Green Party Leader Natalie Bennett made the most of her trip to Exeter on Tuesday 15 March, giving interviews to Xpression FM and the BBC, as well as Exeposé, before her talk, entitled “Why We’re #GreenerIn”, that evening. Before she met me in DH1, she had already been to see a project called “Men in Sheds” run by Age UK, which gives older men who may be dealing with loneliness or age-related illnesses the chance to make friends and engage in hobbies such as woodwork. Despite all this rushing around, Bennett still seemed full of beans, and happy to meet and talk to yet another in what must have been a long line of strangers.
Given the predominance of the EU referendum debate in British politics right now, I asked Bennett to debunk one myth about the European Union.
“I would try and debunk the myth that it’s uniquely undemocratic. There are a lot of issues surrounding democracy and representation in the EU, but there are similar issues in Westminster and people are still willing to engage with it. We shouldn’t just give up on something because it’s imperfect; I believe that both the EU and Westminster can be improved by people working on them from the inside.” The idea of improvement from within is, of course, a central argument of the entire in campaign, regardless of party affiliation. As Bennett herself pointed out to me, this campaign is really only just beginning, but it can already seem like we’ve heard the same arguments a thousand times. This sense of bewilderment is only heightened by the politicised vernacular frequently adopted by spokespeople both for the campaign and the EU itself.
“We should be helping [refugees], especially children but adults too.”
“The kind of language that’s always used by Brussels officials is very bureaucratic and full of jargon. It’s actually really difficult to decipher any real meaning from some of the titles and catchphrases which fly around. I think, if we do vote to remain in the EU, I’d like to promote a campaign for ‘plain English’, to try and get past that very bureaucratic way of describing things and make the work of the EU more accessible.” To be honest, this answer surprised me; I was expecting something much more “Green Party” in flavour, but I think Bennett has a point which would appeal across the political spectrum there. I’m sure even the most intelligent and highly-educated among the British public would appreciate it if the EU would just tell us what on earth it gets up to in normal sentences.
As a student of the Middle East, I couldn’t resist linking our discussion to international politics and the so-called “migrant crisis”. How could Bennett defend the EU on that subject? In fact, she did a rather good job of it, pointing out that “we have to differentiate between the EU and the member states here. The European Parliament actually drafted a reasonable plan for settling refugees in EU countries, but at the end of the day they can’t impose it on the individual member states if they don’t agree to it, so the plan couldn’t go ahead. Our own government’s pledge to take 20,000 refugees is ridiculous. I’ve been over to France recently to visit the camps there, and there are actually lots of people who have the legal right to be here, because they have family members legally residing in the UK. We should be helping those people, especially children but adults too. When I was last in Calais, I went to a memorial service for a boy named Masood from Afghanistan, whose sister is working in England. He was only 15, and he suffocated in the back of a lorry, trying to join her.”
“Register to vote and make sure you have a say!”
Given how committed Bennett and the Green Party are to encouraging the public to vote in favour of remaining in the EU, I wanted to know what scared her most about the idea of a Brexit this June. “Honestly, I haven’t allowed myself to think about that. I’m focusing on the campaign, and particularly encouraging young people to register to vote and make their voices heard. Younger people are a lot more likely to support the EU than their parents and grandparents, and it’s a decision which will affect your lives for decades. Register to vote and make sure you have a say!” I felt a bit smug when she said that, because I have registered to vote already, but it is an important point. Exeter students are well engaged in politics, but there’s a limit to how useful going to talks and getting into comment wars on Facebook are for getting things done. You can register to vote online, and you have a choice about whether your vote is counted here in Exeter, or in your home town.
We didn’t have much time left, but I wanted to ask Bennett something less political before she had to dash off. What would people be most surprised to learn about her? It’s fairly common knowledge that she was born in Australia and knows how to shear a sheep – surely a skill which comes in handy on the campaign trail – “but not so many people know that I used to review fringe theatre in London. I’d love to get back into it, it was a real passion of mine until the Green Party took away all of my free time. I believe in a work life balance, but I don’t have one!” So there you have it – any Exeter students thinking of staging an edgy play should invite our Nat down to give her opinion. If you can theme it around environmental sustainability and the European Union, so much the better!