'Green Party’s rise is a response to the rise of nasty populist movements'

Newly-elected Member of European Parliament from the British Green Party, Catherine Rowett speaks to Down To Earth about the significance of the party's gains in the recent polls to the continental body

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Thursday 30 May 2019

Catherine Rowett (left) with other Green Party, UK, members during a rally. Photo: Joseph Casey Photography

Catherine Rowett (left) with other British Green Party members during a rally. Photo: Joseph Casey Photography

Catherine Rowett was recently elected to the European Parliament. She belongs to the British Green Party, and its continent-wide alliance—which in a surprise performance—increased its tally to 69 seats. It will now play a key role in defining Europe’s policies. Excerpts from an interview.

What are the reasons behind the success of the Green Party in the European Parliament elections?

It’s a response to the rise of nasty populist movements. It’s a response to the lazy attitude of the neoliberal centre-right with its desire to leave everything as it is—even as the planet is boiling and the very rich are getting even richer. On one hand, we are witnessing the rise of bitter hatred, nationalism and resistance to inclusivity. This is scary. On the other hand, we have old status quo parties who think that they are not responsible for the problems in society or in the environment. This too is scary. I think the vote for the greens is an expression of an urgent need for change in respect of both things, not just because of the destruction of the environment, but also because of the failure of social and economic policies in the Western world. Indeed, the two things are, in fact, closely connected.

Still, do you think the Greens’ victory is a verdict for the protection of the environment?

Yes and no. There is growing awareness of the damage that has been done and the effect that it is having on ecosystems, loss of biodiversity, insect populations and human health. But the inequality of wealth and the power of fossil fuel lobbies and other interest groups, the corruption of human life by consumerist models of well-being, and, the rise of cybercrime and other problems with the digital age mean that this is a vote against a whole range of social and political ills.

 Catherine Rowett. Photo: Joseph Casey Photography

Is this a revolt of the next generation of Europeans?

It’s clear the young people have a good sense of what is going wrong, and many have keenly urged their parents to vote for green policies rather than economic advantage. But there are many people of the older generation (I guess I am one of them): people who have been involved in all the protests since the 1970s—against nuclear weapons, against the Iraq war, against austerity and so on. It is those people too: the Green Party is full of those serial protesters who have been saying these things for years, and chaining themselves to railings to make the point. Many of us have been offering ourselves for election, and making the case for change, unsuccessfully, over years and years. We are young and old, but we share a mission to get the crisis on the agenda, and see it addressed in action, in the way that is necessary.

All this time, over years and years, people have been too easily manipulated by advertising and by false economic measures of well-being, and have constantly voted for things that really we all know are not truly valuable. What’s happened now is that the illusions are falling away. The children’s voices are being heard. Greta Thunberg has moved people with her appeal. The Extinction Rebellion has literally got in people’s way and forced them to stop and see what they have been doing. People have woken up to the falsity of what’s been offered to them as so-called “good government” over the years, and are seeing it for what it was (bad government, and profligate wasting of resources).

Is this also a vote against the politics of xenophobia that is spreading across Europe or is it a vote for an alternative to right-of-centre politics?

I’m a bit puzzled. Clearly it is a vote for an alternative to both far right populism and centre right politics. What we are offering is a different kind of politics. Of course, choosing to go green is a way of rejecting the xenophobic trend, by saying, no—we are not going there, because what we need to be afraid of is not foreigners but the idiotic things that we are doing to ourselves. But it’s also a way of addressing the underlying causes of the xenophobia—of the trend towards blaming the “other” for ills that are actually due to the way that we have governed ourselves.

The causes of that xenophobia are manifold—we have seen an influx of refugees and mass movements of people leaving their homes and seeking refuge in Europe, on a scale that we have rarely seen since World War II. But the causes of this situation are a mix of the damage that our demands are making on ecosystems—leading to drought, war and famine in areas beyond Europe—and failed interventions by Western nations pursuing control of fossil fuel resources and other precious minerals in fragile areas of the world. Another contributing factor is the failure on the part of many centre-right governments in the EU and beyond to address the poor distribution of wealth, opportunities, health, education and economic prosperity, either among their own populations or across nations.

Will the success of the Green Party lead to landmark changes in European emission policies?

Realistically, with the much enlarged green group in the European Parliament, we can at least get some substantial corrections to existing practices. For instance, we should eliminate all subsidies for fossil fuels, stop tax breaks for aviation, work on ridding Europe’s farming systems of the pesticides and herbicides that are threatening the biodiversity of the planet, shift more travel and transport to rail and so on. These things are a start. We can also use the clout the EU to put pressure on other trading partners outside the bloc to enforce the same standards and to protect the rainforests, penalise the use of palm oil and so on.

Do you see the Greens making similar gains in other western nations like the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand in the future?

You would expect that it would be so, though the recent elections in Australia were disappointing in this respect. The US is a good illustration of the way in which an electorate that is not properly educated to understand science or to think critically about values can lose its moral compass and fall back into ways of thinking that we thought we had grown out of in the 20th century. I think that there has been a period in which politicians have found it convenient to have a citizen body that is incapable of thinking clearly, or resisting the rhetoric of a distorted media. The consequences aren’t easily mended since people now live a very long time, and their prejudices are very hard to shift once acquired.

I guess I would say that the most important thing is that in a country that cares about its citizens and its reputation, everyone needs to have appropriate access to some kind of higher education to engage them in the practice of mature critical thinking, and that everyone in higher education should take some courses in philosophy.

Many developing countries, including India, who are suffering the worst due to climate change, do not have green parties. Do you foresee a change?

It is unfortunate that developed nations are pretty much entirely responsible for having got us into the emergency that we now face, having burned fossil fuels at ever greater rates for several centuries before places like India became a significant contributor. It seems that the onus is on the Western world now to work with the developing nations to come up with the technologies and systems that would enable others to enjoy some of the same lifestyle benefits that we have had, without increasing the burden on the planet.

I have heard Conservative Party politicians make out that we, in this country, are already doing enough to limit our emissions here. But we have virtually done nothing except close our factories and import goods. They say that the rising emissions in places like China need to be addressed; as though it were not our responsibility that their emissions are rising. But of course if we move all our productive industries to the developing world, as we have been doing, our emissions may seem to fall, and theirs to rise, simply because they are now servicing our economy at a distance, not just their own.

Yet we should not say then that it is up to them to start refusing the contracts to produce goods for markets in the West. Rather it is for us to insist that such goods should not be produced for us at the expense either of decent working conditions or of decent planetary care in the countries of origin. Of course we can expect that, in the end, the appalling air pollution, contamination of water sources, and destruction of the soil in those developing countries—which is currently discounted in our own calculations of our footprint—will also give rise to protests and changes at a political level in those countries too.

But first we can try, in our own trading agreements, to insist that there must always be equivalent protections for the workers and for the environment in those non-EU countries: protections for people, for domestic animals, for the seas and the rivers, for the air quality and for the soil. These standards can be made a precondition for trade with the EU. This is the kind of power that a bloc like the EU can exercise, to assist the developing world in avoiding the amoral market pressures.

Turning to the United Kingdom where you hail from, the Greens in the UK have never been a major political force nationally. How did the Greens seize victory in a Britain where Brexit is still not done with?

One reason why the Greens have been small at the national level is the strange old fashioned electoral system that we have for our national parliament, which ensures that almost all seats in parliament are securely held by some party with under 50% of the votes, and that even if most people in the constituency dislike that party, they still retain the seat. Dividing the remaining voters among many parties makes it even less likely that anyone can get enough votes to remove the sitting MP, so the only contenders for parliamentary seats in most places are the two largest parties. UK voters are so used to voting for parties they hate (but hate slightly less than the ones they want to be rid of), that most people have grown to hate all of them, and many have given up voting entirely. People who do vote with their hearts and minds know that they will never get the party they voted for. This is why people are so disillusioned, and why they found the Brexit referendum was their best chance to protest against a system that systematically denies them representation, and manufactures a government that represents at best 25-30% of the people who bothered to turn up and vote. Even in the EU elections, a turnout of below 40% was considered high, with the result that a far right party that got just 30% of that 40% (that is just over 10% of the electorate—which is less than 10% of the population) is regarded as having “swept to victory”.

So one obvious reason for the Green victory in the EU elections is that they are proportional representation elections, and we get seats according to the number of actual votes, and not only in places where we beat everyone else. In addition, because the elections are proportional, people know (at least to some extent) that it is safe to vote for us, and that doing so will not hand victory to some other hated party.

Third, and most importantly, the vote for Green expressed the mood of the time. It stood for a certain specific attitude to the EU (not an establishment defence of the status quo but the hope of a better Europe in which collaboration with our friends in other countries is the way forward for a new economics, a new lifestyle, a new planet-conscious politics); and it stood for a protest at the attitudes to fracking, aviation, deforestation, exploitation and despoiling of the resources of nature that is characteristic of the old parties. People are just crying out for people who will take action and not just spout complacent statistics about how much they have already done for the environment.

Talk to me about your plunge into Green politics (you have been a Green Party politician since 2015). How did the transition from academics to politics take place? And why the Green Party and not traditional ones?

I’ve always been a bit inclined towards political activity: I was involved in CND marches, demonstrations and protests at earlier stages in my career. But for most of my adult life, my home and work life were too complicated: I was working in a different city from the one in which my home (husband, children) were based, and I was trying to build a strong reputation in research, care for my students, look after my elderly parents and so on. It was only after I moved full time to Norwich that I found that I had time to take on more commitment, and offered myself as a parliamentary candidate. I have been researching political ideas from the ancient past (Pythagorean theories and also Plato) so I suppose there is a sense in which I can see possibilities for organising a society and its economy on a different basis from what we have now: zero growth without loss of prosperity or leisure for instance. I wanted to bring those ideas into an arena where they could potentially contribute to the changes that are so desperately needed.

(A shorter version of this interview will be published in Down To Earth's print edition dated June 16-31, 2019)

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