Manifestos for yesterday

It all began in 1983 with Dr David Owen, the leader of the party that was not to be. At the time, however, the Social Democrats' fortunes were waxing strong, and Dr Owen opened up a new front in the political debate by making a speech on "green growth". It was the first of its kind by a leading politician, and it prodded the Labour and Conservative parties into thinking a little more deeply about their environmental policies.

Dr Owen eventually slipped out of the political scene, "green growth" was replaced by "sustainable development", and the two prominent environmentalists who had helped to shape Dr Owen's thinking turned their attention to Michael Heseltine during his years in the political wilderness. It was not long before he, too, began to talk the language of sustainable development. But those environmentalists will have felt poorly rewarded for their efforts by the Conservatives' election manifesto. A few token paragraphs bereft of new ideas for the country's environmental policy, and the remainder is growth without so much as a vestige of a green brake.

Labour's manifesto devotes a few more paragraphs to the environment, but the manner in which it jumbles together a series of pledges on disparate environmental topics conveys an accurate impression of the strength of the Labour leadership's commitment to the cause.

It would not be difficult for a third party to stand out against this background, but to leave it at that does a disservice to the Liberal Democrats. No other manifesto has ever given the environment such prominence, and none has presented its policy in such a coherent and considered fashion. And despite the customary dose of fudge, none has sought as fully to address environmental destruction at its roots in energy, transport and other policies. It was the need to integrate environmental policy with these other policies that Dr Owen highlighted in his "green growth" speech, and it is a sad reflection on British politics that the two dominant parties have barely begun to take the point on board a full nine years later.

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