Ecology Party Is Founded in Great Britain

The Ecology Party was founded, making Great Britain the first country in Europe to establish a “green” political party committed primarily to addressing environmental and ecological problems.

Summary of Event

In February, 1973, a small group of solicitors and businesspersons in Coventry, England, decided to form a new political party, simply called People. None of them was famous or influential, but they were united by a concern over Great Britain’s industrial decline and growing environmental problems. The founding of a party devoted exclusively to ecological issues was largely ignored by the media and the political establishment, and even when it adopted the more appropriate name of the Ecology Party in 1975, it continued to labor in obscurity. Nevertheless, history had been made since this was the first of several “green” parties to be established in Europe. Ecology Party (Great Britain)
Political parties;Ecology Party (Great Britain)
Environmental organizations
[kw]Ecology Party Is Founded in Great Britain (Feb., 1973)
[kw]Founded in Great Britain, Ecology Party Is (Feb., 1973)
[kw]Great Britain, Ecology Party Is Founded in (Feb., 1973)
Ecology Party (Great Britain)
Political parties;Ecology Party (Great Britain)
Environmental organizations
[g]Europe;Feb., 1973: Ecology Party Is Founded in Great Britain[01040]
[g]United Kingdom;Feb., 1973: Ecology Party Is Founded in Great Britain[01040]
[g]England;Feb., 1973: Ecology Party Is Founded in Great Britain[01040]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Feb., 1973: Ecology Party Is Founded in Great Britain[01040]
[c]Environmental issues;Feb., 1973: Ecology Party Is Founded in Great Britain[01040]
[c]Government and politics;Feb., 1973: Ecology Party Is Founded in Great Britain[01040]
Goldsmith, Edward
Porritt, Jonathon
Thatcher, Margaret

It was almost inevitable that such a party would be founded in the early 1970’s. Over the previous two decades there had been a growing awareness of environmental issues, brought on by industrial accidents, natural disasters, government studies, and especially by popular books and magazines that created horrifying doomsday scenarios of ecological disaster if problems such as pollution, overpopulation, and nuclear power were not addressed. Some of the founders of People admitted to being deeply influenced by writers such as Paul R. Ehrlich, Ehrlich, Paul R. author of The Population Bomb (1968). Population Bomb, The (Ehrlich)

In order to be viable, this new party had to formulate a coherent ideology and create a party organization. Edward Goldsmith, the founder and chief editor of The Ecologist, had a substantial impact on People during its formative stage. He, along with other contributors, had authored Blueprint for Survival (1972), Blueprint for Survival (Goldsmith et al.) which the new party adopted as its manifesto. Goldsmith predicted social chaos if limitless industrial growth were pursued, and he therefore advocated a postindustrial society based on the hunter-gatherer concept and centered on the family and small communities. Goldsmith proved too controversial, especially because he appeared to be against feminism and foreign immigration and also suggested that strong authoritarian measures might have to be taken to prevent environmental breakdown.

Slowly the Ecology Party created its own ideology. The members knew what they were against: industrialism, materialism, limitless economic growth, acid rain, pollution, deforestation, overpopulation, global warming, species depletion, atomic weaponry, and mindless consumerism. The party based its positive message on the principles of sustainability and social justice. The principle of sustainability postulates that all human activity must be infinitely sustainable because “spaceship Earth” is a closed system in which resources are finite. Economic growth must be limited. Sustainable development New resources cannot be imported into Earth’s realm, nor can toxic wastes be exported from the planet. Abusing the ecological system and rendering it dysfunctional will bring catastrophe, and consequently all policies must revolve around maintaining the only ecological system available.

The party also saw the intimate connection between the environment and social justice. The poorer nations of Asia, Africa, and Latin America were frequently forced to plunder their environments to satisfy the most elementary needs of human existence and to pay their debts to the richer northern nations. Sharing the limited wealth of the planet, the party asserted, would eliminate poverty and simultaneously protect Earth’s fragile resources.

The new party further stressed the difference between ecologists and environmentalists. The latter were perceived primarily as reformers who continued to believe in the benefits of industrialism and simply wanted to fix the existing system, usually by embracing only a single cause such as saving the whale or protecting a particular forest. The Ecology Party claimed it was a radical organization determined to restructure the totality of political, social, and economic life. While environmentalists talked of attaching catalytic converters to automobiles and banning chlorofluorocarbons from aerosol containers, ecologists called for the elimination of the private automobile and the vanity and self-indulgence that gave rise to aerosol cans. This led opponents of the Ecology Party to charge it with embracing utopian policies.

The new party could not ignore the need for organization if it was to be credible and win elections. It was generally agreed that the party would not follow the example of established parties with their inherent elitist and oligarchical tendencies but be a true alternative party. To many, this meant weak leadership, little bureaucracy, and participatory democracy.

Almost from the start, a tension developed between pragmatists and idealists that persisted throughout much of the party’s history. The pragmatists believed that it was necessary to have leaders, develop media skills, build a sound organization, and project an image of respectability and moderation. The idealists, who tended to have more anarchistic ideas, were suspicious of leaders and party organization and opted for a highly decentralized structure and advocated direct action when appropriate. For the first two decades, the idealist position was ascendant. The party had no leader in the traditional sense but was led by three cochairs, who were elected annually by an unwieldy party council of twenty-two members. Periodically, there were modest attempts to reform this questionable structure, but the results were mixed. The membership was, however, unified over changing its name to the Green Party, Green Party (Great Britain) which it did in September, 1985. This was done partly in the hope that the party would benefit by identifying itself with the more successful green parties in Europe and partly to prevent a new environmental group from poaching this name with all of its favorable connotations.


The Ecology Party had little impact on British politics. It managed to field only five candidates in the general election of February, 1974, and received only 1.8 percent of the vote in the constituencies it contested. Another general election held in October produced even worse results, perhaps to be expected from a party that had only two hundred members. A breakthrough of sorts was achieved when the party courageously decided to contest at least fifty seats in the 1979 general election, a figure which allowed it government-sponsored television time. While it achieved only 1.5 percent of the vote in the fifty-three constituencies it fought, party members got their message across, and between 1978 and 1980 the membership of the party increased tenfold to six thousand. While the party normally fared slightly better in local elections, it continued to struggle on the national level.

There was one spectacular exception to this dismal record, and this occurred in June, 1989, when elections were held for the European Parliament. To everyone’s astonishment, the Green Party gained 15 percent of the vote, the highest total of any green party in Europe. European elections were not treated very seriously in Great Britain at that time, but the media, general public, and other political parties admitted it was an impressive performance.

Political analysts were largely in agreement about the reasons for the Green Party’s poor electoral results. The British electoral system discriminated against new and small parties. Like the American electoral system, Great Britain has single-member constituencies, and whoever gets the most votes wins, even if it is not a numerical majority. Thus, a vote for the Green Party was perceived as a “wasted” vote, since it could never match the totals of the three more established parties. If Great Britain had had a system of proportional representation, for example, the 15 percent the Green Party got in the Euro-election of 1989 would have resulted in twelve seats instead of none.

The political culture of Great Britain tends to reward groups if they act responsibly and play within the system. Societies know they can be more effective by lobbying their local members of Parliament, attending public hearings, and using facts and data than by relying on political zealotry and ideological fervor. Most environmental societies were single-issue groups, such as the Royal Bird Society and the Society for the Protection of Rural England, organizations that believed it is better to solve one problem than to take the holistic approach of the Green Party and risk solving none. Some of the more conservative environmental societies believed that the Green Party was too erratic and irresponsible, whereas the more radical groups, such as the successful Greenpeace, preferred direct action and publicity stunts.

The political Left never had much enthusiasm for the Green Party. While British socialists were against capitalism, they continued to believe in the Marxist doctrine that science, industry, and technology could solve the problems of humanity. During the 1970’s and 1980’s, the Left believed that jobs, economic growth, and the revitalization of British industry were more important issues than the environment. Talk of a postindustrial society and a more frugal standard of living held little attraction for the unemployed or underpaid. The British Green Party failed to establish itself as the dominant peace party, something that the German Green Party had been able to do and which earned it the votes of the radical Left.

The Green Party had internal problems as well. The media enjoyed focusing on some of the party’s eccentric figures or the national conferences that any party member could attend and berate the leadership if so inclined. These conferences appeared undignified and chaotic, inspiring little confidence that the Green Party could be trusted to run governmental ministries or formulate foreign policy.

Finally, the mainstream parties had also taken up the cause of green policies. Special ecological groups had been set up within the Labour (1973), Liberal (1977), and Conservative (1977) parties. A particularly important event occurred on September 27, 1988, when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, previously thought to be hostile to environmental matters, delivered a speech to the Royal Society in which she expressed concern about atmospheric pollution and promised to protect the balance of nature. Although most observers believed Thatcher’s motives were cynical and politically calculated to prevent the defection of Conservative voters to other parties over the issue, her speech in effect signaled that green politics was an issue that would in the future be taken up by all parties at the highest levels of government. In short, the Green Party had competition.

The party could claim few successes in its first two decades. It was, however, the first green party in Europe, and it managed to stay in existence and fight elections against insuperable odds. The party played a role in legitimating green politics, and the literature it produced enriched the domestic debate. In the final analysis, the British Green Party presented the paradox of a party that, by most objective standards, appeared to have reason and decency on its side and stood for noble and admirable policies, but at the same time curiously failed to persuade the electorate and even environmental groups to support it. Perhaps its chief failing was its attempt to introduce visionary politics into Great Britain prematurely. Ecology Party (Great Britain)
Political parties;Ecology Party (Great Britain)
Environmental organizations

Further Reading

  • Dobson, Andrew. Green Political Thought. 3d ed. New York: Routledge, 2000. Focuses on how the British Green movement describes the political and social world, prescribes actions within the world, and seeks to motivate people to action. Valuable discussion of the differences between environmentalism and ecologism.
  • Flynn, Andrew, and Philip Lowe. “The Greening of the Tories: The Conservative Party and the Environment.” In Green Politics Two, edited by Wolfgang Rüdig. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 1992. Details how and why the Conservative Party took up environmental issues, suggesting the party was motivated by both political calculation and genuine concern.
  • Frankland, E. Gene. “Does Green Politics Have a Future in Britain?” In Green Politics One, edited by Wolfgang Rüdig. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 1990. Fine introduction to the early history and electoral record of the Green Party.
  • Parkins, Sara. Green Parties: An International Guide. London: Unwin Hyman, 1990. A useful reference work on all the green parties of Europe, including that of Great Britain. Ideal for beginners.
  • Porritt, Jonathon. Seeing Green: The Politics of Ecology Explained. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1984. Written by a leading figure in the Green Party, this book provides insight into what inspires people to embrace green causes and what party members wish to accomplish.
  • Robinson, Mike. The Greening of British Party Politics. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1992. Carefully documented study that focuses on the major political parties and details how and why they responded to the challenge of environmentalism. For the advanced student.
  • Rüdig, Wolfgang, and Philip Cole. “The Withered Greening of British Politics: A Study of the Ecology Party.” Political Studies 34 (June, 1986): 262-284. Offers a fine analysis of factors inhibiting the growth of the party. Rüdig is an authority on the Green Party.
  • Sutton, Philip W. Explaining Environmentalism: In Search of a New Social Movement. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2000. Traces the development of conservationist and environmental movements in the United Kingdom and argues for a longer-term perspective.

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