Nobel prize winner Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg is, undoubtedly, an inspirational young woman. Almost single-handedly as a teenager, now just 20 years old, she started a worldwide movement of school strikes. These strikes occurred in virtually every part of the globe and have involved millions of young people concerned for the future of their planet. CNN calculated that strikes took place in over 1600 towns across 125 countries and involved more than 2 million school age young people. Critical Mass has always taken the view that Ms Thunberg is somebody we would like to have a lot more of. In an age where young people are often derided for their political apathy, she has shown that it is not apathy to politics but apathy to the political elite that is the issue.
As a result I was convinced that, if you ask a group of socialists their views about Ms Thunberg, the only issue would be just how much she was admired. How wrong could I be? Certainly she retains plenty of admirers but she is also attracting, on the back of a celebrity she never particularly courted, many detractors. Our latest Pulse survey asked about her appearance at a meeting of the International Working Group on the Environmental Consequences of War. This might not have been controversial. War, after all, is not good for the environment. But this meeting was held in Kyiv, Ukraine, and hosted by President Zelensky. It also included ex-President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, and Sweden’s former foreign minister, Margot Wallström.
This was not a popular move by Ms Thunberg as far as the left was concerned, with 77% saying she was wrong to take part and 37% saying they would admire her less for that decision. Although 59% said it would make no difference. In the comments section there were two quite distinct views. Those who said they admired her less tended to take a view of the Ukraine War in which Ukraine is the villain and Zelensky a fascist dictator being manipulated by the US.
“I don’t admire her now. I believe Ukraine was responsible for blowing up the Nord Stream pipelines and Kahkovka Dam, which both created an ecological catastrophe. She has accepted the prevailing narrative without asking any questions about it, despite reports from Seymour Hersh and others. I am opposed to the use of depleted Uranium and cluster munitions which have been supplied to Ukraine by the UK and the US. How can she support these?” said one.
“Well, I don’t admire her at all but the choices were limited. However, she is a mere publicity tool to mislead young people and in particular in Ukraine, where the young are being kidnapped and dumped on the front lines after two weeks of ‘training’.” “Wars pollute mother earth. Someone should tell her that!”, said another. On similar lines another said: “Because the Ukraine conflict and its causes are not as simple as ‘it’s all Russia’s fault’ . The issue of who destroyed the dam has not been resolved at all and based on Cui Bono it seems unlikely to be Russia. Not only that but she has been silent about depleted uranium and the Ukrainian destruction of Russia’s ammonia pipeline. Must say she has made a massive error supporting the corrupt far right Ukrainian regime.”
Another line of attack was that she had gone beyond her remit. Typical response on this line was, “Ms Thunberg should stay apolitical and not mix with politicians.” Strangely, it was fine to mix with politicians when she was castigating the United Nations, and it is hard to see how the climate emergency is non-political. Another made a similar point: “Until now her stance has been uncorrupted by politics. Now I’m not sure.”
Most however simply saw Zelensky as beyond the pale: “Because Zelensky is a crook and because she met him, her advisers have made her less credible”, “Because Zelensky is the biggest con man in the world at the moment”, “Zelensky is a puppet of the UN and USA” and “There aren’t many environmental disasters that are as devastating as war, the war in Ukraine being one of the worst. Supporting a president who has shown little inclination to start peace negotiations to stop this war makes Greta Thunberg just another fake political Barbie doll, not a sincere fighter for environmental safety.”
For those who, whilst not supporting her decision to take part in this meeting, but who said they still admired her none the less, her age was certainly a mitigating factor. For example “She’s young, and we all make mistakes.”, “She is young and allowed to make mistakes.” and “I think she’s misguided to do it and will come to regret it. I’m giving her the benefit of the doubt due to her age.”
There were a few who said that decision made no difference because “I don’t like her anyway”. Do we have to like the messenger or the message? Many people continued to support her for a simple reason: “She wants to save the planet. So do I. Appearing with Zelensky does not change that.” Whilst another respondent noted, “She has to take her opportunities to raise climate change impacts where she can.”
All of this was taking place within a survey which set out to see how much we valued honesty. Only 10% said that they would vote for a party that was led by somebody they believed was not honest. Were they all thinking ahead perhaps and still wanting to vote Labour? Honesty clearly matters, with 46% saying it was the main reason they would vote for any particular candidate. Against that, 53% saw it as one of a range of factors. Based on that it is fair to say that honesty matters, certainly to the left, if not to the average voter.
Whilst YouGov claimed recently that honesty was overrated, an academic survey carried out by the University of Central London found that, given a list of characteristics, honesty was the top choice. When asked to “imagine that a future Prime Minister has to choose between acting honestly and delivering the policy that most people want”, 71% chose honesty and only 16% delivery. Which rather begs the question why do we end up with politicians for whom honesty is an aspiration rather than a principle.
We asked people to judge a range of politicians on an honesty scale in which 1 was ‘not honest at all’ and 7 was ‘totally honest’. The following chart shows the results:
Perhaps it is no surprise that Jeremy Corbyn received such a high figure with this particular audience, but it does show that he was a very different type of politician from the norm. Which is precisely why the ‘norm’ hated him with such venom. It should give those supporting Labour still some pause for thought that Rishi Sunak gets a higher rating than Keir Starmer, and that even Tony Blair, labelled as dishonest by the Chilcott Enquiry, is regarded as more honest than Labour’s current leader.
Honesty matters. But, if our results are correct, honesty matters far more to those in the public eye. 98% agreed that those in the public eye should be held to a higher standard than ordinary people. I am not quite sure why those in public office should be more honest than the rest of us. Does this mean that we should only have politicians who are exceptionally virtuous. Admittedly, if that were a rule, it would remove, at a swoop, the majority of politicians. But would it not also ensure that most of us could never aspire to public office because we failed that test of virtue? Clearly I cannot tell people what they think but I can disagree with them and I feel that politics would be best served if more ordinary people were involved at all levels of public service. But for that to happen, the bar has to be set at a level they can hope to reach.
This survey shows that amongst Critical Mass readers there is a clear and unambiguous desire for honesty, particularly amongst politicians and public figures. It shows also that neither the current Prime Minister nor his most likely successor is regarded as honest. Those figures are likely not dissimilar amongst the general population. Among commentators, however, honesty is regarded as an expedient characteristic. As John Humphrys wrote recently on YouGov, it doesn’t matter whether politicians are honest because we never trusted them to start with. This is the kind of twisted logic that counts as profound at the BBC presumably. But to me it just sounds entirely cynical. It is almost as if we get the politicians we deserve. Except we don’t. We deserve so much better. It is not just socialists who desire honesty, but it is a foundation for how we expect people to behave. We may see politicians lying consistently but we are still shocked when they are caught out doing so.
It seems to me that we crave not just honesty but a purity which, so often, our leaders fail to deliver. That is the only explanation I can come up with which explains the animosity toward Greta Thunberg displayed in this survey. This desire for purity is, I would argue, the cause of much division on the left. We are so busy setting up individuals to fail that we are unable to unite on things we agree on. It is not that we should avoid criticising people, but that we should constantly remind ourselves that people who find themselves on the front line have very often not wanted to be there. Politicians generally seek the fame they find. Activists such as Greta Thunberg get the fame almost by accident. If we demand a level of purity that few of us can attain, then, rather than undermine those whose entire existence is determined by their desire to continue a system that benefits only a few, we undermine those who would be our allies in changing that system.
Socialist of many years. Former Labour member. Currently presenter of The Socialist Hour.