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High Profile

Mightier than the pen?

Huw Spanner

In 2012, Natalie Bennett gave up a successful career in journalism and was elected leader of the Green Party of England and Wales. ThirdWay shared a platform with her at St Pancras Station.

 

You grew up in a suburb of Sydney.What was your family like? Did you have siblings?

No, I was an only child, and both my parents were only children. My mother was just 18 when she had me, my father was just 19, and he was an apprentice carpenter, so there was very little money around in the early years.

The primary influence when I was a child was my mother's mother, a working-class woman who would have voted [for Margaret] Thatcher had she had the chance. She was very aspirational for me - for her, the ideal outcome of my life would probably have been being presented to the Queen.

 

Have you been presented to the Queen?

No, no! And I have no desire to be.

 

What were your parents' politics?

I don't think my mum really had any. Dad was reflexively right-wing - that's where everybody came from.

 

Were they at all religious?

No - but I was brought up with an extraordinary (and very unhealthy) degree of strictness, because my grandmother thought that that was the way I'd turn out the way she thought I should.

 

You've often said that you became a feminist at the age of five when you were told that you couldn't have a bike because it wasn't 'ladylike'…

And that followed me right through my school years. I was forever being told, 'Girls aren't supposed to want to do that!' but itwas like: But I want to do that!

 

You got a scholarship to an independent girls' school. Was that very conservative?

They hadn't really decided whether they wanted to educate us to be solicitors' wives or solicitors. The school was obliged to be academic because that was the way the education market was going, but they spent an inordinate amount of time worrying about things like curtseying. It was kind of like the Fifties in the Seventies, really.

They asked me to be a prefect and I declined. I said that I didn't believe in the rules of the school, so I wasn't going to enforce them. It caused an enormous stir.

 

Would anyone then have had any inkling of what you would become in later life?

Probably not.

 

Looking at the bare bones of your CV, it's hard to make sense of it because you've rather zigzagged through life. Why did you opt to study agricultural science?

No one in my family had ever been to university before and there was nothing in my background, really, that was practically orientated; but it was very much the era when people pushed girls to do science and I had a very romantic idea that I wanted to be a farm manager. That came from having some holidays on a farm when I was a kid, being rambunctious and active - lots of exciting things happening, lots of puppies - a kind of environment that was very different from my home life.

The first couple of years were serious science - basically, straight chemistry and biology.My final year was animal husbandry. If I scratch my brain, I could still tell you quite a lot about upper nasal bloat in goat kids.

 

Has that ever stood you in good stead?

It's unusual for both a journalist and a politician to have a science background, and although I never 'practised' as a scientist it's really useful to have the basic understanding of the language and the way of looking at the world that comes from science.

 

But you immediately went into journalism instead.

Basically, the dream of being a farm manager had died when I worked on a very large cattle property in North Queensland and I came to recognise that I wasn't good enough on a horse. I nearly killed myself a few times.

 

Why did you choose journalism?

I also recognised that I was a generalist, not a specialist, and I looked around to see what would be a general kind of career,where you'd get to learn and do lots of different things. And journalism was just the obvious one.

 

The first paper you worked for was the Eastern Riverina Observer in Henty, which has a population of 863…

Basically, I was the newspaper - but actually it didn't just cover Henty, it covered four towns and a huge rural hinterland. I reported on everything from Mrs Jones winning the cake-baking right through to referendums and that sort of thing. Basically, I could write whatever I liked. It was enormous fun.

 

You then did another bachelor's degree, in Asian studies.

I did it through the University of New England (which is sort of like the Open University) as soon as I'd started working. That was really where I got my education.

One of the things I'm passionate about is education reform, because of what happened to me. I was a quiet child who in my early teens was intensely curious about the world [but] I was taught that what education is is cramming stuff in for exams and anything that is not for the exam is pointless. And I was very good at exams. I'd learn vast amounts of stuff the night before, regurgitate it all over the page and forget it the day after.

Doing the arts degree was a chance to just rediscover the joy of learning and the fascination of studying all kinds of different things. And what tied it all together was women. I did everything from Byzantine history to Indian history and every essay I wrote was all about women.

 

What were your politics at this stage? You were a union rep on one newspaper, I understand, and your employer thought you were bolshie.

That was the Northern Daily Leader. When I was there, we had two big strikes, which is very unusual in regional newspapers. They were trying to totally change our terms and conditions and they gave us a list of 10 things that had to go: holiday pay, sick pay, rules about breaks between shifts - you know, every condition that unions had won over the past century.

The head honcho came up from Sydney and insisted on talking to all the staff (many of them very young, terrified of losing their jobs, knowing nothing about labour rights) and said, you know, 'The way this works is that we give you this list and you agree to some of the things on it and that's how we reach an agreement.'

And I said: 'If you suggest 10 different ways we can jump off a cliff, we're entitled to say no to all of them.' It was quite funny, he went absolutely bright red!

I suppose I've always been a bit of a fighter and there was noway I was giving in.

 

You are happy to be described as a 'watermelon', green on the outside, red on the inside.Would you have seen yourself in those days as left-wing?

Feminism was always what shaped my politics. That's the thing that really ties everything together. The way my mother and her friends were treated by society, regarded as 'just housewives' - people should have a fair go and be treated with respect whatever they're doing. I think  that's where it comes from.

 

At what point did you become green?

I can date it precisely. As a young journalist in Cootamundra [in 1991], I was sent to do a story about a biodynamic farm. I'd always been interested in soil science and I was well aware that Australia isn't farming its soil, it's mining it - that's what Australian farming is. But this guy, in the middle of summer, sun blazing down, leant casually on his spade, no effort at all, turned the soil over and it was rich in humus and had earthworms all through it. And it was like 'Wow!' On a typical Australian wheat farm in mid summer, the ground is like concrete and you'd need a very large pickaxe.

 

In 1995, you did another zig (or zag) and went to work in Bangkok on the Australian volunteer programme. Was that a mind-expanding experience?

Well, by that stage I'd been travelling in Europe in classic Australian style, which had helped to broaden my horizons. I think I always felt that Australia was too small.

Thailand was an interesting experience. You expect to get culture shock, but coming out of newspapers and going into the Thai bureaucracy - which is a bureaucracy extraordinaire - that was a revelation!

 

You did a master's degree in mass communications…

I was doing a lot of consultancy work for the UN, doing 'communicationsy' things, and they pay you a lot more if you have a 'higher relevant degree'. I did my thesis on the internet and how it could kind of change people's interrelationship with the world, with media. I was in Bangkok when the internet happened and I suddenly went from having to buy a week-old British paper for about 10 quid to being able to read the Sydney Morning Herald online before it was on the streets of Sydney.

That degree took me into some fairly esoteric areas that are probably a bit complicated to explain…

 

Do you regard yourself as an intellectual? I looked at your writing at philobiblon.co.uk and I don't think I've seen a blog that specialises so in reviewing heavyweight books.

No. I think I would describe myself as 'curious'. I used to go to the Institute for Historical Research [in London] and go randomly to seminars, and sometimes you'd understand hardly a word that was said but it was really interesting. I love just learning about something that I know nothing about.

 

When did you finally join the Green Party?

It was January 1, 2006. I'd been working in London [as a journalist] for about six years and up to that point I'd been working nights, so there was no point in joining anything. But I'd just changed my job, it was a new year and I sort of took a look at the state of the world - not just climate change but the state of our soils, the state of our oceans - and I thought: I really should do something. And so I joined the Green Party. It wasn't a heavily thought-through decision…

 

But six years later you became its leader.

Yes. It definitely wasn't in the plan.

 

What was it that sucked you into the party?

It took over my life quite quickly just because it seemed such an urgent thing to be doing. I suppose it was partly also [that] I'd never done it before but I did enjoy politics. I love canvassing. I find it absolutely fascinating to have that 30-second-to-two-minute interaction with people from all different walks of life and all different circumstances and find out what they're interested in.

 

How do people react to your Australianness?

There's very few people (and virtually none who are likely to vote for the Green Party) who find it an issue. Generally, I've found that it has the great advantage in British politics of being utterly classless.

 

Don't you get patronised as someone from down under?

Oh, yeah. I'm not insensitive but I'm not particularly sensitive to what people think about me. And I'm not in politics for personal reasons, I'm there to get the message across: to help people understand that we have to have radical economic, social, environmental and political change. The status quo is not an option. In 10 or 15 years' time, things will not be anything like they are now - because they can't be. They're unsustainable and unstable now. My whole point of being, the reason I work ridiculously long hours, is to get that message across - a positive message about a society that works for the common good.

 

You finally gave up the editorship of the Guardian Weekly. Did you really think you'd have more influence going into politics?

I'd edited the Guardian Weekly for five years, which is quite a long while. It was a brilliant job and I loved it, but I guess you have noticed that I don't tend to stick at things for a very long period of time.

I always knew, actually, that at some point I'd get out of journalism- partly because from the perspective of a journalist nothing ever changes. In my last year at the Guardian I was writing about the same crisis points as I was when I first started covering international news on my first daily. You get to the point where you think: I could just take last year's story and change the place names.

I would have predicted, though, that I would have gone to an NGO or a think tank.This is where we come to the question of being leader.What happened was, I'd decided to leave the Guardian and I was standing for the London Assembly, to which I had a very distant chance of being elected, and then I was planning a lovely year off growing vegetables, reading a lot and writing a book (working title: 'Our Economic and Environmental Mess and How We Get Out of It'). It was then that Caroline [Lucas] rang up and said: 'I'm not re-standing for leader.' I put the phone down and went: Oh, hell!

I was probably being lined up as deputy leader but I took a look at who was likely to be leader and I thought: I think I can do better than that. And so I went for it.

 

Was the leadership a challenge you felt your background had equipped you for?

It's equipped me as well as anyone. You know, I don't have an enormous ego. I don't think I'm special. And it's not just me. It's a team effort. A whole lot of people work out the best way to say things and my job is to deliver it.

 

In your blog, you quote the German historian Joachim Radkau: 'Powerful historical movements require both a solid foundation of material interests and a vision that transcends daily life, that inspires and arouses passionate emotions. The strongest impulses are often generated by a fusion of selfishness and selflessness.'1

My observation is that the green movement has a very strong spiritual element. Is that true of you?

I wouldn't describe myself as 'a spiritual person'. I have no beliefs in that regard.What in someways drives me, and gets me into lots of scrapes, is that I probably have an overdeveloped sense of duty. If I see something that I think needs doing, I am absolutely incapable of not attempting to do it. If I see a problem that seems vaguely within my range, I attempt to solve it. (That probably comes from my mother. At her funeral, people popped up from all over who she'd helped over the years.)

Basically, I just think that you've got a responsibility to attempt to leave the world a bit better than it was when you found it. And that's not laid down by a high-er power or anything; it's just that if there's going to be a point to your existence, that's the point.

 

Is your environmentalism then all about us?

I do think that the planet has a right to exist beyond its usefulness to humans, but I get very wary about that kind of language - it often turns into a kind of spiritual right and that's not where I'm coming from. You know, the planet just is. I don't think any kind of higher being made that happen. It exists and it deserves to be preserved. Just as a historic site preserves the past and has future possibilities, so does the planet - and so does every elephant and every beetle, every whatever.

 

Isn't it a mistake, if a global crisis demands 'all hands on deck', to position the Green Party so firmly on the left?

No, I don't think so, because I don't think it's possible to have a right-wing green position that is philosophically coherent. In Britain, for example, we are using - all of us collectively, however you live as an individual - [proportionately] the resources of three planets. We have to cut back by two-thirds. But this is also a country where a million people relied on charity from food banks last year and lots of people turn the heating off and shiver in mid winter because they can't afford the bill.You cannot just say: Right,we've all got to cut back by two-thirds. It just doesn't make any sense. It can't be done. It certainly can't be done in a democracy. There has to be a massive redistribution so that some people get more and some people have a lot less.

 

Many on the right see the alarm over climate change as a pretext to impose socialism on the world.

Well, that's not surprising, because it does [require] us to make communal democratic choices together. And, you know, saying that public transport is much better than private cars, for example - that's just the reality.

The fact that the economic and social crisis is happening at the same time as the environmental is really positive - it's very clear that the hyper-capitalist kind of consumption model has failed, even in its own terms. We have a lot of very unhappy, desperately struggling people. We have fewer and fewer jobs in the middle, more and more jobs at the bottom and lots of people accumulating stuff at the top. Even if the planet were infinite, we'd now be at a point where our economic and social structures are beginning to fall apart.We need to change the whole lot.

 

How do you manage to maintain a sense of hope?

Well, first of all I'm naturally a glass-half-full type of person - that's just how I am. But I also see lots of positives in that everything we do to make societies more resilient and self-sufficient, it's all worth doing anyway, however it all turns out in the end.

And communal, co-operative effort can overcome massive obstacles. We've done it often in the past - it's pretty amazing,when you think about it, that [our ancestors] survived the sabre-toothed tiger - and there's a decent chance we can do it in the future.

 

1 From Nature and Power: A global history of the environment (CUP, 2008). See philobiblon.co.uk/?p=3329.

 

Biography

Natalie Bennett was born in Sydney in 1966 and was educated at MLC School in Burwood, New South Wales. She studied agricultural science at Sydney University, graduating in 1987.

In 1988, she embarked on a career as a journalist with the Eastern Riverina Observer before moving on (after eight months backpacking around Europe in 1990) to the Coota mundra Herald and, in 1992, the Northern Daily Leader. In 1994, she got a first in Asian studies from the University of New England.

The following year, she moved to Bangkok to work for Australian Volunteers International in the Office of the National Commission on Women's Affairs. From 1996 to '99, she worked for the Bangkok Post, latterly as chief international news sub-editor. She completed a master's in mass communications with Leicester University in 2001.

She migrated to London in 1999 and began subbing freelance for a succession of national newspapers. She worked at the Times in 2000-04 and was then a senior sub at the Independent. In 2006, she started writing for the Guardian's 'Comment is Free' section and was appointed deputy editor of the Guardian Weekly, becoming its editor in late 2007.

She joined the Green Party of England and Wales on New Year's Day, 2006 and served on its national executive as internal communications co-ordinator from 2007 to 2011.

She was unsuccessful as a Green candidate in the Camden Council elections of 2006 and 2010, when she also stood in the general election for Holborn & St Pancras, gaining 2.7% of the vote. In 2012, she sought election to the London Assembly as the fourth-placed candidate on the Green Party list. In the 2015 general election, she stood again in Holborn & St Pancras and won 12.8% of the vote.

In 2012, she quit journalism and was elected leader of the Green Party (on a turnout of a quarter of its members). She was re-elected unopposed in 2014, with 93.5% of the vote. Under her leadership, the party's membership has increased over fivefold.

She founded the Carnival of Feminists in 2005 and has blogged at philobiblon.co.uk since 2006. She was founding chair of Green Party Women and was a trustee of the Fawcett Society in 2010-14.


This interview was conducted on November 14, 2014.