Lesley Whittaker on Early Days

Note from Lesley Whittaker on ‘Origins of today’s Green Parties and the Movement for Survival’ by David Taylor

May 2017

The first that Tony (Whittaker, my husband, and partner in our legal practice) and I knew about the Movement for Survival was when I picked up a copy of The Ecologist in January 1972 from WH Smith’s in Coventry. We were, like many others at that time, concerned about the state of the world environment and the social and political issues arising both in the UK and globally.

We had been reading about these things, and finding out about the various pressure groups which were being founded or spreading their influence at the time. Our friends were less active, but ready to discuss issues. (We did not at this point know Michael Benfield or Freda Sanders other than on a purely business basis.) We set up an informal group based on a local pub to investigate what was happening politically and to decide what we could do. We were the only ones in our group with any political background. The Movement for Survival proposal was exciting, feeding as it did into the conclusion that our group was drawing — political action was going to be essential. The pressure groups were great from an educational point of view, but could not secure action.

We became aware of Keith Hudson and the small magazine he published, called ‘Towards Survival’ in 1972. Keith maintained his active interest in the issues he covered in the magazine until his death in May, 2017. The magazine was later supplied to new members of PEOPLE in an effort to broaden their knowledge and give them confidence to talk to others.

‘Survival’ was the word those who were convinced of the need to take action were using. My generation (born during WW2, neither pre-war nor baby-boomers) were familiar with this imperative at a personal human-being level, having grown up with the knowledge of nuclear weapons and the results of their use. Those born before this (Tony was one) had gone through the war as children and were simply glad that the new weapon existed and had ended hostilities. They were triumphant about the destruction wrought, and not seriously concerned about the potential impact on us or the planet if such bombs were used against us. Their attitude was not horrified and fearful, as ours was. It was as if their attitudes, based on memories formed in childhood, could not be changed by the new knowledge we were gaining from Japan. I believe that one reason the 1960s were so hedonistic and feckless was because of the delight that we young people felt at having survived the wars and challenges of the 1950s; the world had got through the Bay of Pigs crisis; the immediate prospect of being wiped out by an atom bomb was gone. Everyone relaxed.

By the 1970s, the state of agriculture, the extinctions of wildlife, the hole in the ozone layer, were beginning to be matters that concerned us. We were no longer teenagers and young people, we were making our way in our careers and thinking of families. ’Survival’ was beginning to be more of a broad-based challenge than just avoiding the danger of a madman with a finger hovering over a big red button. It was a different threat, but harder to handle because it was much wider than simply reducing or abolishing a specific armament. It was not local, and not just related to humans.

Tony and I talked endlessly about the implications of the interview with Paul Erlich in the issue dated August 1971 of Playboy Magazine. When the Ecologist produced its January 1972 issue with a Blueprint for Survival, we were very enthused by the idea of the Movement for Survival and sent off a response. We awaited being contacted with names of other local people interested. Of course, nothing happened. The lack of response from MfS and the urgency implied in the Erlichs’ proposed dedication of two years to doing something active made us decide to take action.

Activists were getting together in various places, largely supporters of single-issue pressure groups who were beginning to feel the need to broaden their thinking and activities prompted by the Ecologist’s new concept. We would in one sense, have been one of these groups, our discussion group in some degree sparked by MfS though not part of it. We couldn't be part of MfS, because there was no organisation to which anyone could belong. When we advertised our first meeting to expand PEOPLE, in February 1973, I suspect some of the people who came were from similar groups.

When we eventually took over Movement for Survival, Teddy told us that the Ecologist staff had not even looked at any of the replies. They were just in open cardboard boxes in which the torn-out back pages were dumped. The move of The Ecologist and its people to Cornwall had been a major distraction, and there was barely enough of an organisation to run the growing Ecologist, let alone handle the huge swell of interest the announcement of MfS had generated. I think they were all amazed and rather scared by the scale of the success.

It is strange to relate, but I can’t recall when Tony and I first actually met Teddy. He was such a forceful personality I would expect to have a clear image of our first meeting, but it is blurred with phone calls and correspondence and contacts with mutual acquaintances.

We in Coventry eventually turned our discussion group into a political party in December 1972, when Tony and I and Michael Benfield, Freda Sanders and one or two others, decided that the Ecologist was never going to get their Movement for Survival off the ground and something urgently needed to be done politically. The UK was in a mess. Big things were happening under Ted Heath’s government — reorganisations of local government, the NHS, education, decimalisation and ultimately joining the EEC. The Unions were in uproar. Everything was going in the wrong direction, as Ted Heath used so much energy for change, but always the wrong change. The opportunity was being missed. No wonder we got impatient!

In our search for manifesto content, which was for the February 1973 expansion meeting and the other meetings around the country which followed in the next couple of years, we used Blueprint for Survival but also our own reading, and the Club of Rome’s discussion points. Blueprint wasn't actually used as a manifesto in 1974 but it certainly fed into one.

The merger of PEOPLE and MfS took place in February 1974. We had various conversations with Teddy around then, because in February 1974 the first general election of that year took place and Teddy stood under the PEOPLE banner in Eye. I didn't remember exactly when he admitted that the MfS paperwork was just lying around untouched, and that he wanted Tony and me to take it over because he thought we would actually do something with it. Recently, going through my press cuttings from the February 1974 general election I found a piece in the Coventry Evening Telegraph for 20/02/1974 with an interview with me about the campaign. I said that I was receiving large amounts of post ‘following the merger of PEOPLE and Movement for Survival, three weeks earlier’ and that it was all having to wait to be dealt with until after the election. So it looks as if the exact date was at the beginning of February 1974.

Any letters about it would have been passed on to Clive Lord in my files when he took over as National Secretary later in 1974. I have a firm recollection that the physical handover of the MfS paperwork was an errand completed by Tony and me after doing something else in London, probably a legal business meeting, a Conference with Counsel or some such (we were still in practice). After completing our business we went on to where Teddy was based in London, in a flat in St John’s Wood. That is when we picked up these unruly boxes of MfS replies. Because it was some two years after the January 1972 issue of Blueprint, we commented that many of the addresses might not still be relevant.

I think there were hundreds, possibly approaching 1,000, replies. As National Secretary of PEOPLE, I did organise an effort to use the data to contact the respondents via post; that was an expensive exercise, and logistically difficult in those days. We included details of PEOPLE. Disappointingly, it didn't produce much additional response to what we had by then achieved. After the general election, anyone interested in what we were doing was already in touch.

In truth, there was never such an entity as the Movement for Survival to take over. The Ecologist had produced an excellent inspirational foundation document, a basis for thinking and discussion. It stated, as by then various people were agreeing, that a political means to embody the new environmental concerns into a set of policies to run the country, and the world, was needed. I don't believe there was anyone in the group at The Ecologist who had a clue about how to set up or run a political campaign. That is why Teddy was so relieved to be in touch with PEOPLE.

When we came to review PEOPLE’s showing in the February 1974 General Election we were pretty sure there would soon be another one because of Harold Wilson’s slim majority. We organised the conference for June 1974 for the party to adopt a formally agreed manifesto, rather than using one that we had put together. Tony, Michael, Freda and I had travelled thousands of miles around the country from late 1972 through to mid-1974, addressing meetings and setting up groups. We had been to rural and highly urban areas — though I think we had not yet been to London. We always consciously deferred that as likely to take more energy and organisation than we could muster until we were better established. We did eventually have a London Meeting and I think it might have arisen from the MfS boxes. I recall Jonathan Porritt being there, somewhat diffident and asking in the meeting what we had found was the impact on our professional lives of ‘coming out’ as environmentalists. He was a teacher at that point, I think. Political activity would not be acceptable.
The manifesto to be debated and adopted in June 1974 was going to be drafted by Teddy, who disappeared to Italy to do it. For weeks we never heard any more about it. The timetable counting down to the Conference was getting tight. I kept chasing Teddy with no success, so I contacted The Ecologist’s office. They said he was beyond contact due to a postal strike in Italy. So I closed my office door and wrote down the consensus of the meetings around the country as a basis for the Conference to discuss. My secretary was beleaguered as the pages rolled out; Tony kept the office going. We got the draft out to the branches with hours to spare in order to keep to the revision/re- drafting/re-circulating timetable. But we did it. Blueprint was not the manifesto for the Party, but certainly fed into it.

I suspect that Teddy and the rest of the authors probably felt like I did about the political aspect of it all. Much later, when he came to visit us after we were living in Devon, we discussed again, that I personally had hoped that PEOPLE would show the way things could change, and that our policies and objectives would become the basis of all manifestos. All the other Parties would adopt them but might vary in the approach to implementing them — more or less Right or Left Wing. One destination with many roads. I always hoped that PEOPLE/ the Ecology Party/ the Green Party, would become redundant. By contrast, Tony, and I think, Michael, had hopes of being part of the Party in government.

My objective was to set up the pressure group that threatened the votes of those in a position to do something to address the issues. The people who made the decisions were the ones we had to attract and persuade to change; journalists and media people were fine, and would help to influence the voters, but only legislators were really any use to us. If they wouldn't change, we would have to replace them.

1975 was the original date we had expected a General Election. Our initial aim in 1972 was to attract 600 people to stand as Independents under our banner, on our manifesto, for just one Parliamentary term. We wanted to have five or six basic pledges of support from these candidates for the changes of direction needed. We would not need Whips, because the fundamental objectives would all be agreed. We wouldn't ask that the candidates abandon forever Labour, Conservative or Liberal, we just aimed to get enough Members elected (hoping for all!) to create a Parliament with the huge majority needed to enact such radical policies that the direction of the country would be changed and afterwards, the world. In the event, after putting up candidates in two general elections in 1974, and establishing branches all over the country (40+ by 1974 from Cornwall to Caithness) it seemed too late to follow this course, we were a Party. I would think that this original objective led to the confusion of whether PEOPLE was a movement or a political party. It was both.

Our original plan wasn't a minor ambition; and it could probably be a good objective, again. Stripping back the Green message to its very basics and seeking pledged support from candidates for one Parliamentary term would be so easy now, compared with those days of pens, typewriters and paper. Enacting a change to the voting system, accompanied by carefully considered constitutional reform, would make for a country which could set about an agreed programme of change of direction. It would be a relief to stop the rush of complex legislation most governments seem determined to enact, and to find general support for simple objectives for our nation to pursue. Not many people would ever have chosen where we are now, at any level. A gentle revolution is long overdue. Just as in 1974 PEOPLE was ambushed by an early election, all opposition parties were ambushed by Theresa May’s opportunistic declaration of a general election in June 2017. A Progressive Alliance could have been organised with a little longer notice, and the threat of a landslide averted. In 1974, things did not turn out as planned and there was another election in October. Perhaps that Alliance should not be abandoned but be put in place now?

Lesley Whittaker, May 2017

LW photo for Coventry Evening Telegraph profile 15th May 1973

 

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