A long time ago, Margaret Thatcher responded to the small threat posed by the incipient ecology movement in Britain by declaring: “We are all green now.”
Of course, the Tories were anything but green — if you were looking for a colour that characterised the 1980s and early 1990s in Conservative Britain it was gun-metal grey.
But it suited the Tories then — as it has suited a generation of politicians in Ireland — to steal some of the Greens’ environmental clothing.
The technical name for that tactic is triangulation. Bill Clinton was a master at it. So was Labour under Tony Blair. In Britain, it entailed taking a Tory policy (on law and order for example) and appropriating the parts most palatable to the electorate.
Blair was then the proud possessor of a policy slightly to the left of the Tory party but way more hard-line than old Labour. The policy appealed to what those very smart people call a wider demographic. The Tories had a choice: be prepared to be outshone by Blair on their own policy; or move further to the right.
They moved out so much, they exited stage far right.
Here, there’s also been a bit of appropriation going on but it’s accelerated from pick-pocketing to grand larceny over the past 12 months.
In the autumn of 2003, I interviewed Green leader Trevor Sargent and put it to him that his party had travelled a fair distance in from the margins of the previous decade. It wasn’t just its growing mandate; it was the tempering of its message. The realos (realists) had prevailed over the fundies (fundamentalists) in the party.
Some of the hard core (and frankly silly stuff) had been ditched: the Greens learned the painful political lessons that come with having no leader; at the maddeningly slow process of arriving at every decision and policy by consensus; about the Grand Canyon-size credibility gap in a policy that says everybody is entitled to a wage even if they don’t want to work.
But Sargent countered by saying that the others had moved out rather than the Greens moving in. His argument was — and still is — they had gradually come to their senses and realised that the Greens weren’t merely odd millennialists predicting the end of the world.
At the same time, he also argued that the other parties had merely scratched the surface and a lot of their “we are all green now” statements lack bite and integrity.
That said, the gavel of auction politics has been busiest when it comes to the environment. The other parties have almost bust the bank in upping the stakes on what they will commit to renewable energy, biofuels, reductions in emissions, and grant-aid for organic, GM-free, vaguely pagan, family-friendly solstice festivals (okay, the last one is a joke).
So what is that about? Instinctively, the more established parties realise that climate, environment and quality of life are no longer staple of “discretionary” elections like the Europeans and locals. That reality has been borne home by a range of reports on climate change and global warming (the UN, Nicholas Stern in Britain); by newspaper reports (floods; tidal waves; only a smattering of snow in the Alps) and by an iconic film like Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” (getting another showing this weekend).
But another part is “come hither” wooing to the Greens, knowing the party may become a power broker.
And part of it is also triangulation. If the Greens are on the rise, they have to eat into somebody’s votes. Strategically, what the others have tried is to appropriate attractive “green” policies and make the Greens seem unique on only more extreme stances. For example, we have seen alarmist stuff coming from Fianna Fáil and the PDs that the Greens will shut down the motorway programmes. Problem is that a small but increasing number of the electorate is buying into the policies once considered way out there, right on the edge of reason.
Sargent was wrong in some respects. The Greens have mollified too, became more pragmatic. Sargent gets his first moment of live TV tonight for his leader’s address. Expect a mature speech from a leader who believes high office is beckoning.
“They won’t frighten the horses,” said one candidate of their policies in 2002. But they will frighten the mules. Sargent’s party will be one of the big winners this time. “We are all green now!” Right, green with envy!
This is my column from the Irish Examiner
Incidentally, John Gormley and Ciarán Cuffe from the Greens are among the few politicians who keep blogs. Cuffe has recently added filmed segments to his blog, like this one: