex, threatened world. But how on earth will I know what side I’m on?

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