Much commentary on politicians, and the political establishment in general, is heavily loaded with the rhetoric of corruption, personal accusation and recrimination. Politicians are accused of being greedy, corrupt, and contemptuous of the public. Many of these charges no doubt contain more than a grain of truth. Yet such personal accusations tend to miss the point.
Governments and political parties operate within an institutional framework that, while not entirely determining their actions, maintains intense pressures, and sets the limits of what can be achieved – the boundaries of the politically possible. As political analyst and former Downing Street insider James Humphreys suggests, the best way to understand how such political institutions work is to place oneself in policymakers’ shoes – what are the obstacles, blockages and pressures constraining your behaviour?
Such an imaginative exercise is a little like looking over a chessboard in the midst of another person’s game. There is no set course of action: any individual player will have their own particular style, method and strategy; conditions will shift and windows of opportunity open and close; and any given game can proceed in a practically infinite number of combinations. Yet the boundaries and pressures imposed by your opponent (in reality, by a range of competing opponents) as the game progresses will close down your space for movement profoundly.
No matter what a politician’s personal disposition, it is the conditions on the field of play that will largely orient you towards one response rather than another.
No illustration of this is more stark, perhaps, than Al Gore’s record in Government, as the Clinton administration’s Vice-President and lead negotiator at the UN on the Kyoto treaty. As the journalist Mark Hertsgaard recounts on the basis of an in-depth interview with Gore in 2006, the major pressures militating against an effective climate change treaty under the Clinton administration – in which Gore served as lead negotiator at the UN – came from powerful business interests, but also crucially relied on a serious campaign of misinformation to confuse and mislead the American public and condition the response of legislators, thus relieving pressure for any effective action. Writes Hertsgaard:
“I spent two hours one-on-one with Gore just before An Inconvenient Truth was released. Much of the interview focused on an irony that seems to have escaped many of those who have urged him to run for president: the last time he was in power, he failed to deliver much progress against global warming. During its eight years in office, the Clinton-Gore administration did not pass a single major law against climate change. It did sign the Kyoto Protocol, but only after watering it down with crippling loopholes, and then it chose not to seek Senate ratification of the treaty.
“In our interview, Gore acknowledged these failings. But he argued that the blame lay not with him or Clinton, who, he said, “was much more responsive than not”. Rather, Gore said, “the resistance was tremendous” from the status quo. The two richest, most powerful industries in American history, oil and autos, were fiercely opposed to cutting emissions, as were coal and electricity companies. Kyoto was “blocked by pressure from the polluters,” Gore told me, adding that Exxon-Mobil and other big companies “purposely confused people” with tens of millions of dollars of advertising and lobbying that misrepresented and disparaged the science behind global warming. This disinformation campaign encouraged “massive denial in the country as a whole” and “conditioned the battlefield” in Washington so that Congress ended up blocking reform.
“The lesson Gore seems to have drawn from his defeats is that being president is not enough to create real change, especially if powerful interests are against you. The only way to defeat those interests is to “re-condition the battlefield”, as Gore put it – to build such a pervasive wave of public pressure that no matter which politicians get elected, they will feel compelled to take action, even if it means disappointing Exxon-Mobil and friends. That’s what happened when public opinion, activism and protests led President Lyndon Johnson to sign a 1964 Civil Rights Act that was very similar to the bill he and most members of Congress had voted against in 1958. It’s what happened when President Richard Nixon finally removed US forces from Vietnam, even though privately Nixon wanted to persevere and win.
“Gore’s years in the Clinton White House appear to have taught him a vital lesson about modern democracy, a lesson that is omitted from most textbooks and news coverage: being president, like being right, is not enough. The only way to beat organised money is with organised people, lots of them. Gore is now helping to build that grassroots pressure, even though it means giving up on the presidential dream he has harboured since childhood.”
What makes this example so striking, of course, is that Gore’s actions in and out of office seem like chalk and cheese. While effectively blowing the hopes of an effective climate treaty out of the water as part of the Clinton administration, his record of climate change advocacy in the public arena since leaving office – though his films, presentations, and Repower America’s call for complete decarbonisation of electricity generation in the next ten years – has been pretty strident.
That Gore’s actions in office are subject to such profound constraints attests to the limited role policymakers’ personal preferences actually play. The same is also true of the information available to them, contrary to what some environmental advocates have been inclined to believe. As the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) point out:
“The sustainable development movement has largely focused on providing government with evidence that climate change is really happening. The underlying rationale is that once presented with overwhelming evidence, the Government will have no option but to institute radical action. However, this rationale assumes that the only constraint on government action is not having evidence. In fact, there are other constraints to government’s ability to act. Of these constraints … one of the most important is a lack of ‘political space’.”
Things thus seem to be playing out similarly in the UK. “In a literal sense,” the IPPR point out, “within their term of office, majority governments can largely do what they want” – but “a combination of public opinion and the positions of influential or powerful groups, including the media, business and non-governmental organisations (NGOs)” have again conditioned the battlefield. An “acute awareness of political constraints” on the part of senior Ministers has thus led to a desire for “more effective campaigning by environmental groups to create greater political consensus for stronger action”.
How has this tended to manifest itself? It is an open secret that business tends to dominate climate policy. As former environment minister Elliot Morley put it, Cabinet discussions “came down to this argument about the costs to industry, which is what the energy people thought was their priority”. Nevertheless, public mobilisation and protest have empowered dissenting voices within Government: direct action protests surrounding Heathrow and Kingsnorth (and particularly, in the latter case, the acquittal of Greenpeace’s errant chimney-climbers) effectively helped split the cabinet on both of these decisions. At least as interestingly, Ed Miliband’s call for a “popular mobilisation” as a “countervailing force” to the interests currently blocking change seems to represent almost a desperate plea from a Government in captivity.
Unfortunately, convincing policymakers, while valuable in itself, can never be sufficient; nor even a priority for the environmental movement. Not for nothing has the fossil fuel lobby spent millions of dollars confusing the public on the facts, causes and consequences of climate change. It is the far harder task of communicating the urgency and severity of the situation, of mobilising public concern and inspiring action, that remains key.