Tony Whittaker, founder of the Green Party

Tony Whittaker who died on 1st April 2016, was one of the ‘Gang of four’ who formed what became the Green Party, in response to the 1972 ‘Limits to Growth’ report by the Massachusetts institute of Technology. Originally called PEOPLE, the Party was re-named the Ecology Party at the second national conference in 1975, and then the Green Party in 1984. I attended a meeting in March 1973, about 2 months after formation, and I joined on the spot after hearing what Tony had to say, and have been active in the Party ever since.

Lesley Whittaker, Tony’s wife stood for Parliament in February 1974, gaining 1.542 votes – 3.3% from a standing start, though it must be said that there was no Liberal candidate. Teddy Goldsmith (Zac’s uncle) and I were among 6 PEOPLE candidates at that election, with rather more modest results. Tony ceased to take an active part circa 1980, by which time the Party had achieved a national presence. He took the view that he had achieved his objective, to launch a viable Party. I believe he remained a lifelong member.

Tony was not a socialist.  [In response to the original publication of this post, my attention has been drawn to the fact that Tony had been a Conservative councillor in Kenilworth]. I would describe him as a ‘Macmillanite’, i.e. a caring, social justice oriented Conservative. I think he was taken aback by my prediction that PEOPLE would have to look like a socialist party. We were proposing a planned recession to forestall yet another accidental one, this time due to ecological limitations. If recognition of ecological realities were to be combined with social justice, it must entail drastic redistribution. However, Tony readily accepted my proposal that the Citizens’ Basic Income would be a core policy, as the chief means of achieving that redistribution. That prediction has yet to come true, though Caroline Lucas’s EDM 974 is an encouraging sign.

But Tony’s immediate, if initially startled acceptance of the Basic Income is for me important. As a well-heeled solicitor, he would have paid far more in tax than the Basic income was worth to him. He realized it was fairer than the existing system, but above all it would enable whole societies to live within ecological limits. That aspiration, now embodied in the all too vulnerable Paris climate change agreement, was the Green Party’s original raison d’être. To Tony, redistribution, even drastic redistribution, was a price well worth paying to secure a sustainable future. Tony is typical of millions from the ‘right of centre’ who will one day take the same view, but they have not yet had the benefit of the intensive discussions we had in those early days. Instead. what has happened is that the Green Party does not merely look like a socialist party, it is an unreconstructed socialist party. So the Tony Whittaker thinkalikes still see the Green Party as having nothing to do with them, and worse, the feeling is mutual.

This might not have been such a wrong turning, but my other major disappointment is Zac Goldsmith’s decision to see his career prospects as with the Conservatives. The stance taken by the Green Party made Zac’s decision inevitable, but initally I believe he might have been amenable to the same steep learning curve as Tony. That failure is spilt milk, but Zac’s position as an influential figure in a government with a wafer thin majority – and an abysmal attitude to Green issues – makes it especially regrettable. My strategy would be to detach those who, like Tony Whittaker, are capable of an agonizing reappraisal. They will all have accepted drastic redistribution as right  and necessary. Our social justice policies will remain as they are.

There are many within the new, enlarged Green Party who understandably still see Conservatives as the enemy. Some Conservatives really are nasty, in fact the present government is staffed by such people. But some socialists too will need to face up to a reappraisal. A basic tenet of the party which Tony Whittaker founded was that measures to help limit population to the carrying capacity of the planet were self evidently necessary. In fact these will be closely associated with our social justice policies. Tony would be as distressed as I am by an episode at a recent Green Party conference. A group demonstrated their implacable hostility to Karin Kuhlemann, a speaker at a fringe by Population Matters (formerly Optimum Population Trust). That was appalling, but when this was drawn to the attention of the Green Party leadership, all three were at pains to distance themselves from an organization the Green Party should be in close collaboration with, if social justice is ever to be combined with ecological realities.

I did meet Tony three years ago when we were planning something to mark the Party’s 40th anniversary, but he was already becoming increasingly frail, and it was not appropriate to explore his view of the current Green Party in detail. As long as I still have the health and strength, I shall strive to achieve what Tony started.


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