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Letwin: Conducting Politics as if Beauty Matters

Speech to the Centre for Social Justice

"This year will be seen by many environmentalists and by many politicians as the year of big issues for the environment.

It is the year when the Prime Minister has put the environment on the agenda of the G8. It is the year that the Kyoto treaty comes into force. It is the year when the long-dormant nuclear question has come back to life in British politics.

But are people really engaged ?

Have the environmental issues really become an emotional pull, in the way that global peace, global security and the relief of global poverty undoubtedly have ?

The Make Poverty History campaign will go down in history. Its importance lies in the fact that it has changed the political value-system in Britain. It has gone beyond the mechanical. It has touched a chord and created a political romance.

By contrast, discussion of the environment has remained resolutely mechanical. There is the science of far-off events - admittedly of colossal significance, but none the less technical for that.

There is kerb-side recycling, energy from waste, combined heat and power, a variety of renewables, hybrid vehicles, bio-fuels, increased energy efficiencies, waste-management plans, emissions trading systems … a plethora of mechanisms to achieve mechanical and technological results.

Discussion of the environment has become a discussion about rival technocratic solutions to apparently technocratic problems - a debate about wind and gas, while the poverty debate is a debate about about flesh and blood.

The point of my speech today is to argue that debate about the environment needs to rise above the technical.

If we talk of the sky and the sea, the mountains and the rivers, the soaring spires and the curve of a colonnade, sunlight through trees and the first daffodils of Spring, we talk of the stuff of poetry and romance. Our hearts are stirred and our spirits lifted.

Subsume all that into 'the environment' and only our brains are engaged - and even then merely for the very short space of time that is our attention span.

We need a new vocabulary that enables politicians to talk about the environment as more than mere mechanism. The language of politics needs to reflect the felt experience of the environment as sensations and impressions that are capable of moving us to delight and awe.

We need, in short, a new political culture -- a culture within which the aim of environmental policy is recognized as being nothing less than the achievement of beauty, both natural and man-made. We need to conduct politics as if beauty matters.

The Disappearance of Beauty from British Politics

We haven't heard much in British politics about anything to do with beauty.

In Mr Blair's first term, the architect Lord Rogers was asked to lead the Urban Task Force and write its report. Subsequently, he remarked upon the political aversion to aesthetics:

"Again and again... I was strongly advised not to use words like 'beauty'… if I wanted the report to be taken seriously by those who counted."

Could Richard Rogers be right?

Is there, in his words, "a conspiracy of silence", one which "crosses all the usual political divides"?

It is as if the body politic were governed by some universal taboo.

It was not always thus.

The princes of the Renaissance competed with one another to make their cities beautiful.

Napoleon III commissioned Haussman to create the boulevards of Paris, a truly monumental vision of beauty in the public sphere.

With greater modesty, the city fathers of Victorian Britain sought to sublime their communities' industry into the parks and public buildings that delight us to this day.

There is, in fact, reason to believe that, in creating beauty in the midst of industrial revolution, our forebears began the great environmental reforms that were to follow.

We have made immense progress in clearing our soil, skies and rivers of pollution - progress which began with an idea of beauty.

So why has this idea been purged from public life?

Beauty and Quality of Life: Reconnecting People with Politics

I believe that the disappearance of beauty from the vocabulary of politics is one of the reasons why British politics today so frequently strikes people as desiccated. I believe it is one of the reasons why so many people are 'turned off' politics.

Like any other MP, I have noticed that, when something happens which threatens to affect the look of a particular place, the quality of life of particular people in that place, apathy turns very quickly into activism.

People are really interested in their surroundings. We really care what buildings go up next to us, what noises people make around us, what blocks our view.

If politics had something to say about these things, if people felt that - through politics - they could really do something about these things, then there would be much more interest in politics and politicians.

The 'Environment' is Here and Now

One of the reasons this isn't happening is that, in politician-speak, the 'environment' and 'environmental policy' have come to refer to things that are either far away from day-to-day life as it is lived in this country, or of such an awesome scale that they seem far away.

Thus for most of us, most environmental issues don't appear to be in our environment.

This is more than a matter of mere semantics.

There is a fatal disconnect between enormously important, but as yet enormously remote global environmental issues and the most powerful motivations of the public.

The key to progress is to heal this breach between personal experience and the green agenda or, in other words, to reunite the first and second meanings of the word 'environment'.

The Connection between Local and Global Environment

The first and most obvious way to do this is to emphasise the connections between environmental issues that do have an immediate impact on our quality of life and larger, more remote global environmental issues.

For instance, air pollution is still a problem for many people in the here and now. Smogs may be a thing of the past, thanks to the Clean Air Acts, but new sources of particulate pollution - not least from cars - pose a growing threat in a number of communities.

But because the transport sector is the fastest growing producer of CO2, and because most solutions to the local problem of air pollution - such as hybrid electric vehicles - also reduce CO2 emissions, there is a clear link between local air pollution and global warming.

Mothers against Asthma can kindle an understanding about the need to reduce emissions far more quickly than yet another lecture on the perils of acid rain.

In John Selwyn-Gummer's words, we need to link 'street corner' with 'stratosphere'.

Beauty for Beauty's Sake

However, while this is a necessary approach, it is not sufficient.

To engage with the real lives of real people in real places, environmental policy should be as much about sensibility as rationality.

We are inspired by landscapes.

Disgusted by litter.

Uplifted by light and space.

Depressed by gloom and cramped conditions.

Ennobled by great architecture.

When I was Shadow Home Secretary I travelled to America to investigate the New York model of neighbourhood policing.

I was presented with, and convinced by, statistical proofs that putting police officers on the beat did indeed reduce crime.

But that is not why most voters support such a policy. They want more police officers on the beat because when they see one, they feel safer.

Similarly, when communities are roused to save an endangered landscape it is not primarily because they have studied the implications for biodiversity, it is because the landscape is beautiful.

For all the merits of the intellectual case for one cause or another, the real battle is at a more basic level.

People care about the police service if they believe it will offer them security.

People would care about the environment if they believed it would offer them beauty. For those people who are lucky enough to live amidst beauty, that beauty is one of the most precious things in their lives. For those who are deprived of beauty, that deprivation is one of the most terrible things in their lives.

These are the feelings that have been tapped - and rightly tapped - by Friends of the Earth in their recent advertisement, depicting young people gazing at the sky and the earth. These are feelings that run deep.

Some will protest that the real issue is not aesthetics, but the capacity of a damaged environment to offer us such essentials as drinkable water, breathable air and a liveable climate.

In response, I argue that we must stop the rot long before such possibilities intrude into everyday experience - and that threats to the beauty of the environment are likely to motivate action long before threats to its life support functions.

The Environmental Injustice of Ugliness

But if the beauty argument does not convince you, then consider ugliness.

People are depressed and demoralised by ugly environments.

When a window is broken and no one repairs it, it won't be long before the others are broken too.

Litter will be dropped among the broken shards, graffiti sprayed on one wall and then another.

Ugliness breeds ugliness.

That is why acts of individual vandalism so often follow in the wake of the much greater acts of municipal vandalism which scar our towns and cities.

If we are to engage the voting public seriously in the environmental debate, we have to break the taboo, speak openly about beauty and the quality of life, redefine the environment to mean what it really means - what surrounds us every day, rather than a remote set of consequences to be discussed by scientists.

But we also have to break a second taboo.

We have to recognize the concept of environmental injustice - and recognize that it is part, an essential part, of social injustice.

It isn't the rich and privileged who suffer most from ugliness.

The rich can buy beauty. They can fence off ugliness.

It is those with less money who suffer most from ugliness. It is those with less money who can do least to protect themselves from ugliness.

We need to cure the injustice of the ugliness that is all too often visited upon the poor. I am talking about what happens to a young person who, through poverty, is trapped in - grows up surrounded by - ugliness.

Don't let's pretend that this has no effect.

I represent a rural constituency in one of the most beautiful parts of England. I spend a lot of my time trying to keep it that way.

There are people with very little money in my constituency. Despite the stereotypes, rural poverty is a reality.

But young people from financially disadvantaged households growing up in my constituency have a much better start in life than many young people in inner cities. They grow up surrounded by pervasive natural beauty and by pervasive architectural beauty.

They grow up with less noise, less pollution, less litter, less congestion than many of their urban counterparts.

Addressing Environmental Injustice

Social injustice and social deprivation have many forms - one of them, one of the most potent, is environmental injustice, aesthetic deprivation.

One of our aims, as politicians, as Conservatives, must be to find the means of addressing environmental injustice, tackling aesthetic deprivation.

How are we going to do so ?

Now, at the start of a new Parliament in which the Conservative Party forms an (admittedly enlarged) Opposition - I do not come, and do not think it appropriate to come, with a briefcase of specific policies, ready to be implemented tomorrow.

We shall, as a Party, over coming months and years, formulate the detailed policies, in the light of circumstance, government action, and the effects of government action.

But I believe that it is possible, even at this early stage of the Parliament, to set out two lines of approach.

Working with the Grain

The first is that we should work with the grain of human nature and of economics.

I do not place beauty in opposition to prosperity.

There are those who would have it otherwise: On the one hand, a medieval idyll of simple living, walking to work, and buildings made from bales of straw; on the other, a brave new world of easy everything, food wrappers and skyscraper-skimming jumbo jets.

There is a temptation for politicians to point to the medieval idyll, knowing full well they have no way of making us march in that direction.

Meanwhile they can barely hold back the brave new world, assuming, that is, they even want to try.

But, as I say, there is another way of looking at it.

The truth is that, for medieval people, the medieval idyll was neither medieval nor an idyll. For them, it was a modern economic reality. The great churches of East Anglia were made possible by the wealth of its wool merchants - just as Florence grew beautiful on the profits of bankers and Manchester built its town hall on the profits of manufacturers.

While one can, in the short-term, have prosperity without beauty - one can't, in the long-term, have beauty without prosperity.

Prosperity is what allows us to appreciate beauty.

We enjoy the natural world because we have never been safer from it.

When nature threatens humanity, we tame it by all means necessary.

That is why our ancestors felled the forest, drained the swamp and hunted the wolf to extinction.

When prehistoric man was faced with the sabre-toothed tiger, the endangered species he was most concerned with was himself.

Twenty-first century man, faced with getting wet in the rain, feels somewhat similarly about demands to abandon his car.

So the lesson is that the road to sustainability, and I use the metaphor deliberately, cannot lead us away from prosperity - else it will remain the road less travelled.

Government must work with the grain of human nature, fashioning a framework of incentives that gently tips the marketplace towards the creation of beauty. We must invest in the environment - and, to carry the public with us, we must make that investment carry economic, as well as aesthetic returns.

Thoroughgoing Localism

The second principle is that the politics of beauty must be the politics of community, a local politics.

Doing politics as if beauty matters means doing a kind of politics that concerns itself with the life led by particular people in a particular place at a particular time.

Ugliness, impersonality, graffiti, vandalism, noise, pollution, congestion, overcrowding, are not abstractions - they are the conditions in which real people in real places live and grow up.

Beauty, human scale, loved landscapes, well-tended spaces,

well-designed houses and public buildings, peace, clean air,

room to move, are also not abstractions - they are the conditions in which we all want to live and in which we all want our children to grow up.

Because these are not abstractions, because they are conditions of life that apply to particular people at a particular time in a particular place, they are things that can be dealt with only if - against the background of favourable national policy - they are in the hands of the communities that know and see and feel them.

The man from Whitehall cannot know enough to know what will enhance the quality of life in each of the hugely various communities that make up our diverse and enormous nation.

The man from Whitehall often cannot imagine - much less sustain - the environmental improvements that can change lives for the better.

All too often, contemplating inner-city ugliness from an armchair in Whitehall leads to cynicism and despair. "It's too big a problem to tackle." "We'd love to do something, but it's way beyond what's affordable." "Where does one start ?"

It is only when the problem is addressed locally, on a human scale, by human beings who can see what is happening to other human beings, that the little miracles begin to happen.

What Dick Atkinson and his colleagues have achieved in

Balsall Heath - transforming the look and feel of that part of Birmingham through community action - could not have been achieved by men from the Ministry. The miracle occurred because people in that place were determined to make it happen. And, let us note, what was achieved in Balsall Heath was local people making their environment more beautiful through their own actions and for their own sakes - not as an exercise in subsidised gentrification.

Combining beauty with prosperity and sustainability will depend as much on thorough-going localism as it will on working with the grain of human nature and economics.

These two principles - of working with the grain, and of thorough-going localism - will have to be our guides if we are to widen the environmental debate, break the taboos and begin to do politics as if beauty matters. Only by applying these two principles can we reconnect the politics of the environment with the vivid and personal concerns of millions of voters about the quality of their lives.

The Connection with Conservatism

One, last word about the connection between all of this and the future of the Conservative Party.

The connection is, I believe, profound.

If the Conservative Party is to recover its voice, to speak again with the confidence of which it is capable, to offer real hope of a better future, it must be a Party that applies these same three principles across the full breadth of public policy.

First, the Conservative Party is a party founded upon the principle of working with the grain of human nature - a party founded on the understanding that, in a free society, the great social goals can be achieved only by fashioning a framework of incentives which gently tip the free market in the right direction.

Second, the Conservative Party is a Party founded on the understanding that the real challenges of real life can be met only when problems are addressed locally, on a human scale, in a truly social setting, by human beings who can see what is happening to other human beings.

And third, the Conservative Party is a party founded on the principle of conservation and enhancement - the principle that each generation, as the inheritor of a world that has been fashioned by its predecessors, has a solemn duty to hand that world to its successors in a condition not only more prosperous, more peaceful and more tolerant, but also more beautiful.

I argue, in short, that one of the hallmarks of any Conservatism true to itself is the recognition that politics has to be conducted not only with the grain of human nature and on the basis of thorough-going localism, but also as if beauty matters."

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