Book review: Honourable Friends? Parliament and the fight for change

By Caroline Lucas 

Published by Portobello Books 2015

“[I]f politics were a business…it would be a prime case for a referral to the Competition and Markets Authority for monopolistic collusion in excluding new entrants to the market”.  So writes Caroline Lucas, representative of “the first new political movement to enter Parliament in nearly a century”.  This in itself is quite an achievement, but Lucas achieves so much more during her first tenure, not in the least the writing of a book that speaks the truth while the author still holds public office.  Her priority, she states, is the struggle to “open up” Parliament, for “…unless Parliament changes, progress in every other area of our national life faces delay or obstruction”.  The book reveals a host of sometimes humorous and often alarming illustrations of how the culture, structures and processes of our government are for the most part less than “honourable”.

Lucas was elected as representative for Brighton Pavilion in 2010 on the Green Party’s platform of social and environmental justice, with climate change top of the agenda. “More than any other single issue, it was climate change that brought me into politics, and it is climate change that keeps me awake at night”.  Having arrived in the corridors of power, however, she was soon confronted with the reality that a precondition of reform “outside” those corridors is reform within them.  Divided into three parts, her book paints a picture of Parliament and its workings first from the perspective of a newcomer, experiencing it all for the first time; then, as someone “in the trenches”, fighting for the interests of her electorate; and finally, as a visionary, describing how it could be different with the right blend of imagination, courage and political will.

Attaining an admirable balance between detail and scope Lucas’ discussion ranges from the environment to the financial system, taxation, the NHS, housing and energy, drug policy, foreign affairs and war, the EU, electoral reform, sovereignty and back again, always, to the seemingly intractable conventions of Parliamentary procedure.  Throughout the narrative example after example expose the hierarchical, paternalistic, anachronistic and sexist culture of that revered institution, not to mention the bullying, game playing, phenomenal wasting of time and public resources, sense of entitlement and related abuses of privilege that are imbedded in its daily activities. While much of the information might merely confirm or reinforce public perceptions of Westminster as stuffy, pompous and utterly removed from ordinary life, some of it will no doubt shock and disgust.  Like, for instance, the extent to which MPs are controlled in voting and discouraged from thinking about the issues or acting out of their own conscience:

“In fact, they don’t even need to know what it is they are voting on, and in my first few trips through the voting lobbies there were plenty of MPs who had run from their offices when the division bell rang without knowing the name of the bill being debated, but sure how they were supposed to vote”.

In her appraisal of issues beyond Parliament, there is also a great deal to cause outrage.  Unsurprisingly economic and financial policy feature prominently and Lucas is one of the few politicians prepared to challenge the dual creeds of “austerity and “growth” that have the three main parties – and much of the populace, it would seem – so enthralled:

“…the truth is that economic growth is fast becoming uneconomic: in other words, the cost of clearing up the social and environmental damage caused by the process of growth … is increasingly outweighing the value which the growth creates”.

In so many areas of social life today both policy-makers and the media are obsessed with performance indicators as a justification for action or inaction, celebration or lamentation. And in economics, as in healthcare or education, public debate completely bypasses the point: that indicators measure “only those things that can be measured, not those things that matter”.

Yet this book is not all doom and gloom.  For every critique launched, an alternative route is presented. Lucas’ practical proposals range from the simple and (technically, at least) straightforward to more complex “paradigm shifting” suggestions.  On parliamentary reform, for instance, why not introduce electronic voting in Parliament to improve efficiency and thereby the productivity and quality of MP working hours?  As an alternative to welfare cuts, why not use the mechanism referred to as “quantitative easing” to invest directly in public infrastructure, energy efficiency or affordable housing rather than high-end financial assets which lead mainly to greater wealth for the already wealthy?  On tackling the nation’s extreme concentrations of wealth, Lucas advocates the “elegantly fair and simple” measure of the Land Value Tax, a policy which has much to recommend it both historically and theoretically. Many more interesting proposals could be cited, and by and large the answer to “why not?” is a political system dominated by the vested interests of big business and corporate finance, exacerbated by a lack of real leadership and motivation on the part of our politicians: “…if the world were a bank, the money and political will needed to avert catastrophe would be found within days”.

In sum, this book is not a manifesto or personal reflection (despite being deeply personal) but an awareness raiser, a public education that somehow manages to say it like it is and yet be neither overtly pessimistic nor patronising to its audience.  Indeed, Lucas is careful to praise the intelligence and benevolence of the voting public, placing blame firmly with powerful groups who do not simply misinform but actively “con” citizens and “thwart” the democratic process.  A cynic might see in this finally the mark of a politician seeking re-election, but to this reader, at least, what comes across is a genuine faith in the people.  As for Lucas’ optimism, some might remain unconvinced on the balance of evidence that “the tide is turning” in a more positive direction. If the prospect of five more years of coalition government was “chilling”, one wonders how she feels after the 2015 election?  However, though it makes depressing reading the overall experience of this book is uplifting, perhaps more for the fact of it – and of its author – than the content.  If one takes away one key message from this book it is that Green politics is emphatically not “fringe” politics: Green politics is about “the places where we live”, extending beyond the physical to the social, moral and psychological.  And, at the end of the day, whether housed in a bedsit or a palace, none of us has the luxury of moving out when it comes to our planet.

Maria Lyons

August 2015

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