It is truly sad that Michael died today after a short illness. I worked for Michael when he was environment minister 1997-1999. Then I went to Greenpeace, from where I had to lobby him, and sometimes criticise him in the press. He never held this against me; we continued to meet up socially from time to time.
Michael was a very good minister. Tony Blair was not Michael’s greatest fan in May 1997, which is why he broke Labour rules and did not put Michael into the cabinet despite him being an elected member of the shadow cabinet. Michael was understandably cross about this, but decided just to get on with the job. And did it so well that he remained in post for six years.
Michael leaves a great political legacy. He played a central role in the negotiation of the Kyoto Protocol in late 1997. After only a few months in office, he’d really mastered his brief. He and John Prescott were an effective team; Michael did the detail and Prescott carried the political weight.
Michael was no euro-enthusiast. But during the UK presidency of the EU in 1998, he recognised the crucial importance of European co-operation for green issues. Pollution does not respect national boundaries. And he recognised that some things need to be regulated, so put a lot of time and effort into the regulation of chemicals, REACH. The fact that European consumers no longer run the risk of buying toxic, flammable pyjamas for their kids is another part of Michael’s legacy.
When Michael was asked a question, he always paused to think it through before answering. What he was thinking was not ‘what is the politically correct answer?’ or ‘what is my government’s line on this issue?’, let alone ‘what would my boss want me to say?’. No, what Michael was thinking was ‘what is the morally correct answer to this question?’. That could make the job of being his spin doctor quite challenging. But it was always worth the effort. Because, as this concern for morality showed, Michael was not just a good minister – he was a great human being.
The central pillar of Michael’s legacy is the statutory right to roam. John Smith, a keen walker, was very committed to this, and Chris Smith, the then shadow environment secretary, wrote a commitment to it into Labour party policy in 1994. Michael was determined to deliver. Blair was opposed; he thought it was a dangerously left wing notion and wanted a voluntary approach – ie commoners only allowed onto private land if the gentry allow it. Michael would have none of that, and after long battles inside government, he eventually won Blair round. Anyone who doubts the power of intelligent argument in politics should consider this: a former Bennite managed to convince Tony Blair to go against his instincts and stand up to the landowners.
So, to pay tribute to Michael and his memory, I suggest the following: go for a long walk in the countryside and, instead of doffing your cap to the landowner, give a vote of thanks to the statutory right to roam. This land is our land, in large part because of the determination and skill of Michael Meacher.