To be honest, he was taller than I expected, and more Eastern in appeareance, a kind of lanky version of Mehmet behind the deli counter at my local Turkish International Food Emporium.
David Miliband was also considerably thinner than I would have liked, considering he might one day rule the New Labour Party, who might just rule my country again. We wouldn’t want him blown away by the slightest breeze, surely, would we ? He needs feeding in my opinion.
“Should be starting any minute now”, assured one of the event stewards as the clock ticked resolutely onwards after the advertised 11:00 am starting time for the Fabian Society’s “The Global Change We Need” one-day conference, hosted by Amnesty International.
We were made to wait by the interminable rise of “celebrity politics”, as Mr Miliband the Elder needed a commanding entrance, a long and powerful walk to the podium in full view of all the big fat cameras and young, shiny-faced campaigners and researchers.
David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, was terribly aware of his facial expression, holding himself in a way to under-accentuate his off-balance face, but he was a human, too, as he had a broad smile when he was amused by something. He is, as Private Eye have cartooned him, a schoolboy character.
He spun a load of goop, even sometimes putting his finger under the words on the page, probably written for him while he was on the plane back from yesterday, where was it this week ? Istanbul or Sarajevo or Belgrade. He mentioned all three.
I didn’t think he was convincing, not on Foreign Policy, not on the illegal and immoral warfare the United Kingdom military is engaged in; not on the key issue of Climate Change; not on social political engagement.
His theme was ostensibly, allegedly, about the new relationship between people and governments – addressing the disconnects in the public discourse resulting from the loss of trust in public institutions. He decried populism as dangerous. He applauded the (Barack) Obama campaign for the American Presidency last year, which he said was defiantly optimistic. That it was internationalist and unifying. That it was fresh and radical.
David Miliband said that his personal starting point was the realisation of how ambitious Obama was, and how it addressed the issues of the times – the deep recession and the closing window on Climate Change. He went on to mention other aspects of Foreign Policy which I shall not go into here, about which I strongly disagreed with.
Miliband constructed a narrative surrounding what he defined as the rise of soft power – how people doing media for themselves has “fuelled change”. How graphic media images have changed the course of events around the globe, by raising public support for various policies and measures. How that “our own enemies” have also exploited social media in the civilian population for their own ends.
He said that the rise of the Peoples’ Media did not signal the end of traditional diplomacy. How rulers were becoming more constrained by the power of public opinion. How he was emotionally engaged by the marching monks in Rangoon, Burma. “They knew we were standing up for them”. And so on.
During this I was thinking, there are some issues where we really can’t benefit from having more “soft power”. The people of Great Britain, for example, have a significant and vocal minority who live a British National Party kind of life, a Climate Change denier, petrol-head kind of life. If the Brits are politically apathetic, generally, then these small dangerous minorities will have too much influence if the Government is seeking to follow or respond to the “soft power” mood of the public mind.
David Miliband talked about “soft persuasion”, how “success will come when people start switching sides”, when people can see justice and fairness…we need a genuine political settlement…where people don’t refuse to engage with the other side. On Climate Change, he said he valued the ability of businesses and people to have their voices heard. Governments should not be afraid of public opinion.
On which I reflected – does he not understand about the wrecking agenda that some businesses have spent money on ? That the self-interests of some businesses, especially those who are resolutely hanging on to the Energy technologies of yesterday, are undermining progress ? How public opinion is based on falsehoods propagated by some businesses ? There is documented evidence of both the undue influence of corporates on government policy and the way that corporates have misled people. If we listen to public opinion, that opinion is tainted. Just look at the Wind Farm refusal brigade !
And “switching sides” is useless in the Climate Change and Energy debate without real action being possible to reduce Carbon Dioxide emissions. Often people make the decision to Go Green, but then end up with making token gestures of change, because they are hampered in their ability to make real changes. Because our Energy supply is dictated by the business of Fossil Fuel companies, and our whole society is managed by the Energy provided by the Fossil Fuel companies, and nobody can escape that without great personal sacrifice.
David Miliband talked about his big three challenges. Without values, soft power is more fragile. How it breeds distrust, value-free politics, “grey” areas, a tendency to “slip back”. He cited the case of the extreme right-of-centre politicians who used the “tunes” of freedom and democracy. David Miliband said that progressives should not be scared of being, what was it, “decisive” ? A different approach, holding firm to the “good life”. Responsible, but still open to being held to account through the system of law.
David Miliband praised the value of institutions – “how to put values into practice”. The importance of the European Union…we have to support our institutions, a durability that supports democracy. Then he went on to discuss the need for mass public mobilisation. In the run up to Copenhagen, he said, there has to be a lot of debate.
Mr Miliband worried that citizens may not be part of the debate. He mentioned that there are still many people who don’t believe the risks of Climate Change, and that was why the Government had worked with the Hadley Centre to put out the Four Degrees map of the world. He anticipated mass migration, sea level rise, issues with food security. He said this was “not catastrophism, but reality”.
David Miliband said that we need to prove the “first mover advantage” for businesses enacting the changes to reduce Greenhouse Gas emissions by 2050. He also said we need to engage in the ethics of Climate Change. It’s not just about technology or science, he went on, it’s about the need for mitigation and adaptation for people around the world. He praised the European initiative on pledging money for developing nations, and how this commitment could “enluc” a global deal. Or that’s what I heard him say anyway. The Spanish verb “enlucir” means “concreting”, “plastering”, “parget”, you know, firming things up.
“The ethics of Climate Change are in the end going to determine the potential”, David Miliband said. He said that soft power is more important, and that we need to have “progressive means as well as progressive ends”, whatever that meant. He said that the power to change the world is distributed, that no country has the power on its own to “bring the world to heel”. (“What control language”, I thought). “We all have a role to play”, he said. “That is the change we need.”
In questions from the floor, somebody asked about legitimacy, about how important it is to get citizens involved in democracy. David Miliband said that the experience shows that we need to have democratic process build from the bottom up – like the institutions have been built from the bottom up. That we need transparency, that public opinion should be a regulator, that we have suffered from a centralising of power. “You can’t engage people in politics if you don’t give them power”. “It’s very hard in mass organisations to give people power…can give people a sense of purpose and agency – feel that they’re making a difference.”
My internal reaction to this centred on my understanding of the nature of Science and Technology – and the knowledge that many peoples’ opinions about Science and Technology are nowhere near reality. If you give people power over issues of Science and Technology, and they have no idea about the realities of the Science and Technology, then they could be an unhelpful political power. There are many examples of “Bad Science” in the Media and in popular campaigning groups.
Do my opinions count ? Why do my opinions, as an ordinary citizen count ? And if my opinions are based on fallacies, falsehoods or poor reasoning, should I be allowed to have power in the political dialogue ?
I know that lack of knowledge and understanding don’t prevent people taking up opinions about things; but are those opinions valid ?
I also considered the role of the Coal industry, documented in the United States as having spent large amounts of money building fake “grassroots” organisations to support “clean” coal. How can “building from the bottom up” be authentic if there are deliberately manipulative pressures ?
David Miliband talked about how mass organisations can give people power. He gave the example of the RSPB, mobilising people around the EU Habitats Directive, which would otherwise not evoke mass participation.
In questions from the floor, Charlie Kronick, Chief Policy Advisor to Greenpeace, tried to challenge David Miliband about his call for mass mobilisation around Climate Change. He asked whether it was right to assume that the “agencies” (including the environmental campaign organisations) representing the voice of people will propagate the voice of the people to the Government, or just the voice of the Government to the people.
David Miliband slipped out of this one. “The great thing about democracy”, he said “is the right to disagree.” He mentioned the advice “beware of being captured by the NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations”, and that progressives are sick of “interest-group liberalism”. He said that was how the Green New Deal in the United States broke down – caught between the interests of capital and labour. That this was a lesson for politicians, to engage people and not just groups. By tweeting and blogging you can meet millions of people without meeting them. Just as he does. Rather than “campaign in poetry and govern in prose”, Obama shows how you need to campaign in government. The biggest lesson is the art of persuasion.
Somebody else asked from the floor, that since on Climate Change people have had an expectation of a massive treaty that now people will be disillusioned (as everybody is now predicting a “political agreement” but not a “binding agreement” on emissions at Copenhagen in December). The questioner asked how we can overcome the void between leading and following. How we can make the leaders willing to lead ?
David Miliband said that we need people to mobilise and not to start with low aspirations. He said there must be a global legally binding agreement. Every country in the world, acting on common but differentiated responsibilities – which means the rich countries should do most. He said “You have to persuade from office…a challenge to campaigners to put pressure where necessary.”
In other words : we, the people, are expected to rise up and follow the lead from Government. I’m not convinced. The Government is not leading on communication with the people about the reality and seriousness of Climate Change. There is no educational television backed by public money, fronted by the Government’s expert advisers/advisors explaining the Science of Global Warming and the demands of creating an entirely new and Renewable Energy economy. The Government does not sponsor or promote initiatives that expose and remove right-wing, industry-funded propaganda about Climate Change from the Media.
Only 20% of the British people care enough about Climate Change to attempt to do something about it. Without massive financial backing, the educational charities cannot correct the lack of comprehension in the public about where we are heading as the world warms.
The public will not respond in masses to calls to support Climate Change action. All Climate Change regulation and measures involve things that appear like sacrifice and being asked to give up a life of easy Energy and cheap Transportation and mass market consumption.
People can work out that the Government have already decided what to do, and that they are being asked to support it, not challenge it. We are not putting pressure on the Government through our campaigns. We are merely acceding to their agenda. And not in huge numbers, because the Government is not being fully open with us about what they know (or rather, their Scientists know) about Global Warming.
The Government is only painting a water-colour picture of concern about the impacts of Climate Change. What is needed is a blockbuster surround-sound IMAX 3D all-action action-hero film. I know, I know, there is the film The Age of Stupid. But what I’m talking about is replacing BBC 24 News with Climate Change education programmes; pushing The Sun newspaper to feature regular features on visions of a future Low Carbon world; pulling sceptics and deniers from their influential positions in newspapers and online newspaper websites. I’m talking about a rather more active Government engagement with the people – full of honesty, Science and frankness.
We need more information and less preaching.