Tuesday 11 October 2016

Four decades of green economics - what was it about 1973?

The New Economics Foundation is re-launching itself today, and I am a fellow. It seemed like a good moment to look at the history - not just of nef - but of green economics in the UK. This is the first of three blogs, to be published over the next three days...

The year 1973 was almost apocalyptic – war in the Middle East, the energy crisis, the three-day week, private armies, the imminent breakdown of society. It was all very unnerving. Nothing seemed to be working.

Perhaps that was one reason why the atmosphere was suddenly alive with alternatives. Ivan Illich published Tools for Conviviality. Fritz Schumacher published Small is Beautiful. And a former civil servant – James Robertson, the man who wrote Harold Macmillan’s ‘Wind of Change’ speech – was exiting swiftly from his job with the big banks to work full-time writing and speaking about the emerging post-industrial society.

He had been head of the Inter-Bank Research Organisation and had found himself involved increasingly with the ferment of new ideas.

“I didn’t criticise the banks, but we agreed that I’d had enough there,” he says now. “Looking back on it, I really think I was taking them for a lark because I was getting them to do things which they hadn’t hired me to do.”

At the beginning of 1973, he was on his own, with a desk and a research assistant – Alison Pritchard had been working in educational television in the USA – and expecting to be offered consultancy work. “Actually,” he says, “I found myself involved with much more interesting things, like the energy debate, alternative politics and what was then called the Conservation Society.”

In 1973, James joined the Campaign for Social Democracy, set up by Dick Taverne MP and stood against Tony Benn in Bristol South East at the February 1974 general election, immediately after the three-day week – this was a good seven years before the SDP was a twinkle in the eye of Roy Jenkins.

He won only 886 votes but garnered huge publicity from the support of the prominent Times columnist Bernard Levin.

But what really launched James on his new career was an article he wrote for the Sunday Times called ‘Can we have a non-profit society?’

Illich’s publisher Marion Boyars read it and commissioned James’ second book, Profit or People?

At the same time, Alison was co-ordinating the Turning Point network - a range of thinkers and activists who were emerging with a bundle of ideas that looked remarkably coherent, and which were to emerge over the next generation as post-industrial alternatives including the new economics.

A link was forged between James, Alison and their futurists and activists with those who were congregating around Schumacher, which was to prove the lynchpin of the emerging set of ideas.

“The first time we both met at a conference, I wasn’t very impressed by him,” says James now. “I had criticisms of him. There were certain things he missed out, like feminism, and I was surprised he didn’t go back in a revolutionary way to look at the monetary experience he had. But I came to like him.”

Alison says now: “He was a natural leader; people flocked to him – he spoke very well and he was funny.”

When Schumacher died suddenly on a train in Switzerland in 1977, James and Hazel Henderson had to step in as the main speakers on his speaking tour of Canada.

What firmly grounded the new movement was when James linked up with the former Guardian city editor Harford Thomas and wrote an ‘Alternatives Manifesto’ for the 1978 general election that was never actually called.

“I don’t think I thought of myself as a new economist,” says James now. “I was influenced very much by Illich.”It was the post-industrial society, as much as the post-industrial economy, that James was working for.

As such, he and his now wife Alison decided to set up home in the cradle of the original Industrial Revolution, in Ironbridge where they lived for five years before moving to their present home in Cholsey, Oxfordshire.

Meanwhile, the Alternatives Manifesto – with Harford Thomas blowing on the embers with his regular ‘Alternatives’ column – provided a critique that predicted many of the long-term trends that still wrongfoot the establishment today.

Tomorrow: how the New Economics Foundation began, 30 years ago this year...

See my book Cancelled! on the Southern Railways disaster, now on sale for £1.99 (10p goes to Railway Benefit Fund).

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