They say a sure sign of ageing is when you notice how young the policemen are. But what about new holders of high political office?
Chris Huhne, the man charged with steering Britain—and by extension Europe—into a low carbon future as energy and climate change secretary, is older than prime minister David Cameron and most of the new British cabinet, but at The Guardian we remember him as a fresh-faced economics leader writer—one of those bright young men from a top school who get a good degree, want to run the world and use journalism as a step into politics.
Huhne was a good thinker but back in the 1980s when I knew him, he’d admit he didn’t have a clue about environment. Economics and environment in those days might as well have been separate languages. Huhne and his team of financial journalists would sit at one end of the building, and pontificate about structural adjustment for developing countries, deregulation and the GATT; the tiny environment team at the other end would fume and point out their economic dogma was laying waste to the world.
But perhaps something rubbed off. Huhne spent 19 years as a journalist, including a spell in the 1970s in India, which he says affected him deeply. By the time he had come back to Britain as an MP for Eastleigh southern England, he had changed colours and was a Green in all but name—avowedly anti-nuclear power, fiercely anti-nuclear defences, and in favour of green taxes and an energy revolution. Last year he tried, but failed, to become Liberal Democratic party leader. Now, with the twist of fate which left a few MPs holding the balance of power after the May elections, he has been given one of the senior-most jobs in the new coalition.
And all those principles developed during the years in political opposition and in journalism are being tested as never before. Having spent most of his life arguing the case against nuclear power, he must lead the department charged with clearing the way for a new generation of reactors. Only two years ago he accused his coalition partners of being “not just the least green party in Britain, but the least green in the whole of Europe”. And the man who must now take the lead on climate change has in the past accused his Tory party partners of being dominated by climate change sceptics.
All politicians must learn to compromise, but Huhne must be the intellectual equivalent of a diver trying to execute double flip backward somersaults with inward twists and tucks. A formula has been devised which will allow him to abstain on nuclear and certain other issues, and he can leave the nitty-gritty of nuclear legislation to his Conservative party coalition colleagues. But the question is how long can he last? It’s just a matter of time, his critics say, before the old Conservative party gets fed up with his liberal views and fires him, or he reveals his true feelings about the uneasy coalition and resigns.
The other way to see it playing out is far more optimistic. Just as you want an objective journalist, so it’s healthy to have a nuclear sceptic in charge of a powerful industry rather than someone who bends backwards to help it. How much better to have a proven internationalist negotiating climate change with India, the US and others rather than a small-island politician with no foreign experience? And surely it’s better to have an economics specialist running green issues than a minister who thinks environment is solely about the UK and farming?
In the next few months Huhne will be tossed into the tumultuous UN climate change talks as well as have to make deep financial cuts that will enrage unions and voters. At the very least, noone doubts it will be a tumultuous time both for Huhne and the environment.
John Vidal is environment editor of The Guardian
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