Tim Beaumont: Green Alliance’s first director defined our unique purpose

Song Thrush - Turdus philomelosThis post is by Nigel Haigh, former director of the Institute for European Environmental Policy and chair of Green Alliance from 1989 to 1998.

Of all the talented directors that Green Alliance has had, Tim Beaumont – or, to give him his full title, the Reverend Lord Beaumont of Whitley – was surely the most extraordinary.  He was one of three people connected with the Liberal Party who joined with others across the political spectrum to create and launch Green Alliance in 1979.  Maurice Ash was to become its chairman, Richard Holme its treasurer, and Tim was its  ‘convenor’ or ‘co-ordinator’.  He never called himself the director, though he ran the show and gave it its sense of direction.

I vividly remember my first encounter with Tim.  From 1975 I was the British representative on the committee of the European Environmental Bureau (EEB),  convening  meetings of its British members, and sometimes arranging for us to talk to the minister about what should be on the EEC’s (as it was then) agenda. That may explain why Tim phoned me one day and asked to visit. Would I join the proposed Green Alliance?  When I asked how it would differ from existing environmental NGOs he gave an answer I have never forgotten.  They were lovely people, he said,  but they were the “coal face workers”, digging their various seams, such as protecting birds or the countryside, or promoting town planning , or recycling Schweppes bottles, or whatever.  The new Alliance would be different.  It would not compete with them. It would instead inject the ecological perspective into mainstream political life, and its targets would include parliamentarians and the political parties.

Tim was very much a political animal. His father and two grandfathers had been MPs (Conservative, Radical and Liberal respectively).  He was a member of the Bullingdon Club at Oxford who then became an Anglican clergyman in Hong Kong. When he inherited a considerable fortune from his Quaker mother’s family, he returned to London and became prominent in the radical reforming movement of the Church, financing and sometimes editing Christian journals. He started many hares running.  After giving money to the Liberal Party, he became head of the party organisation, then its chairman, then its president. He was rewarded with a seat in the Lords where he was a spokesperson on education and the arts. (Later he abandoned the LibDems to join the Green Party, being their sole spokesperson in the Lords.) He died in 2008.

I told Tim about the EEB’s ‘manifesto’ for the first direct elections to the European Parliament to be held in June 1979.  The title – coined by Tom Burke – was One Europe, One Environment. It told MEPs what we expected of them, and ended with questions – the first was about amending the Treaty of Rome to remove ‘continuous expansion’ and to legitimise the new EEC environment policy.  Tim enthusiastically undertook that Green Alliance would circulate this manifesto to all the candidates in the UK and then collate and   publicise their replies. (Nearly all the candidates supported treaty amendment.)

At about that time Konrad von Moltke, who had founded the Institute for Environmental Policy (IEEP) in Germany in 1976 , was building a database of all the parliamentary committees and parliamentarians in Europe interested in environmental policy so he could distribute IEEP’s bi-monthly newsletter The Environment in Europe. This gave those rare parliamentarians interested in environmental policy courage by showing them how much was going on in other countries. Konrad contacted Tim, joined Green Alliance and paid it to develop the UK part of IEEP’s database. Thus began Green Alliance’s own Parliamentary Newsletter which described what the British parliament was doing.  When I opened the London office of IEEP in April 1980 the money that Konrad had been giving to Green Alliance was diverted to support me instead.  But then Tim was used to money slipping through his fingers.

His view of Green Alliance’s role was not shared by everyone. We were an alliance of individuals founded as an unincorporated body which, in the early days, was governed by a committee elected annually at an AGM .  These were lively occasions with many conflicting views as to what the organisation should be and do. Should it become a political party, or an umbrella body for environmental NGOs?  Should it promote the simple life and spiritual values and speak over the heads of government directly to the hearts and minds of ‘the people’?   Tim’s view prevailed, and was consolidated by Tom Burke, when he became director in 1982. Tom started a race between political parties to be the first to mention the environment in their manifestos.

Green Alliance soon established itself as an agenda setting body regularly injecting thoughts into government and elsewhere.  But, in the end, it has had to do some ‘coal face’ work too (not an ecologically correct term today, I realise). Julie Hill, who succeeded Tom, could find no NGO to take on the issue of genetic modification, so Green Alliance was one of the first to raise it and succeeded in securing more robust legislation before others went on to take up the baton. More subjects have followed. It is also always easier to raise money for specific projects than agenda setting, but the main aim remains.

My summary of Green Alliance’s early years is simple:  Tim Beaumont defined its purpose; Tom Burke gave it political credibility; and Julie Hill established its viability. There were rocky times during my chairmanship when we were very close to closing it down. Thank goodness we didn’t.

This post is part of Green Alliance’s 40th anniversary blog series.

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