The Real Leader’s Debate: Will Boris Johnson do the right thing and divest from fossil fuels?

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Did you watch the debate last night? Seven party leaders squaring off, each championing their own cause and trying to get more from the debate than the others. You can see some highlights from it here. My favourite moment was this woman. She found David’s Cameron’s answer so lacking that she stood up, spoke her mind and was promptly escorted away. Perhaps she was wrong to interrupt the debate. Perhaps it was disrespectful. But, maybe, just maybe, we need more people to act like her. We need more debates between the governors and the governed, more debates where the format is challenged and regular people make their voice heard.

On Monday night, three days before the Leader’s Debate, we at Divest London attempted to arrange a debate of our own with the leader of London, Boris Johnson. We had heard that Boris would be at the right-wing think tank, the Legatum Institute, to help launch Tim Montgomerie’s Vision of Capitalism. Montgomerie’s project aims to “deliver an agenda to Britain’s next government for restoring faith in the free market”. According to the Legatum Institute, one of the greatest crises we face is not rising inequality, not climate change, not decaying democracy – it’s a lack of faith in the free market. Boris was speaking to help reignite our faith in the power of the market and the invisible hand to justly govern society.

You may have guessed that many of us at Divest London fundamentally disagree with the mission of the Vision of Capitalism project. What’s needed is not more faith in the free market but rather a profound transformation away from crony capitalism and the economic logic of extraction and towards an economic, social and political system that provides for everyone. What’s needed is not a return to the Thatcher years but rather the ambition to imagine new systems altogether. What’s needed is leaders who can step up to the challenges of today and not those that seek to enshrine and reinvigorate the failed policies of the past.

However, what brought us to the Mayfair office of the Legatum Institute on the last Monday of March was not this profound disagreement with the Vision of Capitalism. We came out to encourage Boris to restore our faith in politicians with courage, politicians with foresight. Following the London Assembly’s vote earlier this month to remove fossil fuel shares from the London Pension Fund Authority, Boris Johnson has still made no public statement regarding a decision. The Mayor has said he takes the threat of climate change very seriously, but he has come up short repeatedly when it comes to acting on this matter. We came out on Monday night to ask the Mayor to seriously combat climate change, to move public sector pension investments away from fossil fuels and into renewables.

And so we waited for Boris to arrive. Dozens of Divest London activists had gathered and used the opportunity to remind the event attendees that “a system built on fossil fuels has no future”.

Finally, he showed up.

Boris

As Boris dismounted his bike and unleashed his thick mane of blonde locks, he was greeted by activists holding banners calling on him to divest City Hall from fossil fuels. He was surround by chants of, ‘Boris, Boris, it’s so strange! London’s funding climate change!’ and ‘Warning! Stranded assets inside!’ He quickly rushed past us and entered the building.

The event itself, which you can watch here, continued as scheduled. Both Tim Montgomerie and Boris mentioned the protesters at the door but their blind faith in the moral project of capitalism remained unshaken. This brief excerpt from Montogomerie’s introduction of Boris shed lights on the prevailing mindset of the group:

The Pew Research Center found that you have to go to the developing world and often to the former communist countries to find the greatest confidence in the likelihood of wealth cascading down the generations. America—and to a much greater extent, Europe—have become pessimistic places – and sometimes, as we can see at the door, angry places.

It’s little wonder. In every bookshop there are tomes attacking capitalism—for the inequality it allegedly causes and for the beautiful environments it rapes. These authors perhaps have forgotten the Soviet Union and the real extremes of income and pollution that that created. The arts are no better with Hollywood regularly portraying business people as rapacious wolves.

It’s time for friends of capitalism to fight back.

Montgomerie concluded his remarks with:

Capitalism needs virtuous citizens to flourish. Adam Smith understood that. So must we if we are to ensure that British, American and other people in advanced countries are as optimistic about the future as the people of the “Socialist Republic of Vietnam”.

Someone who is never anything but optimistic: I give you Boris Johnson, Mayor of London.

Much like the woman who stood up in the Leader’s Debate, our voice was not listened to by our leaders. Much like the woman who stood up for what she believed in, we were shut out from the event. But these leaders are ignoring some very important facts.

We are not the pessimistic ones. We are not the ones with such little faith in humanity that we believe a society governed by the profit motive is the only way to function. We are not the ones too fearful of change to try for something better. Montgomerie says it’s time for capitalism to fight back. He’s wrong. It’s time for us to fight back and that is exactly what we are doing. Montgomerie says capitalism needs virtuous citizens to flourish but do virtuous citizens need capitalism?

He was, however, right about one thing. We are angry. We are angry with leaders who refuse to lead. We are angry with the system that places profit above people and planet. We are angry that the world we hand to the next generation may be far worse than the one we have now.

But more than angry, we are hopeful. We believe that we can, must and will change the way things work. Fossil fuel divestment is one important step in this much larger project.

So where do we go from here? Well, Boris just got a twitter. That’s a good place to start. Now is the perfect time to send him a message and take the debate online.

We will continue to pressure Boris to make the right decision and we will keep you updated on more opportunities to meet our fair Mayor in and around the city. In the meantime, please sign and share our petition to divest London.

Onwards,
Divest London

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