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Felix Dodds looks at the legacy of the Green Guard of Young Liberals 1984-1988

February 24, 2018 3:00 PM

There have been two times where the Young Liberals have played a critical role in the philosophical direction of the party.

(This article is copied from our GLD Challenge magazine)

Young Liberals 35 years on (Christian Vassie)The first was of course the Red Guard period from the 1960s to the early 1970s. Gaining the name after sponsoring the anti-NATO resolution at the 1966 party conference.

Then leader Jeremy Thorpe was so worried about the activities of the youth wing that he set up a three-man commission. They produced the Terrell Report which accused some of the Young Liberals of being communists (hence the Maoist "Red Guard" epithet). At that time and during the Green Guard period many Young Liberals described themselves as "libertarian socialists". Best expressed by former YL Chair Peter Hain and future Labour Cabinet Minister:

"Underlying libertarian socialism is a different and distinct notion of politics which rests on the belief that it is only through interaction with others in political activity and civic action that individuals will fully realise their humanity. Democracy should therefore extend not simply to government but throughout society: in industry, in the neighbourhood or in any arrangement by which people organise their lives."

Or, as another Green Guard member, Mike Harskin put it: "Liberalism is a rich cocktail of anarchism and socialism with a green strand" (1985)

The Young Liberals amended the party's strategy at the Liberal Party Conference in Eastbourne in 1970; an amendment which was passed with little enthusiasm from the Party leadership. The amendment defined the new strategy as:

"a dual approach to politics, acting both inside and outside the institutions of the political establishment to help organise people in their communities to take and use power to build a Liberal power-base in the major cities of this country to identify with the under-privileged in this country and the world to capture people's imagination as a credible political movement, with local roots and local successes."

This was to revolutionise the party - it became known as "community politics".

Green Guard

The Liberal party had adopted a no-growth economic strategy in 1979 which took into consideration the impacts of the economy on the environment.

This was a beacon for the growing environment activism that had been birthed with the moon landing and the UN Conference in 1972 on Human Environment. By 1982 young people were looking for a political party that took the environment seriously and the Liberal party looked like it would be a good place to have some impact. The Alliance with the Social Democratic Party (SDP) had shot them to what at the time looked like a possible government with opinion polls showing them on over 50%.

The Green Guard, like the Red Guard, also focused on foreign policy issues such as Cruise missiles and Trident. One of the successes of those years was to ensure that the party kept to its 'Liberal Values on Defence and Disarmament' engineering the coalition that beat the party leadership on defence at the 1986 party conference. Many believe that the speech by Simon Hughes, one of the three MPs who backed the YL push, won the day for the rebels:

"Fellow Liberals, we could change the direction of British defence and disarmament policy. But we are a party. Many of us joined this party because of its aim and its goal: a non-nuclear Europe in a non-nuclear world. We have never voted to replace independent nuclear deterrent. Not only must we not do so now, but our policy must be to do so never - and, to replace an independent British nuclear deterrent by a European nuclear deterrent - even if that concept was workable - is not an acceptable alternative.... We are on the verge of responsibility. There's no more important subject - the battle is not between us, the battle is for our future. I urge you to accept both amendments and the resolution and be proud of all that we stand for."

The approach of the 1980 YLs, like their predecessors the Red Guard, pushed for active green policies at the local level with Liberal Councils across the country leading the way on tackling CFC recycling to protect the ozone layer, greening our towns with more cycle paths and attacking local water and air pollution challenges. At the national level, MPs like Simon Hughes, David Alton, Michael Meadowcroft and David Penhaligon in particular, led the push in parliament for green policies. Some Green Guard members would, themselves, become MPs in the 2000s - Adrian Sanders and Martin Horwood.

The 1980s put the YLs in coalition with environmental NGOs. Des Wilson, who had been President of Friends of the Earth, became the Party President and election coordinator for the 1987 General Election. We were one of the first groups to address the issue of climate change seriously. We were also at the forefront in addressing a rights agenda whether it was the problems in Northern Ireland, gay and women's rights or the need to fund international development.

Thirty-five years later

Young Liberals - Green Guard (Christian Vassie)Looking at the state of the world in 2017 it is clearer where the successes were and where we did not address key issues which we should have done.

Perhaps we should view the bad news first. We had no economic experts or proper theory on how or what the real elements of a green economic policy was or wasn't. We weren't alone in the party or in the greater green movement. David Boyle and others have constantly reminded Liberal Democrats that we need a real economic conversation and education. This seems strange, considering the impact that the Liberal party of the 1930s had on 20th century economic policy with Keynes and Beverage.

If there has been any push on economics in the party, it has been from the right of the party and that has not represented the values and principles that the Liberal party upheld throughout the 20th century. As Beverage says:

"Liberals believe our guiding force should not be selfinterest, class conflict, but the determination not to rest while any are condemned to want, disease, ignorance and unemployment."

Pretty good! I would add to the end `or an unsustainable planet`.

The Liberal Democrats predicted the economic crisis but did not do enough while in government to break up the financial casino capitalism that still is in control of the markets.

I said this in a UN conference in 2011: "In the same way that banks succeeded at privatizing the profits and socializing the losses as they led the global economy to the brink of collapse, we are in danger of doing the same with the environment. Humanity has taken a huge leap in the last decades and become a planetary-scale force - we need to behave as a global civilization if we are not to face catastrophic consequences."

We should have sent the bankers to jail - as happened in Ireland and Iceland. This has fed the rise of economic nationalism and can be tied back to that and we did not voice or act on that concern enough. The Labour leader has now been seen as the true advocate of accountability and it should have been us. The next financial crisis is not far away it happens roughly every 10 years in one form or another. Are we prepared? No!

On Iraq, the party took the principled position that the war was illegal and needed a second resolution, I would point out so, behind the scenes, did most of the former Major cabinet.

On the issue of nuclear power and weapons the party has now taken policies that would not fit in with the Green Guard perspective. It is very difficult to understand why that is - there is no evidence that nuclear power has a role in our energy mix and with the costs of renewables already competitive I believe this is a misstep.

Nowadays I spend most of my time at UN meetings where I have seen the UK reputation and impact decrease significantly over the last ten years - we are no longer a major power in most discussions. That we have nuclear weapons is the only reason that we are taken account of on peace and security now.

Where the UK used to lead on environmental issues, France and Germany have that role as well as leading developing countries such as Brazil, South Africa, Colombia and India and China.

On the positive side the party is still working at the local level to promote green policies and the UK Green Bank could have been a real significant partner in this. But it has recently been sold off by the Conservatives! The party has been at the forefront of the climate change issue on the successful push for 0.7% of GNI for development aid.

The Future

If the Green Guard were to come along today, these are the areas I believe they and the party need to have coherent policies in line with the enhanced Beverage quote above on:

1. Climate Change and energy policy to keep within the 2-degree C target. Liberal Democrat Councils set CO2 targets to lead the way. (unsustainable planet);

2. An economic policy for 2030 and 2050 not one for 2020 - we can no longer in the future base taxation on income (unsustainable planet, want and self-interest);

3. A dialogue on the impact of new technologies and what policies are needed to address them (employment);

4. Regulation of the finance sector and companies to ensure they 'do no harm' in the environment - this would include companies required to produce their Environment-Social and Governance reports like they produce their economic reports to be listed on stock exchanges (unsustainable planet and self interest);

5. A return to free higher education like German has done (ignorance);

6. A health service focusing on prevention and by doing that taking on fast foods and 'bad foods';

7. Adopt a rights-based approach dealing with welfare, well-being and environmental issues (ignorance, want, selfinterest, unsustainable planet);

8. Set up an Ombudsman for Future Generations (unsustainable planet);

9. Support the establishment of an International Court on the Environment (unsustainable planet); and

10. Address the issue of migration and refugees as Beverage would have done (self-interest, want, ignorance).

We live in perhaps the most insecure world since the 1960s and what we need is inspiring leadership that understands the risks and challenges ahead. The Liberal Democrats have been at the forefront of flagging up the Economic Crisis in 2007 and the challenges of economic nationalism as expressed by Trump and Brexit. Climate change is a great equalizer - we all will be impacted by it over the coming years.

The YLs of the Red and Green Guard period were successful because they reached outside of the party to bring new ideas and people into the party but ultimately, they worked for the promotion of liberalism as opposed to the party. You can find liberals in all parties and that is why at the end of the Green Guard we produced the book 'Into the 21st Century: An Agenda for political Realignment' in which we argued we need to work on green and liberal issues across the parties together. By working together we can create a just, equitable, fair and sustainable planet.

Felix Dodds is an author on sustainable development, President of Amber Valley Liberal Democrats and a former Chair of the National League of Young Liberals.

Felix Dodd's book - Power to the People (Felix Dodds)

Felix recently published a book:

Power to the People: Confessions of a Young Liberal Activist 1975-1987
available from Amazon and all good bookshops

Did the Green Guard ever really go away?

Felix started one paragraph with these words… "If the Green Guard were to come along today,…", but I would say that the Green Guard has actually been present throughout, in the hands of the Green Liberal Democrats, and any truly independent analysis of the environmental stance of the Liberal Democrats puts the party head and shoulders above any other political party, including the one that carries the Green Party name, in addressing environmental issues.

However, I would heartily agree with Felix that the Green Lib Dems probably need to take a more vocal position in addressing the leadership of the party as a whole. Although the generality of party policy is pretty green, the appearance of sustainability and green policies has never reached the head of the list to feature "front and centre" as a key theme in the manifesto at election times.

The Green Liberal Democrats were formed in the Spring of 1988 after the Liberal Party merged with the SDP, so the group has just reached the 30-year mark. Over the years it has run a whole host of influential environmental Fringe meetings and contributed resolutions to the Party`s reservoir of green policy.

Perhaps it is time for us to stand and shout from the rooftops just how green we are. We have decided to hold a national Green Liberal Democrat Conference in the spring of 2018 when we can start to look forwards to the next 30 years. We MUST get the Liberal Democrats to focus on the way ahead to a SUSTAINABLE future and to make that the core of Liberal Democracy in this country.

Anything less than that and we will lose the battle against Climate Change and if we were to lose that battle it will hardly matter what other policies we may espouse - our lives will be constrained by the damaged environment with which we may be faced.

Clearly Felix and I need to hand the radical green baton on to the next (and probably the next but one!) generation of liberals.

Bring on the GREEN revolution!!

Keith Melton, founding Chair of the Green Liberal Democrats (GLD), who recently re-joined the Liberal Democrats after `retiring` from Party Politics back in 1998