Saturday, June 26, 2004


Interview with George Monbiot

George Monbiot is a writer and environmental campaigner.

Benjamin Mackie: The right to vote is something that many have fought for in the past, but many now feel alienated from much of politics. I voted in the recent General Election, but without much enthusiasm. So is there any real point in voting?

George Monbiot: There is some point in voting, but it is blunted by the deadly combination of political convergence between the two parties and our first past the post electoral system. This means that our chances of altering policy at the ballot box are now tiny. The only remaining purpose of the vote is to register dissent, by putting our mark beside one of the smaller parties. But, as such votes are "wasted" in nearly all constituencies, few people are prepared to use their choice this way.

BM: The government presents its policies on the NHS as “partnership” with the private sector or “modernisation”. It says it will improve the NHS. What are your comments?

GM: It's plain that the private finance initiative (PFI), far from bringing new money into the public sector, is draining money from the public sector into the private sector. My research has shown that PFI hospital schemes are, in some cases, many times more expensive than publicly financed schemes. The corporations reject low-cost solutions such as renovating existing hospitals, and demand instead that the old buildings are torn down, the town-centre land on which they sit sold off and new, smaller hospitals are built on the outskirts of town. The only reason for this is that it provides more potential to make money out of the NHS. This money has to come from somewhere, and the only place it can come from is clinical services, which is why the government's own consultants have shown that every £200 million spent on PFI in the NHS leads to the loss of 1000 doctors and nurses.

BM: If, as you say, the PFI can drain money from the NHS and reduce services why is the government risking it? If it fails to improve public services it will lose the next General Election. Would it not be safer to invest in a more straight forward manner?

GM: Yes, it certainly makes no sense as a long term electoral strategy, but I suspect that short-term imperatives are rather more pressing for this government. And the principal imperative is to keep big business happy.

I think there are several potential reasons for this. The first is simple and pragmatic: upsetting the corporations creates much more work than taking the path of least resistance. The instinct of all politicians is to appease powerful interests, in the hope both of preventing attacks and of acquiring some of that power for themselves. But I think this formula is supplemented by Blair's own profound insecurity. It's interesting to see how he continues to govern as if his political survival were hanging by a thread, instead of a man with a huge Commons majority. Part of this insecurity, I think, is personal. Part of it arises from the age-old Establishment view that Labour is not a legitimate party of government. But the result is that instead of governing with long-term objectives in view, he spends the whole time running to catch up with the demands of his lobbyists.

BM: Amnesty International, and other organisations, such as Human Rights Watch, are now more likely to criticise big business and the part it plays in human rights violations across the world. What is the relationship between the government-corporate nexus and human rights abuses, and what should be Amnesty International’s response?

GM: I feel it's time that corporations were subject to the same human rights provisions as states. Currently corporations are the beneficiaries of human rights - using human rights laws in both the US and Europe to protect their property and profits - but not subject to them. They are treated by the law in this respect as if they were individual human beings rather than collective entities. Instead of statutory codes, they are asked to subscribe to the guidelines on multinational enterprises laid down by the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development. These, of course, are non-binding and therefore pretty useless. Other international protocols, such as the World Trade Agreement, grant them further rights, but impose no responsibilities.

So, in the absence of official mechanisms for restraining their behaviour, it's critically important that human rights campaigners hold them to account. There is no shortage of cases of big companies, often working with states, liquidating trades unionists, driving people off their land with threats of violence, silencing their own employees and other potential critics. Human rights, as Amnesty points out, have no boundaries, and that applies to sectors as well as nations.

George Monbiot most recent book is The Age of Consent.

George Monbiot’s essays and articles are online at his website.