Skip navigation
The Progressive Policy Think Tank

British leadership in the Anthropocene: an interview with Margaret Beckett

Britain has often led the world in understanding and responding to global environmental change. IPPR Progressive Review’s Laurie Laybourn-Langton talks to former Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett about what made Britain a leader and if it remains one today.

Laurie Laybourn-Langton:   Margaret Beckett, you are a former Foreign Secretary and Secretary of State for the Department for the Environment, Farming & Rural Affairs (DEFRA), among other roles across a distinguished career in and out of government. Through many of those roles, you led in developing Britain’s response to climate change. Over that time, did Britain build a leading global role in understanding and acting on climate change?

Margaret Beckett:   Yes, unquestionably. I’m not taking all the credit for that. It was a huge team effort and it was absolutely led by Tony Blair, who never gets anything like the amount of credit for it that he deserves. When he asked me to set up DEFRA and bring together agriculture and environment - which I thought worked very well from the point of view of these issues - he made it plain that this was a major post and that he wanted a big push on issues like climate change.

I also went straight into the global negotiations. We won in May 2001 and I think it was June/July that I went into my first set of negotiations at the Conference of the Parties (COP), the Climate Change meeting of all the member countries of the United Nations. The previous year’s negotiations had not gone successfully and the meeting had adjourned without reaching a conclusion. I went along to my first gathering with Michael Meacher, who was my Minister of State, to help pick up the pieces.

It was exhausting but fascinating. There wasn't any doubt that we were seen as, and were, major players, not least because we had such excellent, first class civil servants; as experts on the issue, as lawyers, as negotiators. We had some of the best people around in our deputation. We had also built a bit of a track record through our role in the successful negotiations on the Kyoto Protocol.

Next, in 2002, we had the Johannesburg Summit on sustainable development, and I was our lead negotiator. The leaders came out, just for a day really, all the presidents and prime ministers, and there was a plenary session, everybody in this big hall. I remember Tony and I were sitting there, just the two of us, and a civil servant each behind us.

He said, “In 2005, we should be in the presidency of the European Union, because it’ll be our turn, and it’ll also be our turn to be in the presidency of the G8. So the G8 presidency will run all year from January and the European Union presidency will run from July to December. I want you from now on to prepare, because I think there are two issues that we should make our top priority during those presidencies. The first is climate change, and the second is poverty in Africa, and I want you to work on what we do and how we make the most of that process,” which I duly did. This is a good example of how Tony operated, and the kind of thing he doesn't get anything like the credit for he deserves.

All this fed into the Gleneagles Summit and to a huge amount of work that was done in preparation for that, for which we did genuinely get credit right across the world, from people who were interested in and following these issues. I know that, following the agreement at Gleneagles, the green groups were celebrating. Absolutely thrilled, and of course, Tony had brought the Americans kicking and screaming along with us. That was a real achievement. Those were major contributions to progress being made.

LLL:    And you took this work forward when you became Foreign Secretary, didn’t you?

MB:     Towards the end of 2005, we had the Montreal climate change conference. Being in Canada helped because the media coverage was easy for the American press. The American civil service was dragging its feet, but we got Tony to persuade George Bush to be more ameliorative. So whereas the American civil servants reporting to Dick Cheney were trying to stop any progress being made so that the Kyoto Protocol came to an end and wasn't followed by anything, we got them to agree, and we got the Russians to agree at the very last minute, as always. In agreeing to have a successor to Kyoto, the Montreal Agreement led directly to Copenhagen and then to Paris. So those were all real turning points.

Then after that period, Tony said he was going to have a reshuffle. I didn't think I was going to be sacked because I knew he’d spoken very highly of what I’d achieved in agriculture negotiations and climate change negotiations. I said, “I don't know what you have in mind. I don't mind staying where I am.” He said, “No. I want you to go to the Foreign Office but I want you to make climate change a key priority for the Foreign Office, in a way that, although the Foreign Office has always been okay on it, it hasn’t been before.” So that’s what I did, and that’s why I did it.

LLL:    And you took this priority to the UN, when Britain had presidency of the Security Council, by organising a debate there on the security issues around climate change.

MB:     Yes. There was a lot of pressure not to do it. Obviously, the Americans hated the idea. Climate change was supposed to be something that scientists worry about, but nothing to do with peace and security. Actually, the Foreign Office were none too keen. They wanted to make our top issue Darfur. Actually, Darfur was in part a consequence of climate change and the movement of peoples was partly down to where they could grow crops or feed livestock and so on.

I was absolutely determined that this was going to be the top priority, and actually, it was a very successful meeting. This may no longer be the case but at that point, more countries attended and took part in that debate than had ever happened before in the United Nations. Lots of people from the developing countries, particularly the smaller and more vulnerable developing countries, came up to us afterwards and were just so thrilled that we had taken that step. I was so determined to do this partly because at DEFRA we did work with the Chinese Department of Agriculture that identified the kind of negative changes that were likely to take place in China with the impacts of climate change on food production and other areas.

It’s always been self-evident to me that climate change is a security issue. This may be because, when I was younger, I toyed with the idea of being an archaeologist. It’s always fascinated me. The first thing that you come across if you take any interest in archaeology is all these perished civilisations. There’s often a local climate change component to the expiry of a particular civilisation. Now we’re talking about that kind of thing happening everywhere in the world at once.

LLL:    You provided a focal point for an international conversation on these issues, and drew on and developed British capabilities to do so. Do you think this has ebbed slightly, or are our efforts hidden in more technical conversations within organisations like the UN?

MB:     I haven't been close enough to it to be sure. By the time we had the debate, it was no longer a matter of controversy for the parties. William Hague was perfectly supportive on these things. Indeed, when William became Foreign Secretary he kept John Ashton, who had been my special representative on climate change, in post and kept his unit going. So it seemed to me for quite some time that our efforts were continuing, which I was very pleased and relieved about.

I remember a Tory backbencher, who is in the Lords now, saying to me he’d been over to Washington for some reason and he was very interested in the subject. He said how impressed he’d been by the team in Washington and how thoroughly they had it all at their fingertips and how effective they were.

I think we did continue to have the best lawyers in the world on climate change diplomacy, which meant that our advice was sought and taken. We’ve got very skilled negotiators in our civil service, or we had then; I get the impression a lot of them have left. Sometimes, something would happen that shifted a log jam at the international conferences and then you’d discover that it was actually our idea but we didn't put it forward. Instead, X delegation had raised this issue because it looked better for them to do it than for people to say, “It’s the British again”.

So we were really key players. I remember at one of the conferences this young lad who looked about 18 saying, “Oh, well, there’s a problem with such and such, I’ll go off and explain it,” and off he trotted and got hold of the lead minister on this delegation. He returned and said, “It’s alright. He understands now. They’ll do so-and-so.” They just were fantastic as a team. Britain’s international reputation was sky-high because of it.

LLL:    As you say, this is a line that goes all the way through to Paris and the agreement made there. What other elements constituted British leadership? We’ve hear about the civil service, our diplomats, and legal expertise. What about the wider ecosystems of scientists and NGOs?

MB:     It goes across the board, including our excellent meteorological office. It includes the military, of course. A while ago, I was asked to launch a group on multilateral nuclear disarmament, which I did with other foreign secretaries, former defence secretaries, and former heads of the armed forces and so on. One of the people who spoke at the launch was Charles Guthrie, who’d been the Chief of Defence Staff. He said, unscripted, “We are launching this because the continued existence of nuclear weapons is the greatest threat to the continued existence of the human race, second only to climate change.” From a general, I thought that was just fantastic, and spot on.

LLL:    Since Paris, and the big moment Britain played there, have our capabilities and leadership started to erode? Do we no longer have the political impetus to maintain them?

MB:     There was always a core of resistance in the Foreign Office. Not that anybody ever said it to me, but I’m sure that there were people who said, “Climate change is the only thing she knows anything about.” As people are when they either don't like you or don't want to do what you want them to do.

This is extraordinary. There is a clear connection between movements of peoples and sources of conflict and so on. There are some terrifying statistics about what happens to the flow of the Nile, for example. It couldn't be flowing through a more sensitive region. Anybody who can’t see that a drier Nile will have impacts on peace and security needs to rethink their position.

Some in the Foreign Office didn’t see this as diplomacy. So I wouldn't be at all surprised if there hadn't been a bit of a war of attrition. And, unfortunately, there was always a bit of a war of attrition between the Treasury and the Foreign Office, based on a lack of appreciation for what the Foreign Office can contribute.

I know that across government, some of the people I’ve been describing who were experts and absolutely brilliant at their jobs have gone. I think it’s a great tragedy, and I’m hoping that maybe, as a result of Brexit, some of them will come back because they were all damn good negotiators.

LLL:    Why is that bad, that these people are leaving and that Britain may be stepping away from its leadership in this field? Is this bad for Britain, and could it be bad for the world as well?

MB:     Somebody said to me once, “You do realise that not every country understands negotiation. There are quite a large number of countries in the world who think you just turn up and you say what you want and that’s it really. They don't understand how you weave your way through a complex negotiation by identifying the maximum amount of common ground.”

When people ask me how you do some of this, I used to say, “The first and most important thing is listen. Listen to everything people say to spot the bits crucial to them.” Every delegation has got something without which they can’t go home. You have to find out what those things are for every delegation and try and weave your way through it. What’s more, nobody wants to go home without an agreement, or being blamed for there not being an agreement and the conference failing. So if we can get an agreement, everybody will benefit.

We made lots of progress in meetings by making these arguments to people. I did it once at a COP conference and there was a sort of pause and then people got down to brass tacks and it just went on from there. The leader of the G77 delegation went to sleep after this, if I remember. I don't blame him. We’d been up for about 36 hours at that point. He went peacefully to sleep in his chair and left it to younger people to negotiate the detail.

Not every country is great at negotiation. We are fantastic at it, or at least we always have been. I always thought one of the reasons why the inaugural High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy was British was because they wanted the British Foreign Office expertise and experience. I’m sure the French would say they were just as good, but our Foreign Office has always been recognised as a leader. I’m sorry to say if they’ve let a lot of talented people go, it’s a very stupid thing to do, but maybe they could get them back.

LLL:    Brexit is likely to be having an effect as it takes resources away from government, after a long period of austerity. But is Brexit an opportunity to try and re-establish some of this leadership and take it further?

MB:     It depends. I voted for us to stay in and I still think it’s a bad outcome that we’re coming out and very damaging for our economy. Being part of the EU delegation at a conference means that it’s the EU who speaks for the British. Now, because there were always very good cooperative relationships, what the EU said was always what the British wanted them to say.

But you, the British, don't speak for yourselves in that forum. In a sense, that is an opportunity for Britain to speak for itself again. But if you’ve let go all the people who gave you the standing, experience and expertise to put that to maximum use, then you’re not going to be able to make anything of that opportunity.

LLL:    We’ve mainly been speaking about climate change. If you and others were effective in putting climate change onto the global agenda, can we do it for the wider spectrum of global environmental change? How do we make this salient and how do we drive action like we’re having on climate change?

MB:     You need people who have the ear of today’s leaders and people who can provide them with the ammunition and the ideas and excite them about it. Gordon was never as exercised about it as Tony had been, but I think we did in the end bring Gordon along. It is an issue that any leader, any prime minister, can do well with, if they’ve got the right advice and they listen to that advice, of course.

LLL:    If you were in your twenties, what would you be doing to combat global environmental change? What should aspirant young politicians and policy makers be doing at the moment?

MB:     By all means be active in one of the green groups. During the period when I was most involved, the green groups were very hard-working and often very effective. I remember at a climate conference once there was a problem as to what the Japanese government could agree to. So our green groups spoke to the Japanese green groups and fed back intelligence both ways. We were trying to help the Japanese find a solution to their own problem. In the end, we made a degree of progress.

There are a lot of really excellent people in the green groups. But one of the things that I used to say to schoolchildren who talked about being in Friends of the Earth was not to think that politics is horrible and that politicians are nasty people, and to become a green activist on the basis of that. When push comes to shove, when the choices are made, when the votes are cast, the green groups are outside the door. The person at the table saying, “Yes” or, “no,” or, “hang on a minute, I’ve got a good idea,” is the nasty politician. So if you really want to make a difference, get involved in politics with the party of your choice. The decisions are made in politics, and that’s where it matters to be.

I remember it was the Montreal conference actually where we’d had a bit of a stumbling block. As frequently happened on these occasions, the Russian delegation had come up with a last-minute set of problems, all to do with Belarus. Whenever they came up with a problem, they always had a very specific step that had to be taken, which often wouldn’t be possible. Then there’d be a stand-off and they would go and sulk and not agree to things and so on. This was always happening. Anyway, this particular time in Montreal, in the end, the Canadians called us back in to plenary session, with everybody there in the big hall, but when I say everybody, I mean the delegations. Obviously, the green groups and everybody weren't there. We got an agreement, with the Russians coming around in the end, and everybody was delighted and so on. It’s only the nasty politicians who actually have the final say.

LLL:    In an era of global environmental change, what should get younger generations up in the morning?

MB:     The perspective of what the world is going to be like when they’re my age. Where they’re going to get their food from. What is going to happen if the worst happens, as easily could, and we get mass migration of people. Why do we think it can’t happen to us when it’s happened time and time again throughout our history? It could be incredibly damaging. People don't want to think about it, and I understand they don't want to think about it, but we might be able to avoid it if we really try.

The great concept that should be in people’s minds is the concept of tipping points. If you cross a tipping point, which, for example, could be the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, there isn’t any way back. We know that’s been true for millions of years, but nobody knows for sure where tipping points in certain cases lie. How long is the tipping point process, for example? Is it something that happens over 10 years? 1,000 years? 6 months? Nobody knows. That’s the thing that I think should get people out of bed and get them interested in this issue. If we’ve crossed certain tipping points, then we’re talking about the survival of the human race.

I get so annoyed with people who say, “Ah, the planet is in peril.” The planet is not in peril. The planet will be fine, thank you very much. It’s the human race who might not be here.

LLL:    As the younger generation seeks to try and take on that challenge, there’s an enormous amount I think we can learn from older generations, including your own experience and of those you’ve mentioned. What would be one of your biggest regrets from your work on the environment and in climate diplomacy, and what would you say is your greatest achievement?

MB:     My biggest regret would be that we didn't manage to do more. We did a huge amount on energy efficiency, but we didn't manage to do more. We made major changes but not as big as we could have done. When I say ‘we’, I’m talking about governments of all colours. We haven't been consistent in the pursuit of these issues and we haven't really made the most of the opportunities for a green economy. I think that would be my biggest regret.

None of these things are any individual’s achievement. You are part of a team. If you’re lucky you’ve got a really effective team and they’re great to work with and I was lucky. So, with that in mind, probably getting the Montreal Agreement, which meant that we could move forward; maybe that was a bit of a tipping point for us, or maybe getting the Security Council debate that said, “This is not just a matter for the scientists. This is about peace and security.”


Margaret Beckett is a Labour MP and former Foreign Secretary and Secretary of State for DEFRA.  Laurie Laybourn-Langton is an assistant editor of IPPR Progressive Review and a senior research fellow at IPPR.