An Interview with: Lord Deben

John Selwyn Gummer, Lord Deben

There are a number of concessions around Carrow Road which sell various items of fast food to Norwich’s hungry football fans on matchdays. Today, the stadium has been taken over by UEA for graduation, so none of them are open.

It’s just as well really, because I’ve never had a burger from any of them that looks nearly as appetising as the one John Selwyn Gummer fed his four-year-old daughter in 1990, in full glare of the world’s media, in an attempt to convince the public of the safety of beef following the outbreak of mad cow disease. Of course, he made the cover of Private Eye the next week and the image will forever be associated with the then-Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

Now titled Lord Deben, and rapidly approaching his fiftieth year as an active politician, he’s a charming man who still has the ministerial spark when engaged in the right conversation topic – namely climate change and political paths to sustainability. His conviction on those issues has not waned in all those years, and he’s a willing interview subject on everything from electric cars to the building work on UEA’s campus, which he has visited many times and likes, though he believes it will be even better after the current rebuilding project which has meant graduation temporarily moving to Carrow Road.

He’s delighted to receive the honorary doctorate for several reasons. “Obviously UEA is if not the leading, one of the leading universities as far as climate research is concerned, those links are very important. Secondly, it has a remarkable academic standing and it has always been important in its fostering and encouraging what’s gone on in Suffolk. It’s very much the mentor of the new University of Suffolk, which we are so pleased to have. But UEA made it possible, so I’m particularly fond of that.”

Born in Stockport, Gummer was a 1962 History graduate of Selwyn College, Cambridge, after leading both the University Conservative Association and its famous Debating Society, and a part of the ‘Cambridge Mafia’ of prominent Tories who all graduated from the university in the first half of the 1960s. A lifelong Conservative Party member, Mr Gummer first contested several London seats, being elected to the Commons in 1970 in Lewisham. By the end of the decade he was in the House representing the Eye constituency, which became the Suffolk Coastal seat, where he stayed until his 2010 retirement and still lives to this day.

In this time, he was Agriculture Minister, Environment Secretary and Party Chairman in the governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major. Of Thatcher’s legacy, he’s as effusive as expected: “She was the first major Prime Minister to believe in climate change and to do something about it and to be committed to that, a remarkable woman in that sense. She was a scientist, so she was much more interested in applying science to government than any previous Prime Minister I think had been for a very long time.

“She made changes in our society which were hugely necessary, and which for example Mr Macron is only just beginning to have to do in France. So we owe her a great deal in that sense. There are lots of things that one might have done differently, but one does have to say that history will suggest that she made an absolutely indelible mark on Britain, and her leadership on climate change internationally was absolutely unparalleled.”

Mr Gummer was Party Chairman in 1984 when the Grand Hotel, Brighton, used for that year’s conference, was bombed by the IRA, resulting in five deaths. Lord Deben asks for clarification about what I’m referring to, seeming slightly taken aback by my assumptions about the significance of the impact the incident must have had.

I ask Lord Deben about the impact it had on the party specifically, calling it a seismic event in British politics. He picks me up on my phrasing. “I’m not sure that it had a seismic effect on the party. I think it had a real effect on Britain as a whole because it brought home to people the enormous immediacy of terrorism. It certainly meant that we recognised that we had to have a degree of security which we’d never really thought of before. But I don’t think it had a party political effect. I think it just did something to Britain. We all recognised that it was something you couldn’t ignore. And I think that has put us into a much better position to deal with the kind of terrorism we have today.

“If you remember how America was absolutely flabbergasted by the terrible events of the Twin Towers, partly they never thought these things could happen, and we had lived through that. One only thinks the Brighton bombing was one, after all, of a whole series of things which we sometimes forget but which was all part of that background.” He then adds that the IRA’s Hyde Park bombing of soldiers was another such eye-opening event.

Interestingly, Gummer switched religious beliefs from Anglicanism to Catholicism. I ask him why he made that most momentous of decisions for a man of faith.

He answers quickly: “Authority.”

“It’s the fundamental question, by what right do you teach what you teach? And the moment the Church of England decided it had a right by a vote in the Synod to teach something no-one else had taught, whatever it was, once it chose to have that right it became a sect. And I didn’t want to belong to a sect, I wanted to belong to the Church.”

Lord Deben has an impressive bibliography, with a number of published titles on the subjects of faith and sustainability. It’s perhaps telling that when pressed, his favourite is a 1974’s co-write, The Christian Calendar, “on the story of the Christian year and what all the seasons and colours and things meant. Because I think linking people into history is a hugely valuable thing.”

A sitting Lord, Deben is happy to discuss modern politics, too. We chat about Boris Johnson’s resignation from the cabinet that had just happened (“I think that many of the comments that he’s made of recent months have manifestly neither been true nor welcome, and I think that’s a great pity”), the rise in charging points for electric vehicles (“I think that’s just natural we should be doing that. But we should also be installing them very much more widely, much more quickly on lamp posts”) and Donald Trump’s criticisms of the Brexit process (“I think it’s extremely encouraging because I always want to be on the other side to Donald Trump! He seems to me to sum up everything that is mean, unpleasant, racist and nasty in society because he’s learnt a long time ago that’s how you appeal to a certain sector of the population. So it’s the kind of thing he’d say, wouldn’t he?”).

Lord Deben is well informed and sprightly as he speaks. Boris, he says, was a journalist so will probably go back to that. Kensington and Chelsea have only just installed their first electric charging points, a disgrace – Norwich has done a bit better. Trump is the offspring of an immigrant, which he finds flabbergasting.

Lord Deben is clear about what he thinks is needed to tackle climate change: speed. “We need to do things faster,” he says. “One thing we require at all levels is urgency, to do now, instead of saying we’ll do it next year or the year after. So when they say 2040 for the complete changeover from fossil fuelled vehicles, I think it has to be 2030, I don’t think we can possibly leave it that long. We must start building zero-carbon homes now and not leave them to the future. Mrs May says she has a mission to do it by 2030, I’m sorry, we’ve got to do it earlier.”

Talk then turns to the threat Brexit poses to the Common Agricultural Policy. I ask a question about what happens when we leave the EU. A turn of phrase really. Staunch Europhile Lord Deben interrupts with a correction: “If we leave the European Union, which is of course an extremely stupid thing to do, it’s wrong for Britain and it’s wrong for Europe, and it’s certainly wrong for young people who’ll be denied opportunities.

“The environmental elements in the Common Agricultural Policy are ones which, many of them, we in Britain particularly encouraged. Obviously we’ll want to make sure that our standards of both sustainability and animal welfare and food safety are maintained, which is why people talk nonsense when they say we can go and have deals with the United States. Well, the United States has never signed up to a deal which protects food safety. Never signed up for a deal which protects the environment. Still hasn’t signed up to CITES which is supposed to be the world protection of endangered species. So I think that a lot of people are talking nonsense. We have to keep those standards.

“The real issue will be, are there things that leaving the European Union, if we did so, would be an advantage? Well, I happen to think that the whole of the Common Agricultural Policy will in fact go on moving towards an environmental policy. The problem that we will have is that we won’t have any money. So because we left the European Union, we will have very significant disadvantages, and I don’t see how the Treasury is going to end up putting the sort of money into agriculture which it does now, so I think farmers are going to find it extremely difficult.”

He doesn’t seem in the mood to offer a particularly detailed answer to my blithe question about the Brexit dividend.

What about one of his finest political acts: the introduction of the landfill tax? Does he agree with me that it’s his main legacy? The regrets are outweighed by the positives, but the party political debate still lives on in his memory.

“Well, it was the first environmental tax we introduced. And it was introduced [despite] opposition particularly by the Treasury who didn’t like it because it was a hypothecated tax.” – This means that the money raised went directly to environmental causes rather than into Treasury coffers.

“And indeed the moment that the government changed, the Treasury managed to remove a lot of the hypothecation. But I’ve always believed that environmental taxes should be levied in order to do environmental things. And that’s indeed originally what the landfill tax was designed to do. I’m only sorry it doesn’t do it to the same extent now. And if I had my time over again, I’d make sure it did!”

After our interview, I’m compelled by his intriguing character to observe Lord Deben. Emerging from the players’ tunnel in the middle of the absurdly long procession and posing for the obligatory photos with his wife and son, former Ipswich MP Ben (still introduced as Benedict by his father), Lord Deben is calm, dignified, agreeable with everyone. He’s done plenty of this kind of thing before and is completely unfettered by the storm of organisation around him.

And while the political state of affairs nowadays may raise his hackles somewhat, political beliefs aside you have to admire his decorum, his legacy and his principles, dulled neither by time nor experience.

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Tony Allen

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January 2022
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