"I wanted to be Petra Kelly"

IssueOctober 2007
Feature by Kelvin Mason, Jill Evans

KMHow do themes of peace, justice and environment come to be at the centre of your political life?

JE: I went to Aberystwyth University where I joined Plaid Cymru and became involved in anti-nuclear meetings and the movement against the dumping of waste in Wales.

I went back to the Rhonda in 1980 and we set up Rhonda CND. It was huge - we had more members than the Labour party! It was the same across the country; CND branches set up everywhere. I've been involved with CND ever since.

Being in the peace movement shaped my party politics. [Peace] has always been a guiding principle. Through that involvement with the peace movement and with Plaid, I became involved with War On Want. I was Vice Chair in Wales in the eighties and a member of the council of management in London.

Uncharitable activity

George Galloway was General Secretary [laughs] and he got us into loads of trouble. But he completely turned War On Want around. It was a groundbreaking charity because it was very political.

We ran a series of advertisements - very graphic images of South Africa and Nicaragua. They asked people for support, not money. This was raised in the House of Commons and it was deemed by the Charity Commission to be uncharitable activity and political campaigning. So we were fined a lot of money, which, as individual members of the council of management, we were responsible for!

Being political is still a big issue for charities. It was through War On Want that I got involved in campaigns on justice issues. That's how I first became aware of the Palestinian situation.


KM: For many people nationalism is viewed as a root cause of conflict and war. How do you view Welsh nationalism?

JE: Since being in the European parliament, I've become more aware of the way in which the word nationalism is used in other countries.

I've never had any difficulty with calling myself a nationalist, because the nationalism I've always seen in Wales has been a very non-threatening belief.

The nationalists I know in Wales want independence but we don't want it at anybody else's expense. We see it as being better for Britain, Europe and the world if we become independent.

Tradition of peace

There is this tradition of peace in Wales - I know it's something everybody says and maybe it's a bit corny - but I think it's largely true. Wales would be a very positive force for peace.

We do have problems in Wales with the BNP standing for elections, we have those issues like everywhere else in Britain. But I've never seen that kind of nationalism express itself [in Welsh nationalism]. Maybe because we have a nationalist party, we've prevented that very negative, very threatening nationalism developing.

I hope that the fact we've got this coalition government - and maybe I'm hoping for too much - but maybe now we're in coalition with Labour in the Assembly we'll begin to put an end to this misleading labelling and have more tolerance between parties.

People still say to me that they can't vote Plaid Cymru because they don't speak Welsh and we would make everyone speak Welsh.

Apart from being a ludicrous policy [laughs] it's so far from the truth. But I know that's come primarily from the Labour Party. They tell electors that. Isn't that such irresponsible politics?

Hopefully, we can begin to move away from that now. There are enough differences between us to fight on the real issues.

Flying the flag

KM: At demonstrations we proudly fly our flag - Y draig ggoch - but it would be strange if there was a Union Jack or Old Glory.

What's the difference?

JE: I've seen the difference with small countries, in the European parliament, with the parties we work with from Scotland, Flanders, Catalonia, the Basque country... the small countries seem more able, more quickly to develop progressive policies.

I was in Navarre last month and they've got an incredibly successful policy developing renewable energy.

In Flanders, the government funds a peace institute [that] works with schools and with conflict prevention. The more prominence and influence the smaller countries have working together, the more positive policies we'll see developing across Europe.

That's why it's good to see the smaller countries represented at demonstrations. We in Wales should get out more, make our presence felt in demonstration like Faslane 365; we should be bolder.

[But] the Union Jack has such negative connotations, again now in terms of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Peaceful Union

KM: Moving on to the European Union, I suppose you're a committed supporter?

JE: I'm a committed European [but] I'm not a supporter of the European Union as it's currently structured.

The fact that the main aim of creating the Union was to maintain peace in Europe is something that means a lot to people and is often forgotten.

Despite the fact that it's developed as an internal market with its own currency and so on, its primary aim is still peace, and that's something that we have to preserve.

But the way it's currently structured is ineffective. The smaller countries obviously are not represented, so we don't have a Europe of the people, it's a Europe of mainly big states.

EU crisis

We're not seeing more decentralisation of power in Europe. For the past two years we've had this terrible “period of reflection” - another term for crisis.

The Dutch and French voted “No” to the constitution and threw the whole thing into disarray. Now they've come back with this amended treaty. There's been an awful lot of time spent on discussions, often behind closed doors, about the future of Europe.

And people outside the parliament buildings are at best not interested, and at worst hostile. I don't see that our [UK] government has done anything positive to involve people in the debate and ask people what they want the European Union to be. Environmental action

JE: The Camp for Climate Action was an expression of people's frustration.

I work on the [European Parliament's] Environment Committee, which is doing fantastic work. In terms of waste management, air quality, GMOs, all sorts of issues; if we didn't have European legislation, we'd be much worse off, because our own countries wouldn't do it.

Climate change is the major issue, of course. But at the same time we do have a lot of red tape.... The other issue is that the parliament, the only elected part of the European Union, doesn't have that much power.

So we can vote on something, but that can still be overturned by government leaders.... When it comes to important votes in committees on major environmental issues, the briefings we're getting from the UK government are to vote against; they're often trying to water down environmental legislation.

On the new chemical laws that were introduced last year, we had a very long debate and intense lobbying from the chemical industry... The British government was a key player in weakening that legislation considerably.

On the waste issue it's been the same. There is a lot of rhetoric, but when it comes down to it, it's not put into practice. Prioritise climate change Last year, I made a pledge with Friends of the Earth that I would always use my vote to try to stop climate change; I would always make climate change the main consideration.

It can be hard to do that, particularly where there are industries involved, and industries in Wales of course. [The refrain runs] if you do this, if you impose these restrictions on industry, on their emissions or whatever, then jobs will go.

It's difficult to vote and say, “We have to do this.” [But] I've never known any case in the eight years I've been in parliament where jobs have been lost.

Where there have been restrictions, industry adapts very well. The British government gives in to industry all the time and puts the [false] jobs issue before anything else.

Greenham and the Greens

KM: The theme of this issue of Peace News is women. But, with respect to peace, justice and environmental sustainability, is there a particular women's view? JE: When I was becoming involved in politics and in the peace movement, there was a strong feeling that women had a special role in the peace movement. Particularly in the early eighties with Greenham - but not just Greenham...

I remember being inspired by what was happening with the German Greens.

I saw a film of Petra Kelly in London and was struck by how powerful she was as a young woman, politician, speaking in such strong terms but putting it so simply and persuasively. I remember thinking, “I want to be Petra Kelly.”

I went on part of the march to Greenham and I used to visit. There was something very special about the women's involvement.

There were a lot of different ideas there. It appealed to a lot of people who would never have become involved otherwise. The fact that there were people of all ages and all backgrounds.

Surprising people back in Wales would talk to me about it. [They'd] say, “Oh I'd love to go, but I can't go myself.” But they could be Greenham women in their own communities.

Topics: Women
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