Austerity and the Environment - Dr Caroline Lucas MP
On Thursday 5th July the Hansard Society and Political Studies Association were delighted to welcome Dr Caroline Lucas MP
as the speaker at our annual lecture, this year entitled Austerity and the Environment
To listen to this event in full, please click here
In May 2010 Dr Caroline Lucas MP became the first Green Party candidate ever elected to Parliament - only two years after becoming the Party's first leader. And since her election she has made a prolific contribution to debates in the House, tabling no less than 300 questions a year on topics as diverse as gender, nuclear disarmament, tax and, most notably, the environment. Her almost immediate membership of the Environmental Audit select committee has proved just as assiduous, with successive inquires and a strong focus on green investment and the economy. This year's PSA/ Hansard Society lecture, Austerity and the Environment, provided an unmissable opportunity to gain a first-hand insight into a topic at the cutting-edge of politics today.
Speech by Dr Caroline Lucas MP on Austerity and the Environment
Delivered at the Political Studies Association/ Hansard Society Annual Lecture in Parliament
5th July, 2012
Thank you for your kind invitation to speak here this evening.
The Hansard Society has a unique place in British politics, being at the same time entirely engaged with the political process, but also apart from it – one might even say, above it.
This is not always an easy position to be in, as I know from personal experience.
As the sole Green MP in the current Parliament, I’ve seen plenty of tribal politics.
Yet to achieve anything, I have to work with MPs across the political spectrum.
As a representative of the people of Brighton Pavilion, and also those hundreds of thousands of people across the country who voted Green but whose votes didn’t count, I’m deeply aware of the power of the institution of Parliament, and its importance to our national life.
But I am just as aware of its failings, and the ways in which it betrays people’s trust, and that’s why I’m passionate about its reform.
So I know what it feels like to be part of something, and yet also detached and, at times, even excluded from it.
If in seeking reform, you sometimes feel the same, then you have my sympathy.
1. Austerity and the Environment
I’m grateful to you for the suggested title for tonight: Austerity and the Environment.
For Greens, the environment is fundamental to our view of the state of the nation.
For unless we can find a way to live within our means, rather than by sacrificing the well-being of the rest of the world or future generations, our future as a nation will be bleak.
Climate change, for example – which didn’t rate a single mention in the latest Queen’s Speech – is one of the greatest threats to our national security.
That’s not my assessment. It’s that of the Government’s former Chief Scientist.
It is a threat to be compared to international terrorism. Not my words. Tony Blair’s.
Left unchecked, it could bring the planet to the edge of anarchy, with disruption and conflict endemic features of life – that’s the Pentagon.
Yet the current economic crisis has led the country’s political and economic elite to try and create a very perverse linkage between the environment and austerity.
The core of this discourse is that the environment is a form of consumption that we can ill-afford;
That it’s a luxury, like that extra cappuccino on the way to work, that we can do without when times are hard;
That protecting the environment is a drag on the economy, and gets in the way of creating new jobs or preserving existing ones;
And that those who think differently are middle class do-gooders who don’t understand people who live in the real world.
In short, in times of austerity, the environment becomes irrelevant.
And it is that claim that I wish to challenge this evening.
2. Breadth of Green Policies
But let me quickly first put to bed one myth about the Green Party – and that is, that we only care about the environment.
The truth is that we have policies for each and every aspect of our national life.
In fact, if you set out the policies of the different political parties across health, education, the economy, crime and so on in a kind of “blind taste” test, not revealing which party proposes what, then more people choose Green policies than those of any other parties.
That’s not because we play back to them what we’ve learned in focus groups.
For one thing, we don’t have the big spending donors to pay for those groups.
No. Our policies are based on fundamental values that we share with most people in this country, and we stick to them and are honest about them.
So when we campaign against the current health reforms, it is because we are fundamentally opposed to the profit motive within the National Health Service.
It isn’t a question of how much private involvement, or on what terms, or how quickly the NHS is broken up. We are against it, and that’s that.
People like the clarity.
They also like the policy, because they too believe that the profit motive has no place in the delivery of healthcare.
There are already plenty of difficult choices in health – from the balance between promoting healthy lifestyles and treating illnesses, or the tension between developing new drugs and treatments, and ensuring there is sufficient money to pay for the best possible care for those coming to the end of their lives.
We don’t need these choices – and the trust between patient and those looking after them – to be tainted by the suggestion that one or other approach will make the provider a bigger profit.
It’s the same on crime, transport, social care and pensions.
Our policies are more popular than those of the other parties.
Not because we promise people the earth. All our policies and budgets are costed at tedious length.
It’s because what we say makes sense, and chimes with their own view of the world.
People also like to have a choice. Modern politics rarely offers them this.
We have three parties committed, with slight variations, to the deployment of troops in Afghanistan; and you have the Greens who want to bring that deployment to an end.
We are the only party that says that pursuing full employment is a better guide to economic decision-making than pursuing GDP growth.
And we alone balance a principled opposition to the euro with a positive vision for the kind of European co-operation that would bring people closer to the decisions that affect them the most, while also promoting human rights, peace and well-being for all European citizens – a vision closer to the ideals of those who founded the European project than any of their successors.
Now I could talk at length about these and other policies and aspirations.
But I hope I have said enough to demonstrate this point.
We’re not a single issue party.
And so we don’t approach the question of the relationship between the environment and the economy on the basis that only the environment matters.
We say that the kind of “economic progress” – in heavy inverted commas – that requires the environment to be sacrificed is not economic progress at all, but a form of barbarism.
And just as importantly, that an economy that is in crisis, that fails to give people stability and a measure of prosperity, that leads to the waste of unemployment, bankrupt businesses, lost savings – that kind of economy will not help ensure that the environment is protected and enhanced.
And that the benefits must be shared fairly: economic activity that exploits or impoverishes people is not acceptable.
Nor is maintaining a good environment for the rich or the middle classes, while the poor and vulnerable suffer from overcrowding or pollution.
To put it another way, we need to find a way of integrating economic, social and environmental considerations to the benefit of all of us, now and for the future.
There is a term for this: sustainable development.
Or rather, there used to be
For, over the last 25 years, the term has been deliberately and entirely debased by politicians and business people who dislike its implications.
Now, anything from a new kind of hair conditioner to a new runway at Heathrow, can be spun as ‘sustainable’.
You can hardly move now for sustainability experts, most of whom are concerned only with doing the minimum needed to persuade the public to allow them to carry on as before.
Energy companies spewing out millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide, or house-builders ploughing up fields or woods rather than reusing existing sites, or retail chains selling clothes made in dubious circumstances for less than the price of a sandwich.
None of this is sustainable.
Not for the environment, because it is helping to degrade the planet.
Not for society, because it is based on exploitation and inequality.
And not for the economy, because it depends on the consumption of finite resources.
That’s why we need an alternative to the current economic and political orthodoxy.
And why we must start by refuting the current narrative on austerity and the environment.
3. Austerity Narrative
This narrative goes beyond the current cuts in public spending – though that is significant.
We’ve seen reductions in support for Green industries, for basic environmental programmes such as insulation and micro-generation, for bodies that are supposed to look after our environment, like English Nature and the Environment Agency.
The environment is not alone in seeing these kinds of cuts.
The arts, for example, have seen just the same combination of reduced funding and outright abolition.
We’ve also seen attempts to sell off environmental assets: notoriously, the proposed sale of the Forestry Commission’s estate.
This is rather different.
Although some art and heritage collections are threatened, particularly through cuts to local authority budgets, the government hasn’t suggested selling off the contents of the National Gallery or the Imperial War Museum. Yet.
But the heart of the coalition’s case on environment and austerity is that the environment itself – not just the bits the government owns or is supposed to protect – must be sacrificed.
It can fairly be reduced to a single proposition: that protecting the environment gets in the way of economic activity and employment.
In a way, the argument on employment is the more straightforward.
It is also firm ground for the Greens, for as I mentioned earlier, we are the only party to put employment ahead of economic growth as an objective of government policy.
I think it vital that everyone in our country has the chance to fulfil their potential and put something back into the community.
We see it as vital to be more flexible in how we judge people’s contribution, and would see caring for others or volunteering in the community as having just the same potential contribution as formal work.
But full employment – to use the old but familiar term – is useful shorthand.
And in the Green New Deal, we have a robust and costed plan for investing in new jobs.
A programme of renovation, insulation and micro-generation that would create hundreds of thousands of new jobs, and also bring wider social benefits through improving people’s homes, addressing the continuing scourge of fuel poverty and reducing people’s energy bills.
A Green economy is far more labour intensive than the fossil fuel economy it replaces.
And so the case I’d make tonight is that, far from being a burdensome distraction from addressing our economic difficulties, investment in the Green economy is the fastest route out of them.
The green economy already contributes 7% of GDP and employs 900,000 people in the UK, more than teaching.
Moreover, it is that rarity in these austere times: a growing sector in which the UK has a competitive advantage.
Yet the investors who will fund the nation's transition to a clean, sustainable green economy desperately need wholehearted backing from the top of government.
And in particular, they need policy certainty – a precondition that has been sadly conspicuous by its absence in the past few years.
The latest casualty of the Government’s failure to provide this most basic condition was the sad news a few weeks ago that a lack of orders has persuaded Vestas to pull out of plans to invest in a wind turbine manufacturing plant at Sheerness – a plant that could have provided up to 2000 badly needed jobs.
The number of people employed in Britain’s solar industry soared to 25,000 since the launch of the Feed-in Tariff scheme, and could have continued growing vigorously, had the Government not created chaos by its sudden changes to the support regime.
Marine energy has enormous potential. With the right support, the UK industry could seize almost a quarter of the world’s potential market, according to the Carbon Trust – worth an estimated £29 billion per annum to the UK economy in 2050, and supporting nearly 70,000 jobs.
The money could be found.
But currently it is being channelled into other areas – such as subsidies to the fossil fuel industry and the arms industry, where the social benefits are less “clear-cut”, to put it kindly.
Redirect those resources into the Green New Deal and we would see more jobs supported for each pound spent, and far greater social benefits, even setting aside the environmental considerations.
Instead, we have the Government’s dumbed-down ‘Green Deal’ – a scheme so lacking in ambition and so hollowed-out in conception that some question whether it’s worth having at all.
The other claimed impact on employment is from environmental regulation; in other words, the assumption that protecting the environment must cost jobs, presumably because it stops businesses doing just what they please.
Now for any act the government might take or not take, there will be lobbyists and others claiming an effect on employment.
The first caveat is that we should concentrate on net job losses or gains, not gross effects.
We’re all familiar with how the supermarket chains will claim to be creating thousands of new jobs from store openings – but of course they do not take into account the thousands of job losses arising from the impact of their competition – fair and unfair – with other shops.
The second is to consider the quality of those jobs, both for those who have them, and for their benefits to wider society.
So when I referred a moment ago to the gains from investing in green jobs rather than factories making weapons, I was careful to consider the net number of jobs and their social value.
The fact is, jobs are being gained and lost all the time, and this in part reflects changing priorities within society and new technologies.
People don’t work making fax or telex machines any more, because the world has moved on.
There may be a role for government in dealing with the consequences or helping people to retrain or companies to develop new products – but not to subsidise their production.
More significantly, all regulation is likely to have both positive and negative effects on employment: these need to be taken into account, but they cannot trump other factors.
Otherwise we would still have capital punishment, for fear of making the hangman unemployed.
It’s the same when we turn to the economic case for sacrificing the environment to boost the economy – or rather, to boost the growth in GDP.
GDP in itself is a pretty poor measure of economic activity, because of the arbitrary way in which it values all activity in the same financial terms, regardless of its true value to the individual or to society, and because it only covers some of the socially beneficial activity we undertake.
Raising a child, for example, is not part of the nation’s output.
Nor is cooking your child a meal.
But sending your child to a nursery to be looked after, or buying her a Krispy Kreme donut, are both part of GDP.
So GDP is not only incomplete, but also distorting.
How tempting it is for governments – even the ones that go on about family values – to encourage parents to go out to work, even if they would prefer to look after their children themselves.
This is why over the last few decades, we have be told that we are getting richer as a nation.
And we have rates of GDP to prove it.
Yet at the same time, people have no greater sense of well-being than they did a generation or two generations ago.
Materially, most are better off: but at a huge price in uncertainty about the present and fear for the future, about divisions in society and the growing gap between the rich and the rest.
The orthodox narrative about the environment and austerity is also dependent on GDP.
So walking in our own forests, or kicking a ball around in the park, doesn’t count.
But if more people pay to watch football at home on Sky – and even better, if they indulge in some in-play betting at half time – then GDP goes up and we’re supposed to be a richer country.
No wonder it is easier for governments to think of selling off those forests, or cutting the funding for those parks, than regulating the broadcasters or betting firms.
We are also told repeatedly that we have to sacrifice our own environment because that’s what everyone else is doing, and if we don’t, then we will lose out in the race for international competitiveness.
But this proposition is equally bogus.
For every protester around Heathrow, there is one at Schipol, another at Frankfurt, and still more at Charles de Gaulle.
And if people were allowed to protest openly, they would be joined by many more around the airports at Dubai, Bahrain and the other sites vying to be international hubs for aviation traffic.
The answer is more international co-operation, not more uncontrolled competition.
And perhaps we should also have more confidence in ourselves and our future as a nation, and not fall back on the idea that the only way that British businesses can compete is by being artificially supported by the wastage of our natural heritage and by degrading the quality of life of thousands of our fellow-citizens.
This is wrong on moral grounds. And it’s foolish on economic ones.
8. Environmental Capital
The fact is, our natural environment is a capital asset that belongs to our nation.
So, too, are its natural resources – from fish stocks, to oil and gas reserves. Use them, or abuse them, and they are gone.
And if you use them up, this doesn’t make you richer, but poorer.
Businesses know this. That is why they have separate profit and loss accounts, and capital accounts.
The first shows if you are paying your way, year in, year out.
The other shows whether you have added to, or reduced, your capital assets.
But governments have never liked to place the same constraints on themselves that they cheerfully place on others.
So government accounts don’t set out separate national accounts for capital and revenue.
That means that using up irreplaceable resources such as gas reserves are counted only as revenue, with no corresponding debit on the capital account.
Similarly, if a field is built on, this counts as economic activity – but the corresponding loss of that field as productive capacity for farming or forestry, or as a source of pleasure to nearby residents, or a part of the natural environment which we all depend on – none of that is taken into account.
But how convenient to governments of left and right to use up these national assets, and pretend the country is paying its way.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Britain was kept afloat by oil from the North Sea. But those assets were treated as revenue and squandered on a property boom, financial speculation and wasteful investment and consumption.
Not good for the environment. But not good economics either.
So if there isn’t an economic case – let alone a social case – for sacrificing the environment, then what we have is in essence a conflict of values and interests.
Sacrificing the environment is, at heart, about reducing the quality of life of some to benefit others disproportionately.
But let me also caution that there is always a risk that by trying to quantify the value of our environment in monetary terms alone, we simply increase the chances of that sacrifice happening.
Of giving the impression that some kind of trade-off is possible, that environmental capital can be substituted for another type of capital with an apparently equivalent value.
If you’d indulge me, I’d like to quote from a rather unlikely source.
A recent sketch on the Now Show re-wrote part of Wordsworth’s famous poem and it encapsulates what I mean:
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees
Adding very little value outside the early Spring period
So build a Tescos please
My caution stems from both practical and philosophical concerns.
Most fundamentally, tools that seek to put a value on our environment ultimately only ever have the appearance of being objective.
The process of valuation that underpins them is always necessarily subjective, no matter how developed techniques of economic valuation might be.
Cost benefit techniques can only ever open up, rather than provide definitive answers to, questions about value and priorities.
Moreover, these questions are themselves the result of context that we impose through our interaction, as a human species, with the world around us, generally failing to appreciate that the environment would exist – and one can only assume to thrive – without our presence.
Rather than trying to shoehorn the environment into our frankly discredited economic framework, we need to ensure that the economy works within environmental limits.
Let me give one example of how we could begin to do that on a very practical level.
Some of you may be familiar with the idea of the “carbon bubble.”
Huge reserves of coal, oil and gas held by companies listed in the City of London have been termed “sub-prime assets” that pose a systemic risk to economic stability – especially for institutional investors and pensions funds - because the global drive to reduce emissions could mean fossil fuel resources lose value.
According to a report last year from the Carbon Tracker Initiative, of the declared assets held by the top 100 listed coal companies and the top 100 listed oil and gas companies globally, only 20% can be burnt if the world is to hold any hope of limiting average temperature rises to 2°C .
Five of the top 10 FTSE 100 companies are almost exclusively high carbon and alone account for 25 per cent of the index's entire market capitalisation.
Just as with the pre-crash years, a huge investment bubble is being fuelled by the over valuation of assets where enormous systemic risks are being either mistakenly ignored or deliberately underplayed.
Yet the stocks and shares of carbon intensive firms continue to be Triple A rated despite the risks.
Part of the solution is to require fossil fuel companies to report on the potential carbon impacts of their reserves. That would help inform how the economy might cope when the carbon bubble bursts.
A more radical approach though would be to try and recalibrate things –by removing those Triple A ratings that fail to reflect the enormous risks associated with putting all your eggs in the carbon basket, and instead use the ratings system to flag genuine and significant legislative, reputational and environmental risk across the short and longer term.
And let’s stand up to the ratings agencies and carbon intensive lobbyists who refuse to believe low carbon policies will prove successful.
9. Austerity Discourse
Let me return to the idea of austerity.
To most of us, the word “Austerity” probably conjures up pictures of the 1930s and 1940s, where first an economic depression and then a world war meant a vast amount of resources and human effort were wasted, consumed or destroyed.
In those hard times people responded in ways that remain familiar: make do and mend, cut out the waste, fair shares for all.
We should never feel nostalgic for those times.
The 1930s were stained by mass unemployment, made all the more difficult to bear because Maynard Keynes and others had charted a way out of the recession which orthodox bankers and politicians refused to follow.
And the Second World War remains probably the greatest single disaster to have afflicted humanity.
But talk of a return to austerity does allow us to contrast how we responded as a nation then, and how we are responding now.
Earlier I mentioned the arts.
Here again, we see an immense contrast.
Then, the Arts were seen as a good that all should have the chance to share in.
Classical music was performed on the shop floor.
Ballet was staged for the troops.
Artists were commissioned to record conditions on the home front.
Despite austerity, the Arts flourished in the 1930s and 1940s, and they did so with the active support and encouragement of the Coalition and Labour governments alike.
Socialist MPs such as Jenny Lee didn’t see the Arts as a luxury or a middle-class indulgence.
If it was good enough for the millionaires, it was good enough for every one of her constituents.
The Arts were not needed then despite austerity, but because of austerity.
When people were suffering hardship, the Arts gave them comfort, a release, a vision of how things could be.
It was the same with what we now call the environment.
Not only the famous examples - recycling scrap metal into Spitfires or waste food to feed pigs.
In 1947, Britain faced a worse economic outlook even than during the second world war.
For the first time, bread was rationed.
The country was desperate for export earnings.
But this didn’t stop Labour setting up the National Parks.
Or introducing the first comprehensive system for land use planning, that served us well for over fifty years.
Why were the National Parks a priority?
Because people need space, need places they can enjoy the natural world. And we need those just as much – perhaps even more – when times are hard.
And why was the Town and Country Planning Act a priority in 1947?
Because without controls, we have urban sprawl, ribbon developments, blighted town centres, housing estates that sink into squalor because they lack facilities and sense of community.
Planning is not a luxury. It does not hold back the economy.
It makes the economy work more rationally, and it protects and enhances the quality of life of every citizen.
In every aspect of our national life, the experience in the austerity of the 1930s and 1940s was that people did more for each other, not less.
And governments came to see that investing in the future made economic as well as social sense.
The depth of the austere war years saw the work that gave birth to a national system for state education, a comprehensive national health service, improved social services, and comprehensive national insurance.
This generosity of spirit even extended to what we would now call international development and aid.
For in 1947, when Britain was rationing bread and coal, and the nation was shivering in the hardest winter for a generation, we were still sending food aid to continental Europe, where the situation was even worse.
Yes, even to Germany.
Contrast that with those today who claim that we cannot afford to help those in need in the developing world because of our current economic woes.
Perhaps one of the clearest examples is that of public architecture.
In the 1930s, in the depths of the depression, the architect Bertold Lubetkin was commissioned to design public housing and a health centre in Finsbury here in London.
His buildings were of the highest possible quality, and reflected his belief ‘that nothing was too good for ordinary people’.
His buildings, for example at Spa Fields, or the Finsbury Health Centre, have stood the test of time.
Unlike many of the housing and public buildings thrown up during the prosperous 1950s and 1960s, or indeed the 1980s and 1990s.
And here perhaps is the opportunity that lies at the heart of the current bout of austerity.
Greens are often accused of being negative – that we bring depressing news about intractable problems.
And there is some truth in that.
But it’s true because we don’t want to mislead people, or give them false comfort.
The problems we face are deadly serious.
For example, scientists have - if anything - been much too cautious on climate change, partly as a result of aggression by opponents that goes far beyond the normal scrutiny and peer review of findings.
They have consistently underestimated the speed with which the climate is changing.
More and more people are now coming back to accepting the evidence of climate change – not just the science, but because the changes in the weather and the seasons are all around us – but in the meantime we have lost several vital decades.
But where we can be positive is in presenting the alternatives.
Here, the caricaturing of Greens as hair-shirt types who want to return to the Middle Ages is deliberate.
Make a conference call rather than flying to New York for a meeting and you save a ton of carbon.
Better still, you avoid the horror of the whole flying experience and are home in time to see the kids.
Doing the right thing doesn’t have to make you a martyr.
To refute the words of Kermit the Frog, it sometimes can be easy to be green.
Of course, flying to New York costs more than Skype. So you’ll be missing the chance to boost Britain’s GDP by a few hundred pounds.
The reality is, austerity is here to stay.
Whatever the politicians say in public, they accept behind closed doors that there is no obvious engine in the world to get growth going again.
We can see how they are managing down expectations for the economy.
And accepting that the burden of debt – a legacy of the economic self-deception and false prosperity of the last four decades – will be a critical issue for at least another decade.
This comes on top of the recessions of the 1980s and the 1990s.
And it creates a climate in which people are ready to consider alternatives.
To reduce the taxes on jobs and so foster employment.
To explore shorter working weeks to share that employment around more fairly.
To support local, small-scale and more resilient businesses and economic relationships which are an antidote to the instability and uncertainty of deregulated markets.
More broadly, to consider setting quality of life targets to replace our national obsession with the single target of GDP growth.
To question whether growth is in itself a good thing, given that constraints on the world’s resources are closing in on us, and that we already consume vastly more than our fair share.
The Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, and even a number of the Financial Times’s commentariat, are among those now arguing that prosperity is possible without GDP growth, and indeed that prosperity will soon become impossible because of GDP growth.
That because of the environmental costs associated with indiscriminate growth, economic growth is itself becoming uneconomic.
As Professor Tim Jackson, author of Prosperity without Growth, has memorably remarked, “Questioning growth is deemed to be the act of lunatics, idealists, and revolutionaries. But question it we must.”
More radically, it gives us the chance to explore a transition to a steady state economy.
All this and more is possible – indeed, essential.
And it is a far more productive agenda than the discourse that claims the environment is a luxury that the masses can do without.
These, then are the arguments.
But if we are to avoid seeing the environment sacrificed for profit, in the name of boosting growth or employment, then we need reforms too.
Parliament has shown that it struggles to represent the natural world, or indeed future generations, both in its law-making and in holding the Executive to account.
Perhaps this is inevitable, when MPs are elected for a five-year term: but it shows that we need at the very least an independent and powerful voice – a kind of permanent, informed and active conscience – to intervene in debates and rebalance the outcomes.
Parliament has in the past given powers away to others where this is in the national interest.
The National Trust is a familiar example.
Outside Parliament, too, we can see the consequences of the environment lacking proper representation and protection.
Where a threat is clearly identified, and where there are local people or committed activists ready, willing and able to go into battle, then we have seen some notable successes – most recently, on the proposed sale of the Forestry Commission estate.
But for every success, there are so many losses – and even such successes are often only holding back the tide, rather than seeking to repair and enhance the country in which we live.
That is why I am calling on Parliament to consider creating an Environmental Rights Commission, that would be independent of Government and have the powers and the resources to challenge policy or practice where this harms or puts at risk the natural world.
It would have a simple mission – to ensure that the world we hand on to our children is not in a worse state than that which we inherited from our parents.
And it would give a voice to the environment that did not depend on heroic individuals or communities taking up the battle alone.
But this agenda will not be enough – and will not succeed – unless we find ways to reconnect people and politics.
The most depressing book I have read this year – and trust me, I read quite a few – was the Hansard Society’s Audit of Political Engagement.
With Chapter headings including “Disgruntled, disillusioned and disengaged”, it shows plainly how politics is still failing to win back people’s trust.
And to be honest, when you see how politicians carry on, you can hardly blame the public.
Often, familiarity breeds favourability rather than contempt.
But the more that people see of the political process, or the ways in which elites in politics, the media and business work together, the more appalled and alienated they become.
On the environment, politicians are not honest, either in their analysis or their solutions.
Nor are their values in tune with the British people.
The debate over the forest sell-off has shown how protest can re-energise people’s political engagement, as well as force the government to back-track.
I’m delighted to see the Independent Panel on Forestry’s report today, and am glad the Government has said it will follow their recommendations.
But this should not be the exception.
It should be that politicians instinctively consider the needs and wishes of the whole country – not one sectional interest, or floating voters in marginal constituencies, or their own supporters or paymasters.
This is why your agenda – Parliamentary reform and the education of the public – is so vital.
Politics is broken.
But we can’t do without it.
I would like to finish with one further reflection on austerity. And one further point of hope.
Hard times are not to be welcomed or savoured.
But they can provide the jolt we need to reassess our aspirations and our values.
They can help us focus on what really matters in our lives.
Perhaps we need only have the confidence to reconnect with what matters to us.
And we can look again at those themes I mentioned from the Age of Austerity.
Waste not want not. Fair shares for all. These ideas seem more in keeping with our national character than the thirst for consumption.
So I remain hopeful that whenever the current Age of Austerity passes, what will follow will not be a new Dawn of Consumption, but something a little more truly sustainable.