Anthony Giddens wants to talk about climate change, or as he sees it, the “unparalleled danger in world history”, but there’s something we need to get out of the way first; why did he once describe Muammar Gaddafi as the last of the revolutionaries?
Now a Labour peer, Giddens is one of the most respected and prolific academics of his generation. His work is cited more often than Marx’s and Freud’s. The 73-year-old became one of Tony Blair’s favourite intellectuals after his work on The Third Way, the modernisation of left wing principles which became the cornerstone of progressive thinking in Britain and America in the1990s.
But recently, he has become notorious for something quite different; his two visits to Libya in 2006 and 2007 to meet Gaddafi. After the first visit, he famously wrote of the despot’s “authentic” conversation against terrorism in a New Statesman article titled ‘The Colonel And His Third Way’.
Five years on, we meet in the Lords and, after a whistle-stop tour of the chamber, sit down in an empty bar. It’s Friday, the House isn’t sitting and Giddens is apologetic there are no drinks on offer. He will talk about Gaddafi, “if I must”, but he wants to make it clear - he does not regret going to Libya.
“At that time there was a potential for change, of an evolutionary kind. If that had happened the bloodshed that has now taken place might have been avoided.'
So will he eat his words? Giddens rejects the suggestion he was too polite about Gaddafi or about his son Saif, who looks set to called for trial at the Hague, when he labelled him “a driving force behind the rehabilitation and potential modernisation of Libya” nor about the dictator himself:
"No, he was eccentric and difficult to communicate with, but I hoped he may be persuaded to step aside into a ceremonial role. I was pointing to possibilities for the country. I strongly believed, and believe now, that Libya should not just open itself up to markets, because that harms the poor. An attempt should be made to introduce cutting edge welfare policies at the same time - that's why I mentioned the example of Norway. It's encouraging to note that some political leaders in Tunisia have been talking along the same lines today."
And no, he did not admire Gaddafi, a man who he once described as “the last of the revolutionaries” alongside Fidel Castro.
It’s not just despots and desert meetings. There’s also the small issue of impending ecological doom. For Giddens the world is facing two profound crises - one environmental, the other economic.
“We’re still looking for a Third Way if you like, and the Third Way we found was too superficial to be be able to do what it was supposed to do, which in my view was to be able to suplant traditional socialism and Thatcherite neoliberalism. That’s the task which still faces us, but you have to intergrate it with a much stronger emphasis among sustainability of things. It’s a pretty huge task.”
Giddens has recently published a revised edition of his book The Politics Of Climate Change, where he warns that while the risks of global warning exist, we won’t do anything until they are tangible - and by that time, it will be too late.
“You’ve got something to me a bit like the Matrix the film. You’ve got a kind of computer generated world where everything is OK, where people get on with their lives, and then outside you’ve got this really disturbingly dangerous real world and we’re kind of ignoring those dangers. If you want another analogy the whole world’s like a smoker who says ‘I’m young, I can give up later, the whole thing’s not really proven, or I just don’t care what happens how ever many years from now.’”
But despite the dire warning, he is cautiously optimistic about the future. The current government, he says, is taking climate change seriously but it’s an issue of “”substance”.
“All of it is mostly at the level of plans. And you can say that Labour failed, really, to engage with these issues early enough. We’re still right down at the bottom of the European league in terms of proportion of renewables. So in the next few years it’s a question of whether you can deliver it or not.”
The final word? The 21st century is “unusual” - and we need a new intellectual basis to understand it, one which doesn’t depend on the economic consensus based on free markets.
“No other civilisation ever become global in the way which ours did, no other civilisation ever threatened the conditions of global life. No other civilisation was able to significantly effect the world climate. It’s just totally different to anything that stood before.”
The Politics of Climate Change is published by Polity Press and is out now.
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