Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Month: April, 2015

Doing nothing or going Green on May 7th

When it came to clearing up after the floods at the beginning of last year, David Cameron declared that “money is no object…whatever money is needed for it, will be spent”. It was possible to conclude from the pictures of the Prime Minister in a hard hat and high vis jacket that he had rebuilt the Dawlish railway line single handed.

There is a much greater public clamour and a stronger political imperative to mop up the floodwater than to tackle the underlying problem of climate change.

To be fair, the Coalition has committed us to the toughest regime for cutting carbon emissions in the world and the three main parties signed a pact in February  to work together for climate change – perhaps with an eye  to taking the issue off the hustings.

Public support for measures to combat climate change has waned since the last election. This may explain why global warming is, with a few honourable exceptions, missing from the late in the day but now published party manifestos.

In her new book, Naomi Klein is bravely optimistic that there is still time to save the planet. We have the ability to move away from fossil fuels in the next thirty years if the funds are available, she argues.

But we need a popular uprising comparable to the civil rights movement to persuade governments to act.  Case studies of opposition to oil drilling in Nigeria, tar fields in Alberta and even fracking in Boscombe gives Klein hope. I wish I shared her confidence.

We also need to change our world view. “ We are stuck because the actions that could give us the best chance of averting catastrophe – and would benefit the vast majority – are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our media outlets.”

“It is our great collective misfortune that the scientific community made its decisive diagnosis of the climate threat at the precise moment when those elites were enjoying more unfettered political, cultural, and intellectual power than at any point since the 1920s.” ( Naomi Klein, ‘This Changes Everything’, p.18)

As the political elites and their fellow travellers beat the drums in their election campaigns, are they likely to sacrifice economic growth to save the planet?  Here, in order of unlikeliness, is their position:

  • UKIP would scrap the Department of Energy and Climate Change and repeal the Climate Change Act. It believes it is “time to get fracking” and would abolish subsidies for alternative energy. Nuff said.
  • The North East Party supports the development of energy that is as safe, clean and carbon minimising as possible and which provides quality jobs. The manifesto is admirably clear on devolution but skates over much else.
  • The Conservatives will push for a global climate deal, cut emissions as effectively as possible, halt the development of onshore wind farms and support the development of safe  fracking  but the manifesto is short on detail and specific commitments.
  • Labour believes that “tackling climate change is the most important thing we must do for our children, our grandchildren and future generations”. It talks about “ambitious” targets and makes a commitment to remove carbon from our electricity supply by 2030.
  • The Liberal Democrats see climate change as “one of the greatest challenges of our age” and will legislate to bring net emissions to zero by 2050, aim for 60% of UK electricity from renewables by 2030 and regulate to end the use of unabated coal by 2025.
  • The Greens say that “climate change is the greatest challenge of our time and only the Greens are determined to tackle it.” They would make a global 2C deal the major foreign policy objective; reduce emission to 10% of 1990 levels by 2030, provide an extra £1b for flood protection, stop fracking, close coal fired power stations and oppose nuclear power.

(For a full comparison of environment policies go to

Experts question whether the Greens targets can be achieved. Will they be able to increase solar energy and off shore wind power sufficiently quickly to compensate for carbon based fuels. “You would really have to put things on a war footing” according to Imperial College’s Rob Gross.

But what the heck? If you believe this is the life or death test of our civilisation, drastic measures are needed. It is too late in the day to tackle carbon reduction incrementally. You do not cure cancer by urging smokers to cut their consumption by a few cigarettes a year.

I found myself giving a big tick to most of the other pledges in the Greens manifesto. Yes to scrapping Trident, nationalising the railways and ending tuition fees to be financed by a wealth tax and a financial transaction tax but the programme  involves a huge risk of increasing public borrowing from £115bn to £338 bn.

A group of Cambridge academics warned us last week that the ice is melting in the Arctic Ocean and sea levels are rising much faster than predicted only a couple of years ago.  We have about fifteen years, the course of the next three parliaments, to turn things around but suffer from what Mark Carney has described as “the tragedy of horizons” in which politicians only think about short term problems

The big two parties become ever more circumspect and jockey for position. Will this be an election in which more and more of us cast a vote wildly for the causes we believe in, whether that is for devolution, for banning immigration or saving the planet, knowing that it may be a wasted vote.  Or, as polling day approaches, will we come back into the fold of the political elites?

published in the Newcastle Journal on Monday 20th April

Tall stories from Iona

It has been a week full of unlikely stories. As I sat on the stony beach at the south tip of the island of Iona, I could not believe that St Columba  really landed his fragile leather covered boat on such a rocky promontory in AD 563. Surely, I asked my fellow pilgrims, he would have sailed round to the sheltered east coast where there are sandy beaches.

The story goes that Columba got into trouble for copying the psalms, which led to a battle in which 3000 were killed. Columba lost the battle, was exiled from Ireland and set sail for Scotland.

Modern scholarship suggests that he first made a number of landings on the mainland, setting up a monastery in each place, but I prefer the traditional story and duly cast a stone in the sea to leave my troubles behind and picked up another fine pink speckled specimen  as a memento of a wonderful week staying  with the Iona Community.

Columba did indeed found a monastery on Iona, and from there brought Christianity to Scotland. The monastery flourished and Columba became both king maker and diplomat as well as hermit and evangelist.

Stories of Columba’s exploits, as recorded by his fellow monk Adomnan, abound. He stood all night in the sea reciting those psalms. He expelled devils from milk churns and blessed wells. He wrestled with the Loch Ness monster. Miracles were expected in those days.

The most unlikely story of Columba’s time concerns St Oran who volunteered to be buried alive as the means of sanctifying the island burial ground.  Columba was so upset that three days later he opened up the grave to see his friend for one last time.

To his surprise, Oran was still alive and couldn’t wait to tell everyone that they had got it all wrong about heaven and hell. Columba immediately ordered the grave to be filled in again to hush him up.

On Christmas Day AD 986, a group of fifteen monks were slaughtered on the beach at what is now known as Martyrs Bay as they, perhaps misguidedly, came to the waters edge to greet a boatload of Vikings.

In 2003, seven members of the Melanesian Brotherhood, an order of Christian brothers living a simple and prayerful life in the Solomon Islands were martyred by rebel forces with whom they were, perhaps naively, trying to broker a peace settlement. Persecution for living the Christian faith continues to this day as we have seen tragically in Kenya this weekend.

48 Scottish kings and many more clan chiefs are buried on Iona – down to the  Labour clan  leader, John Smith –  and the island has become a well trod path of pilgrimage.  The abbey fell into ruin after the dissolution of the monasteries until it was restored by the Duke of Argyll, at the behest of his wife, in the late 19th century.

Then in the 1930s an indefatigable Church of Scotland priest called George MacLeod took it upon himself to rebuild the abbey’s cloister and buildings. He hit upon the idea of taking trainee priests and unemployed craftsman from Govan to work each summer on Iona and live together in community.

Apocryphal stories about George’s escapades rival those of Columba. They both arrived on Iona aged 42 and their careers are sometimes compared. Macleod was also scarred by war and became a ardent pacifist.

On one occasion, the restoration work was held up for lack of a stone mason. A passing holiday maker turned out to be a master stone mason and volunteered to help.

When the refectory needed a roof, a consignment of timber washed up on the beach. It had been jettisoned  by a cargo ship in trouble.  Rumour has it that the timber was already cut to the exact length required in the refectory.

George Macleod had set his heart on purchasing a fine silver resurrection cross that he saw in an exhibition but was told firmly that it was not for sale. The owner explained that it was her late husband’s finest work and that he had always intended it to be installed in Iona Abbey which is, of course, where it is today.

George MacLeod founded the Iona Community, an ecumenical Christian movement, best known these days for its innovatory style of liturgy and hymnology, which have been widely influential in churches all over the world.

McLeod imbued the Community with a strong commitment to work for peace and justice. Members dispersed around the country are active, amongst other work,  in opposing nuclear arms, providing ecumenical observers in Palestine, supporting asylum seekers and working with disadvantaged young people.

“Why do you keep coming back here?” a young volunteer from San Diego asked me over breakfast  in the self same refectory. Lost for words, I admitted that I just love the place.

No doubt it helps that the three mile long  island is as idyllic as a small windswept Hebridean island can be.  Macleod called it “a thin place” where heaven and earth come close together.

But more important to me is the witness of the staff and volunteers living out a gospel of healing and political action of which Columba would have been proud. They gather in the abbey at the beginning and end of the working day to worship and provide good company and respite to whoever pitches up to stay with them.

Of course, the most famous unlikely story of the week is the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the course of a single week, Jesus threw out the bankers, was let down by the establishment, betrayed and denied by his followers and completely lost his ratings in the polls before dying a terrible death. Darkness covered the land; the temple curtain was rent in two and the tombstone was rolled away.

It is a story that has inspired Columba, MacLeod, the Melanesians martyrs and the masses of people who will  filled Iona Abbey to overflowing yesterday to celebrate Easter Day.