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Is George Monbiot a Liberal Democrat?

December 1, 2003 12:00 AM
By David Howarth in Challenge

David Howarth wants to send a membership form to an apparent convert

Liberal Democrats and the Green Party have many views and policies in common. To name just a few, the two parties share commitments to environmentally-friendly forms of transport, taxing pollution and carbon use, encouraging energy efficiency and renewable forms of energy production, the empowerment of local government, proportional representation and opposition to the war in Iraq.

Admittedly, Greens have always poured scorn on the Liberal Democrats' commitment to these policies (even though several of them were adopted by the Liberal Party before the Green Party even existed). In return, rather more credibly, Liberal Democrats have always doubted the Greens' ultimate commitment to civil liberties and to political freedom. The Greens are a party for which ends matter far more than means.

But two issues have, by mutual consent, clearly divided the parties for years: trade and Europe. Greens oppose commerce and trade. They think all transport costs are wasteful and a threat to the environment. They therefore want local communities to be self-sufficient in everything. They are fundamentally opposed to international trade and openly favour barriers to trade and protectionism.

The idea of the European Union, founded on the fundamentally Liberal idea that free trade increases the degree to which we depend on people in other countries and thus promotes peace, appals them. The euro, the main point of which is to facilitate trade, is, for Greens, a bad idea not because it might not work, but because it plainly does work.

At this year's conference in Brighton, the Liberal Democrats re-affirmed commitments both to trade and to Europe. In a paper on macro-economic policy, the party said that barriers to trade, especially in agriculture, make poor countries poorer and waste resources. The paper calls for further reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy to eliminate protectionist subsidies to European farming and for the extension to fossil fuels of trade rules against subsidies. It says that open trade based on worldwide rules has great potential to help the environment and the third world, and that, although bodies such as the World Trade Organisation also have the potential to do great harm if captured by special interests, an anarchic trade system based on protectionism and nationalism would be far, far worse.

The paper also re-iterates the case for the European Union and for the euro. On the euro it says:

"The case for the euro is simple.

(1) A common currency reduces uncertainty for importers and exporters, increasing trade.

(2) More trade means more competition in the economy, since consumers have more choices.

(3) More competition raises the rate of growth, as innovative firms are able to expand more easily.

(4) In addition, a strong common currency is less liable to be the subject of currency speculation than, for example, sterling was in 1992, reducing risk at a macroeconomic level.

(5) Finally, the UK is more likely to be able to influence the rules of the single European market, on which it depends for the majority of its exports, if the UK is part of the common currency used in that market. definition, since the newly traded products would not be sold unless they were competitive."

In the midst of anti-globalisation protests and the continued unpopularity of the European Union and the euro, it might seem that such policies are going against the grain of modern politics. But there are signs that, on the contrary, these ideas are gaining support, including from people who previously would have seen themselves as Greens. Perhaps surprisingly, the war in Iraq has been one of the reasons they have moved.

The most striking conversion is that of George Monbiot, Guardian columnist, environmentalist, and, in books such as Captive State, scourge of multinational corporations. He used to be very anti-trade, in a fundamentalist Green way, believing that only trade in raw materials and cash crops should be allowed.

But he now says that he was wrong. His position now is that the idea of stopping trade is "as coercive, destructive and unjust as any of the schemes George Bush is cooking up".

He describes the idea that all production should be local as a myth. He points out that since raw materials are not distributed evenly around the world, local production of everything implies even higher transport costs than now, because the cost of transporting heavy raw materials is more than the cost of transporting lighter finished goods. Internationally agreed taxation of carbon-based fuel is a far better idea than killing international trade altogether.

Monbiot also points out that self-sufficiency is more plausible for rich countries than poor countries - there is just not enough demand to make an Ethiopian computer industry viable, for example. Poor countries would never be able to develop beyond agriculture and the export of raw materials. Lack of trade will make the poor even poorer.

Monbiot has even embraced the World Trade Organisation, seeing it as an opportunity to control special interests that can overwhelm individual countries. His proposal to democratise the WTO's structures, as part of a wider project to democratise world institutions such as the UN, might seem utopian, but they are impeccably Liberal in their ideals.

Even more striking is Monbiot's conversion to Europe and the euro.

In an article in The Guardian in June, he suddenly realised that the European integration in general - and the euro in particular - constitute one of the few plausible counterbalances to the overwhelming economic and political power of the United States. At least within the European Union we have some say in our destiny. Outside the EU, we are a tributary of Washington.

Monbiot wrote:

"The global justice movement, of which I consider myself a member, has, by and large, opposed accession to the euro, arguing that it accelerates the concentration of economic and political power, reduces people's ability to influence monetary policy and threatens employment in the poorest nations and regions…. But it seems to me that the costs of integration are merely a new representation of the paradox of sovereignty. Small states or unaffiliated tribes have, throughout history, found that the only way to prevent themselves from being overrun by foreign powers was to surrender their autonomy and unite to fight their common enemy. To defend our sovereignty - and that of the rest of the world - from the US, we must yield some of our sovereignty to Europe."

Suddenly, people who could not see the point of the European Union are seeing what it is about, and seeing that Britain's customary wrecking role within the Union is bad for the whole world.

Does anyone have a membership form for George Monbiot?

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