“Citizens’ Assemblies” and mandate manufacturing
The problems should be obvious. The Climate Change Act 2008 had gone through Parliament with almost zero resistance. Since then, there have been four general elections and four Prime Minsters (not to mention a historic referendum called, held, won and implemented). If four ‘generations’ of MPs, and five Cabinets, knew neither how to achieve emissions-reduction targets, nor whether they even had a mandate to do this, why had they not asked themselves whether those policies were sound in the first place, nearly 13 years ago?
Both problems are owed to putting the cart before the horse. First, MPs believed that the green technologies required to fulfil its policy goal would magically appear out of nowhere, just because the policy goal is there – let’s call it a unicorn rather than a horse. Second, and despite historic levels of public disengagement, MPs believed that they could somehow retroactively persuade people to support far-reaching policy that had already been made legislation. It turns out that setting the targets is easy – nobody cares about abstract percentages thrown around Westminster. But pressure has been mounting to turn ‘legally binding’ targets into policies that are going to weigh heavily on British households and businesses, whereas no sufficiently transformative technological development has occurred, no public will has been generated, and no reasonable cost-benefit analysis of Net Zero has been produced, much less survived scrutiny.
Much of that pressure came from the Green Alliance – a think tank with a big presence in Westminster. It has been at the centre of campaigning for climate policies, including the Climate Change Act, and worked to secure a cross-party consensus on climate change. But it was also the Green Alliance that identified the problem with its own lobbying. In a late 2018 report called ‘Building the political mandate for climate action’, the Green Alliance expressed concerns that ‘for the overwhelming majority of people, climate change is a non-issue’, and concluded by recommending ‘deliberative processes, such as citizens’ assemblies’ to overcome the democratic deficit it had helped to create. The idea was one also advocated by Extinction Rebellion, whose inaugural protest on Westminster’s streets won over Parliament, alongside Net Zero.
The author of the report, erstwhile director of the Green Alliance Rebecca Willis, had turned her political activism into a PhD at Lancaster University, and had subsequently been made a ‘professor in practice’. Following Parliament’s decisions to increase the UK’s emissions reduction target from 80 per cent to Net Zero, and to convene the Climate Assembly, Willis was invited to be one of four ‘Expert Leads’ to manage the project. The others were Chief Executive of the Climate Change Committee, Chris Stark; psychologist and Director at the University of Bath’s Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST) professor Lorraine Whitmarsh; and Professor Jim Watson, recently departed chair of the UK Energy Research Centre.
In my analysis of the Climate Assembly for the Global Warming Policy Forum, I show that these four Expert Leads chose individuals from their own networks to give presentations to the Climate Assembly. A number of these putative experts were presented to the Assembly as academics or policy-neutral specialists but had backgrounds in radical green organisations such as XR, EarthFirst, Greenpeace, Reclaim the Streets, Plane Stupid, and, of course, the Green Alliance. Even those without such obvious radical pasts nonetheless have careers at the nexus of academia, NGOs and the Civil Service, and campaigning and lobbying for climate policies.
As the boundaries between government, political parties, academe, civil society and journalism have become blurred by the climate agenda, so they have become dominated by groupthink and the democratic deficit has widened and deepened. The Climate Assembly was convened in the hope of it serving as a proxy for the broader public, but its mandate-manufacturing has been revealed as a mere performance, in which the excesses of groupthink have been repeated rather than overcome.
The problems of the undemocratic cross-party consensus on climate change that produced the Climate Change Act and Net Zero cannot be fixed by a glorified focus group of 108 people, hectored by green activists for six weekends. The political problem is much deeper and wider than that. And much ideology festers in that gap.
Within days of the Assembly’s report being published, the organisations involved in it had already twisted its recommendations. The Green Alliance claimed that the Assembly supported an increase in VAT for domestic gas. And the Committee on Climate Change claimed that the Assembly supported government interventions to reduce meat and dairy consumption – its own policy recommendation. The Climate Assembly opposed both things. Yet because nobody will read the 500 page report, and there exists no desire to allow scrutiny of the green agenda anywhere near Parliament, policymakers will not hear it.
Net Zero implies a radical reorganisation of society – perhaps as radical as any early twentieth Century political movement. The risks of policy failure are extremely high, and even policy success will create many losers. The architects of this transformation are candid, both about its radical nature, and that it will require nothing short of the social engineering of values to achieve it. Given their misjudgement of the public over the last 20 years, I do not believe they are equal to this task, and no amount of political waffle about ‘building back better’ can cut it, either. The lesson that a mandate should precede the radical, top-down transformation of society will be extremely painful, and dangerous, for all.
Suggestions for further reading/listening:
- “Sock Puppets: How the government lobbies itself, and why” by Chris Snowdon
- “The Sock Doctrine: What can be done about state-funded activism?” by Chris Snowdon
- “Euro Puppets: The European Commission’s remaking of civil society” by Chris Snowdon
- “Rebels without a cause?” with Victoria Hewson, Kristian Niemietz and Darren Grimes