1989 Interview with Chris Patten: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Shaping Environmental Policy: Conversation with Christopher Patten, Sec. of State for the Environment, Great Britain; 8/10/89 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Nanou Matteson

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Placing Environment on the Agenda

Why were you so far-sighted in seeing the environment as an issue in this position? You have described setting out to put it on the agenda. Was it political pressures that you were feeling from the populace that generated this concern?

I don't think I was particularly far-sighted. I think there are an awful lot of people, some who work for the environmental NGOs, who have been much more far-sighted, though I sometimes argue with the extent to which they think you can single-issue the world -- I simply don't believe that's possible. Just to jog back for one moment to what I was saying about the developed world - developing world relationship, I do take exception to the way in which quite a lot of environmental groups think that we should forget all the other sorts of development assistance that we've been providing to poorer countries and just concentrate on environmental projects and shift resources from direct poverty alleviation or primary health care or whatever, and spend it on direct environmental projects. I simply don't think that that is the right approach. I think what we do on the environment has to be additional to what else we're doing to encourage development in poorer countries.

Going back to whether or not I was perceptive, as I've said on a number of occasions, I think I was part of a generation which grew up reading [E.F.] Schumacher [Small is Beautiful] and didn't, therefore, assume that people who argued about the environmental threat to our present and our future were romantic eccentrics, which may be the mind-set of an older political generation. In addition, you didn't have to have very substantial antennae in British or European politics to recognize mounting public concern about environmental matters. It's really the second wave we've seen in Europe as a whole. The first wave was in the early 1970s, which was, interestingly, the last time we had a period of economic growth. Then, certainly in Britain, in the later '70s, we found ourselves contemplating our own navel, trying to work out how we could reestablish economic growth. We're at the end of a long, steady period of economic growth now, and I think it's very understandable that people should be worried again about the environment, worried about the quality of life, and not just how to promote economic growth. I think that concern is here to stay. I would make a distinction between what's happened in Germany and what's happened elsewhere in Europe, which I would largely relate to the greater success that the Germans have had in managing their economy. They've had a much longer period of economic growth than any of the rest of us and therefore, I think it's not surprising that their Greens, their environmentally oriented parties, have taken root for much longer and have had more of a substantial impact on public debate.

Isn't the problem for a politician that at least some elements of the environmental movement are challenging the question of economic growth, especially in its unbridled forms? What sort of problem does that pose for political leaders like yourself?

It poses a problem because you find yourself having to define rather difficult and nebulous concepts like "sustainable economic growth." One of the first things that my new department will be doing is to publish a series of studies on what exactly we mean by "sustainable economic growth," because I don't think it's sufficient for us merely to parrot the expression as though it were the answer to critics of growth per se. But beyond that, I don't believe that I will have too much difficulty in arguing the case for economic growth, albeit sustainable economic growth, because we in the UK have an example of a period when we had no economic growth. We don't have to predict what happens to the environment in those circumstances; we know. In the 1970s with nil economic growth what got savaged were capital investment programs to improve the quality of water, to deal with sewage treatment, and to make our energy sector more efficient. Money still went into subsidies, very damaging subsidies, to agriculture, to energy, and so on. But the consequence of no economic growth was a worsening in the quality of our environment.

The most ravaged environment in Europe is Poland, East Germany, Eastern Europe, where a combination of public sector incompetence and nil economic growth have produced an environmental sink, and I would guess that that's going to be one of the major European issues in the next generation as (which I hope is the case) Western Europe and Eastern Europe come closer together. I guess we're going to spend some of our resources in Western Europe helping to clean up Eastern Europe.

A critic of your party, or of any conservative party, might say, "A conservative party is vulnerable on these issues. It's not positioned to confront the environmental problems we face as long as it's committed to the marketplace, to unbridled capitalism, to limited regulation, and so on." What is your response to that argument?

My response to that argument, just like Adam Smith, is that I don't think that capitalism should be unbridled, if by "unbridled" you mean unregulated. I think a marketplace works effectively when it does so within rules which both guarantee its survival and health, and, more to the point, guarantee the survival and health of the community for which it's working. So for me there is no paradox about believing in the efficacy of market forces on the one hand and, on the other, believing very strongly that market forces should obey civilized standards in relation, if you like, to accountancy practice and in relation to environmental practice. I don't regard that as remotely a paradox. What I think one has to do is to be clear about roles. I think that the private sector, the market, is good at producing goods and providing services. I think government is good at regulating and controlling. I think when you confuse those functions, you then run into all sorts of difficulties. We've been, for years, confusing those functions in relation to our water industry. We're now trying to get away from that by distinguishing between those who are responsible for providing water and those who are responsible for regulating the quality of water. There should not be any reason at all why a vigorous market economy shouldn't obey precise and sensible rules which ensure that the market economy discharges its social obligations.

Does that mean more regulation, more taxes to direct behavior in a certain way?

It certainly means regulation. It certainly means obliging those who pollute to pay for it. It certainly does, I think, envisage a role for the tax system in encouraging good environmental practice and discouraging bad. One of the effective ways in which we've used taxes in the last few years is to open up a differential in price between unleaded petrol and ordinary petrol. And I think that's a substantial reason why the number of outlets providing unleaded petrol in the UK in the last couple of years has enormously mushroomed, and why the number of people, like me, who have converted their cars to take unleaded petrol has mushroomed at the same time. So I think you can use the tax system in order to encourage people to make environmentally benign choices. But on balance, I'm not in favor of trying to build too many special breaks into the tax system. On balance, I'm rather more in favor of a level economic playing field, but a playing field in which the environmental warning notices are written in large, green letters.

Isn't a lot of your opposition going to come from your fellow secretaries of state in other departments? Is the secretary of state for agriculture going to favor, necessarily, limiting chemicals with regard to the constituencies?

I think that all ministers are going to have to become conscious of the environmental imperatives in government. We've only recently made quite a lot of progress in relation to agriculture and nitrates, thanks, not least I suspect, to the fact that our new agriculture minister was previously in the department of the environment, which is a help. But you have, obviously, put your finger on a central problem for any government. There's an analogy. Our last budget minister, responsible for controlling public expenditure, used to make the point very frequently that he regarded himself as the taxpayer's friend. And, while he had to fight spending ministers in order to ensure that the budget did not go out of control, he also had to try to encourage budget ministers to think for themselves about the importance of getting value for money and not thinking that every problem could be answered by throwing cash at it. I think there is a comparable position for an environment minister. I think that an environment minister has to be the friend of the present and the future. And I think the environment minister has to try to encourage his colleagues to think similarly, but that doesn't mean that I'm always going to see eye-to-eye easily with energy ministers or, conceivably, the most benign agriculture ministers.

Looking at you career, we've talked about the importance of words in the jobs that you've held, and we've also talked about concrete policies. I guess I was led to conclude you were far-sighted in the sense that, although the environment was an issue that was known in the development office by the end of your term, you had made concrete policies, or negotiated concrete deals, that moved the process along. What I'm curious about is, what standard would you suggest we apply to you as you enter this office? What should our expectations be about what the minister of environment will accomplish over the long term? I don't necessarily mean a particular policy, but help us understand how we should relate to politicians as they use words in this area. The long term issue requires that we get some results.

Yes it does. I think that the argument about the environment can all too easily be railroaded by the usual partisan knockabout, and become an argument about whether the correct figure for this or that environmental improvement is 65 percent or 66 percent. I think the arguments can also be railroaded by those for whom no politician and no government minister is ever going to be able to do enough, because there are people in the environmental field, as in others, who don't actually concede that other people are entitled to a point of view, and who don't concede that there are quite a lot of things outside their own particular range of interests which have to be taken account of in governing a country.

Putting those things on one side, what I would hope that I would be able to do is, first of all, convince people of the central and integral importance of the environment in discussing the whole range of political issues. I hope that we can stop regarding the environment as a sort of optional add-on, like belief in motherhood, or kindness to furry creatures, and see it as something which is right at the heart of political debate, rather in the way, at least in the late '70s and '80s, we've regarded the tax - public expenditure balance as being at the center of political argument and debate rather than an optional extra.

Secondly, I would very much hope that Britain would be seen in the next few years as one of those countries which is in the vanguard internationally in trying to move environmental consciousness globally a few more meters down the road. We're pressing hard, at the moment, for a global convention on climate change, which would be a sort of an international "good conduct" guide, into which we could slot protocols, rather like the Montreal protocol on the ozone layer, as science, economics, and the public will come into balance. I'd also hope that, domestically, I'll be able in the next year or so to set out a fairly clear and coherent strategic overview on the environment, answering questions like some of those that you've asked about the relationship between economic policies and the environment, the relationship between growth and the environment, the relationship between private sector companies and environmental concern. All those sort of things. And so if I can move the argument on a bit in those sort of directions, I'd reckon that I'd done a reasonably good job. Whether other people would or not is another matter because my department covers an awful lot of other things in addition to those we've been talking about. We cover housing and planning and inner cities. We cover local government and local government finance. So there's plenty of issues on which I can get bogged down unless I'm rather careful.

One issue that we must touch on is the whole question of national interest and nationalism in these problems, because we are talking about global problems, in many cases, which will require global solutions. Will countries have to give up some of their sovereignty to deal with these issues? Or can they go their own way and mutually cooperate with others to get the same result?

Well, if you regard it as fundamental to your sovereignty to emit as much CO2 into the atmosphere as you want, then some time between now and the not-to-distant future, I think you're going to have to redefine your sovereignty. I find it very difficult to talk about sovereignty in the absolute. I find it easier, rather as the same would be the case in talking about freedom, to talk about sovereignty to do this, or sovereignty to do that. I think that in many respects we are going to have to pool what we would classically describe as our sovereignty in order to deal with problems which know no frontiers. There's no East and West when it comes to the environmental challenge. There's no North and South. We're all in this together. The expression "interdependence" has been one of the clichés of international discussion for years. Well my heavens, the thing that really does underline interdependence is the environment.

We've talked about skills in the work that you've done and that you will do. What makes an effective political leader on these types of issues?

The political leader has to mobilize support and consent around propositions which aren't always very popular. Now you may say, "But on the environment, everybody's on your side." I think that's only true up to a point. People haven't really been challenged yet with the consequences of some of the rhetorical objectives which they say they share. If we are to be really effective in handling the environment, in enhancing the quality of our environment, we're going to sooner rather than later have to start paying for it. One of my biggest challenges, I would guess, is to be sufficiently persuasive in discussing these issues in public, to make people recognize that when their water bills are larger or their energy bills are larger, that is not because of some inadequacy of government, for which populist politicians can gain votes by denouncing it. That's because those are the costs we pay for a cleaner environment.

So the art of political education is central when you're on the cutting edge of issues like the environment.

Politicians, I think, have to give people tunes they can whistle. And the better sort of politician gives people tunes which have more in common with Mozart than Gilbert and Sullivan.

On that note, Mr. Patten, thank you very much for taking the time from your busy schedule to be with us here today.

© Copyright 1996, Regents of the University of California

See also the 1999 Inteview with Patten: Ideas, Political Leadership, and the Lessons of Hong Kong
and the 2006 interview: Europe and the World

To the Conversations page.