The Green MP began her career as critic of the EU and the British establishment, but mutated into a scourge of democracy and apostle of the People’s Vote campaign, says David Jamieson.
In the twilight of the idols – Johnson and Sturgeon – spare a thought for the lesser god Caroline Lucas. She’s been left out of the rage and enmity, the attempts at biography and obituary that attend the bigger beasts. Yet her career trajectory tells us something profound about politics in recent decades, and especially its leftern hemisphere.
A cynic would say that Lucas opted to resign her Brighton and Hove seat at the next election because she fears losing it. In recent English local elections, as the Greens enjoyed successes across the country, they lost control of the council in their own seaside resort stronghold. Years of mounting anger against Green cuts to services, and a protracted conflict with council staff, symbolised by an effective bin strike, have damaged the party brand in the city.
On the announcement of her departure, one diligent researcher noted that Lucas has been on a journey this last quarter century. Academic Richard Johnson noted that she, like so many on the left, began her career as a Eurosceptic and critic of globalisation. In 1999 she “stood on an anti-euro platform and positioned [herself] as an alternative for Left-of-centre voters who had grown disillusioned with Labour’s fulsome embrace of the EU that decade”. She won, and the Guardian granted her success to her sharp criticisms of the EU, whose parliament she was entering.
She joined a left-Eurosceptic front with the likes of Tony Benn and Peter Fryer to damn the Maastricht Treaty, the Treaty of Nice and the Euro currency, the latter being successfully rebuffed after internal Labour factionalism. How different our politics might have been had this nascent resistance flowered into a full-throated condemnation of transnationalism? At the turn of the century, this seemed plausible. The left was leading the anti-globalisation movement, and most of the political right still wallowed in the triumphalism of the ‘end of history’.
It wasn’t to be. Lucas became leader of the Green Party of England and Wales in 2008 – at just the moment the post-Cold War order began to fall apart. A crisis can shock someone out of old certainties about the status quo, or it can reveal and animate an underlying conservatism.
Lucas credits her ideological awakening to Jonathon Porritt, grey eminence and chief theoretician of the Green Party of England and Wales. A patron of the Population Matters group, which places blame for environmental destruction on the growth of the human species, he’s an outspoken defender of China’s former ‘one child’ policy, despite its clearly authoritarian nature. It hardly needs saying that Porritt, Lucas and many other leading Greens share elite class backgrounds – Porritt’s family in the old British Imperial establishment, Lucas from newer capitalist money.
Class is not ideological destiny. But Lucas has followed class prejudices to their natural conclusion. Through her career, anti-democratic conclusions emerged, slowly but inexorably, from these prejudices, particularly when they met with the unruly character of the working class population.
When politics caught up with 2008, in the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader in 2015 and the Leave vote in 2016, she turned dramatically to the aid of the established order. When Corbyn came under pressure for his criticisms of British foreign policy in 2015, Lucas publicly distanced herself from him and the anti-war movement she had hitherto been a member of (she had been among very few British MPs to oppose the Nato bombing of Libya in 2011). When public opinion threatened the European Union – another pillar of the Atlantic order – she campaigned to protect it. When the people scandalously defied the British elite and voted to leave the institution, she cooked up a series of conspiracies to try and overturn the vote. She was, according to one prominent supporter, the originator of the phrase People’s Vote. At her most desperate, she disavowed democracy itself and slipped into a fantasy world.
In August 2019, just months before Boris Johnson used popular disgust at the People’s Vote campaign to break the interregnum forever, a desperate Lucas called for the collapsing of the sitting government and its replacement by an all-women emergency cabinet to stop Brexit. This government would not be elected but created by behind-the-scenes negotiations between elite factions. It would depose Johnson and form a new “national unity government”. It would then present the public with an accomplished fact – a vote to ratify this new departure and overturn Brexit. In other words, we are talking about a coup. This wasn’t just obscure waffle either, Lucas’ plan was splashed across the BBC and expounded by her in the pages of the Guardian.
This new dictatorship for Europhile order would include: then Labour shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry, then Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson (remember her?), and the riff-raff of Tory liberals including Anna Soubry and Justine Greening MPs. The old New Labour cohort, led by Yvette Cooper, would be back.
But here is the best bit. And if you’ve forgotten this detail, let it reprise your memory of these amadan times, when every ounce of sense was purged from the liberal establishment. Then Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was asked to join the junta. She accepted.
That’s right, Scotland’s first minister agreed to join an unelected salvation government for the UK, on the basis that women intrinsically like free trade blocs and could resist the atavistic male desire to disrupt them.
This episode, so bizarre, so rich in potential for satire, will not feature in the political obituaries of either politician. We should speculate why. I suspect it is because most of those charged with conveying information into the public sphere are broadly sympathetic to the likes of Lucas and Sturgeon. The matriarchal coup (which, we should recall in fairness, was turned down cold by other prospective members on the grounds of it being mad) may have been too far even for the Remainiac scribes, but it still spoke clearly to their own sense of panic in the face of social change.
The deep irrationalism of this politics is not a mistake. Once the would-be radical has accepted the fundamental parameters of their social order, and that a defence of this order must be made in the name of progress, then irrational, reactionary conclusions follow. Even had Lucas overcome the muck of ages, the inherited suspicions of her mentor that the people don’t know how to rule their own loins, let alone a great country like Britain, she would still have had the Green party to contend with. Had she thrown up her hands in 2016 and said ‘the people have spoken’, she would likely have been deposed from her leading role in this most painfully austere and upstanding of outfits.
As it happens, she required little persuasion. The office around Lucas became a centre for conspiracies against the Brexit vote. The hemlock brewed there killed the resurgence of the left around Corbynism. The damage done, Lucas now pledges to return to her first concern – saving the planet from you and me. For those of us left in the wreckage, the question is: what happened here? What caused the British left to jettison all its ideas and adopt the status quo in such a short period of time? The tendency for many on the left is to pretend none of this really happened. This transformation never occurred.
But it did. Lucas tells us the story of the left in our own times. It is not a happy tale.