"Maybe we have failed to heed the warning signs": Chris Mullin greets the Millennium

The former Labour MP Chris Mullin's Diaries are a delight: genuinely enlightening, funny, thought-provoking, indiscreet (at times, but not exclusively) and also moving.

One aspect of the Diaries that has been largely overlooked by their many admirers is Mullin's politics, which I find particularly attractive and a world away from the Old Labour caricature that many New Labour types seem to assume. He considers the future not from a purely economistic point of view as most politicians end up doing, but from the perspective of what life will be like for his children and grandchildren, and other children and grandchildren around the world. This means giving more than a cursory consideration to what the economic system is doing to our environment, and to ourselves with it.

This is his diary entry for 1 January 2000, at the dawn of a new Millennium:

"A new century.  My grandchildren, who I hope to survive long enough to meet, will live into the twenty-second century.  What kind of a world will they inherit?  The planet is in a worse state now than at any time in my life.  Beyond fortress Europe and North America much of the world is in meltdown.  In Africa there are countries where all civilised life has collapsed.  Afghanistan has returned to barbarism.  The Balkans are in turmoil and even as I write the Russians are bombing Chechnya into the stone age.  Already refugees from the chaos are placing strains on the political and social fabric of the developed world that may in due course become unbearable.  We should not imagine as we sit smug behind our increasingly fortified frontiers that our civilisation can survive unscathed.

"Our main problem, of course, is not other people’s wars. It is that we have invented an economic system that is consuming the resources of the planet as if there were no tomorrow – and there well might not be unless we change our ways.  In the United States, the home of the world’s most voracious consumers, there is no sign at all that the political process is capable of persuading – or indeed has any desire to persuade – citizens to adopt a sustainable lifestyle.  All over the democratic world, politicians increasingly follow rather than lead.  And even were an ecological disaster to occur (perhaps it has already begun) the price will be paid by those least responsible and least capable of protecting themselves.  Indeed the consumers of the developed world may not even notice.  To crown all, the emerging economies of Asia are falling over themselves to emulate the mistakes that we have made.  Indeed they insist that it is their right to do so.

"Maybe, just maybe, this will be the century in which we learn to reduce, reuse and recycle our waste, develop benign sources of food and energy and stop burning up the ozone layer.  Maybe Europe will lead the way and others will follow.  Who knows, there ought to be money to be made out of going green, in which case capitalism will enjoy a new lease of life.

"Or maybe it is too late.  Maybe we have failed to heed the warning signs and a long, slow slide towards ruin beckons.  By the end of my life the signals should be clearer.

"As for me, I am entering a period of unprecedented obscurity. Hopefully my eclipse will be temporary. Not that I wish to be famous, only useful. At the moment I am no use whatever. I shall cling on in government until the election and, if nothing comes up, I shall return to the backbenches and try to pick up where I left off. One of my difficulties is that I am not very good at pretending. I have let far too many people know about my low opinion of my current office [as a junior transport minister] and, if I’m not careful, it could tell against me. Gradually, inevitably, perceptibly, the little store of goodwill and credibility that I have so painstakingly accumulated is eroding.”


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