Margaret Thatcher, science advice and climate change | Alice Bell

Greenwashing Thatcher’s history does an injustice both to her and to science and technology policy

We’ve been running a series of essays on scientific advice recently (e.g. yesterday’s piece by Shelia Jasanoff). It’s on a break today, but here’s something on a related issue.

Margaret Thatcher is often celebrated for her leadership on the issue of climate change. Read, if you haven’t already, her 1989 speech to the UN for example. Or the 1988 one to the Royal Society. Or to the 2nd World Climate Conference in 1990. You might be surprised.

The image of Thatcher the global environmental leader jars with some of the patterns of right wing politics we are more familiar with today. Indeed, it suits particular ends of environmentalism to wave this particularly green-tinged blue card around. But Thatcher has long been a flexible cultural image, and in recent years was occasionally used as an icon for climate sceptics too. See, for example, these June 2010 pieces by Lord Monckton writing for the Watts up With That blog and Christopher Booker in the Telegraph.

Bob Ward argued at the time that Monckton seems to have a slightly selective memory about quite how much scientific advice he’d been giving Thatcher. Ward is also keen to note that although Thatcher’s 2003 book Statecraft does appear to show more sympathy with the climate sceptic cause, she also seemed to be drawing on the advice of US right-wing “think tanks” he was rather suspicious of.

Looking back at the 1989 speech in 2005, George Monbiot wrote that it’s striking how well informed she was in those late 80s speeches, and we probably have her adviser Sir Crispin Tickell to credit for this. According to Tickell himself he regularly gave her advice on environmental issues from 1984 onwards, helped write that speech to the Royal Society in 1988 and accompanied her to that 1990 World Climate Conference. He worked in a similar capacity with both Major and Blair.

Tickell himself said “My position is highly unofficial: I don’t get paid for it. I much prefer that. It gives me more independence”. (page 20 of this transcript from the British Diplomatic Oral History Programme, thanks to David Hirst, a PhD student at the University of Manchester researching the history of the IPCC, for pointing me towards this document).

For all that Tickell might have felt liberated by this unofficial status, considering her later reliance on less than conventionally scientific materials, is that really the model for advice we want?

I should add that although Booker suggests “she had fallen under the spell” of Tickell, I don’t think we should simply assume she did what she was told (whether we assume this because she’s a woman, a scientist or a politician). Thatcher was also a trained chemist, but we should be careful of naively reading too much into that (here’s a paper by Jon Agar on the subject, if you want some actual historical research).

It’s also worth noting that Tickell wasn’t a trained scientist himself and, as Ward does in the piece linked above, the role of other, formal advisers such as George Guise. These things generally involve complex negotiations within an intricate social network, I’m just not sure they should be esoteric. As fights over who exactly influences politicians on science and technology policy are still a very live issue, if we’re taking some time to look back on politicians past, systems of advice are worth keeping in mind. At least her 2003 book cited the publications from the Heritage Foundation et al, even if we might have to do a bit more digging to find out who influenced their thinking.

Finally, Thatcher’s very different legacies with respect to oil and coal should remind us these issues are a lot more than simply science, or politics, or economics, or the social networks of individual politicians. None of this is simple, and greenwashing Thatcher’s history does her an injustice as well as science and technology policy.

Dr Alice Bell researches science policy at the University of Sussex. She’s spent a lot of the last 24 hours shouting “there’s no evidence for the Mr Whippy thing”, mainly as penance for all the times she lied to people about Newton and the catflap © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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