14 September 2009 by Decca Aitkenheadm, The Guardian
Zac: 'I don't need to become a political automaton'
The Tory candidate on how he is going to green the party and will never compromise on his environmental beliefs
ZAC Goldsmith doesn't believe a word most politicians say. He says this so casually, I assume he means only when they talk about the environment but no, he says, "On every issue." Really? "Well I don't think anybody does, If you were to ask 100 people on the street, most would say they don't." Which is probably true. But they are not standing for parliament as a Conservative party candidate whereas Goldsmith is.
It is, in one sense, the natural path for a young man like Goldsmith to pursue. As a rich gentleman farmer and old Etonian, the son and heir of a billionaire businessman, his route to the Tory benches via the leafy seat of Richmond Park follows a tradition of politics and privilege stretching back for centuries. It is also, however, on the other hand, the most wildly implausible ambition.
His late father Sir James' great contribution to political life was, in his son's words, to give the Tories "a bit of a spank" and "rough them up" assisted by the young Zac himself, who was out on the doorstep in 1997 campaigning for the rival Referendum Party. Now 34, until recently he edited the relatively radical environmental magazine, The Ecologist, which was founded by his uncle Teddy who used to say that the sort of revolution he wanted was one which put him up against the wall first - while Goldsmith himself once famously claimed the only way he'd vote Tory would be if someone drugged him first.
More recently, he admitted that whenever he thought about standing for the Conservatives, he'd remind himself that "It wouldn't work I'm too much of a loose cannon, no good at going along with things I don't believe in." But now here he is, welcoming us into the constituency office from where he'll fight the general election for the Tories one of David Cameron's most glamorous celebrity A-listers.
Much has been written about his beauty, but it's still a shock to see in real life the sort of physical perfection which makes all those clichιs about gilded youth suddenly make sense, with his sculpted cheekbones, bee stung lips, honied voice and tall, liquid grace. When he talks, he tends to duck his head and glance upwards, like Princess Diana a mannerism simultaneously coy and commanding, co-opting the innocence of the ingιnue ("I'm just a newcomer to all this," he says several times) whilst implying authority. Like most political novices, he gives the impression of concentrating hard on not making a gaffe, prefacing almost every sentence with a modest "in my view" but even so, his self-assurance is striking, as he navigates his way through the peculiar political paradox of his position.
If Goldsmith appears willing to trade green principles for power, he knows his environmental credentials will be destroyed. But equally, if he positions himself as a militant green maverick within his party, he risks looking politically self-indulgent not a serious player. There's also the matter of his personal wealth for with an inherited fortune estimated at £300 million, he can of course afford to run an organic farm in Devon, and make impeccably green personal lifestyle choices. But is he qualified to convince the rest of us that a green lifestyle isn't an elitist preserve, but one available to all?
I put the last point to him first, and ask how he hopes to dispel the impression that environmentalism is a rich man's game.
"But it's not just an impression," he agrees easily. "At the moment, it's a fact. If you want to live your life making only green choices, at the moment you're going to have to spend a lot of money or be unrealistically committed. That's why I never point at things I do, and say 'This is what I do to be green, you've got to do the same thing.' I've absolutely never done that for the precise reason you've just identified. I've never advised people or encouraged people to do certain things and never would. But the one thing we can all do is to use our political power collectively, to demand political leadership."
Goldsmith has just written a book, The Constant Economy a compilation of political, rather than individual consumer, solutions to the great environmental problems of the day, which he has drawn from all over the world. "That's the point of this book," he continues, "it's not a self help guide telling people how to live their lives, I'm simply encouraging people to use their vote effectively and use their collective political muscle. We all have political muscle, and that's something we can all do, and must do. Effective green policy will result in those elite green choices becoming available to all of us, and that's the key."
But many of the solutions proposed in his book go "way beyond", in his own words, current Conservative party policy. When I ask him what has changed since he believed that standing for the party "wouldn't work", he says: "Well I was just sick of seeing clone MPs simply parroting out the party line. There's more of an appetite for people to stand up what they believe in," and insists he comes to politics with "the same cynicism and scepticism as everyone else". But how can he therefore square a commitment to these ideas with a career in a party that may well not embrace them?
"I haven't signed up to the Conservative party because I agree with everything it stands for. When I signed up, it was with Michael Howard in 2005. I didn't sign up with Michael because I thought it was the best green party; on the contrary, I thought it was hopeless on these issues, and I said so at the time. I wanted to weave a green thread through the Conservative party, that's my job, and I signed up imagining that I would be in a very small minority within my party, possibly even on my own, battling away on these issues. What then happened was David Cameron became leader, he put these issues to the top of the agenda, and my job became a hell of a lot easier."
Richmond Park is a marginal seat, currently held by the Liberal Democrats. When Goldsmith gives speeches about his party's pledge to scrap plans for a third runway at Heathrow, he admits he can see on people's faces that they don't believe it. "Because we're politicians." But if he doesn't believe a word most politicians say either, I wonder why he believes it himself. Cameron has talked a good game on the environment so far but no-one yet knows what he is capable of delivering. Presumably, I suggest, Goldsmith must have his own private threshold a green line in his head which, if the party's performance were to fall beneath, would compel him to quit.
"No. I can't think of anything at all."
Really? What about the third runway at Heathrow; if the party reneged on its opposition, what would Goldsmith do?
"I would find that shocking, deeply shocking. I'd be incredibly demoralised by that. But I would stay very much a part of that package, and would fight like hell for common sense."
But surely, I suggest, he can't have it both ways. He can't sell himself to voters as "one of us" a freethinking political outsider yet be willing to go along with any amount of compromise on the very issues dearest to him. How is that supposed to make people trust him?
"But when I signed up," he reasons, "none of this," and he taps his book "was on the agenda. So I think it would be absurd for me to say well I signed up when nothing was on the table, there's a hell of a lot more now than there was in terms of environmental policy, and if I don't get each and every one of these ideas into the manifesto I'll resign. Even if none of it is in the manifesto, then I will become a professional nuisance within the Conservative party.
"What I won't do is drop my commitment to these issues at any point. You're not going to have me standing up on Question Time saying absolutely, the Conservative party was absolutely right to drop its opposition to the third runway. You're not going to see me do that. I don't need to become a political automaton."
HE WILL, however, need to be a team player if he's serious about a political future. Of the party's national membership, I ask what percentage he would guess shares his green agenda and what percentage is still doubtful.
"Well I've spoken at probably I don't know 150 constituency events around the country," he offers, not quite answering the question. "Maybe I'm exaggerating, maybe it's more like 60 or 70. But I've never left one of those events feeling that I was speaking a foreign language. I instinctively feel the core membership of the party is ready for this. They are interested in what it means to be blue and green."
Ann Widdecombe would disagree, though, wouldn't she? "She would totally disagree, yes," he smiles. "But even Ann Widdecombe her objection is what she would regard as an obsession with climate change. But climate change is one symptom among many of what's wrong. You could take the 10 or so steps you need to take to deal with climate change, and even if climate change was proven to be an elaborate hoax, you'd still have to implement those steps. If climate change is deleted from the agenda tomorrow, we still have an energy efficiency problem, we still have the fact that energy security is a mounting concern, you've still got the fact that there is a growing population, and growing appetite for consumption, and dwindling resources. That's not going to change. All these issues are there, whether or not climate change exists."
Goldsmith is interesting if sometimes a little elusive on the role of the free market in addressing all these problems. "There's a view that the market is the reason we're in this mess," he acknowledges, "and that giant multinational corporations have chewed up the earth, and left us with this legacy. And that's true. No question about it, the market has been an engine for huge destruction. But that's not a reason to reject the market, I don't think. What needs to happen and this is the thread that runs through the book is we've got to make the market environmentally literate. And that means creating a mechanism whereby valuable things, like forests and oceans, are valued, and pollution and waste are costed. If you do that correctly, not tinkering around the edges but properly, then I think we'd find that the market will deliver incredible solutions." Does he mean, I try to clarify, that the market as it currently operates is rigged? This is effectively Professor Nicholas Stern's position and Goldsmith nods his head.
"Yes, it's rigged. We talk about a free market, but there's an incredible contradiction. The food system is not a free market. In this country we impose reasonably high standards of animal welfare but we haven't applied the same standards to food we import, so all we're really doing is exporting cruelty from Britain elsewhere, and at the same time undermining our farmers. Now that's not a free or fair market. Or take the energy sector, what Nick Stern says is that we spend about $250 billion a year subsidising fossil fuels. Now that's not a free market. It's a staggering amount of money."
But it's an odd position, I suggest, to insist that we can always trust the market, whilst maintaining that the only market we've ever known is unreliable. If it can be so spectacularly rigged for so long, why should we trust it?
"Well by my understanding, if I were to apply what I'm arguing in this book then you would not end up with a free market. You'd end up with a more balanced market, in my view, with fair competition instead of unfair competition." Would he describe himself as a free marketer? He pauses for a moment, looking slightly uncomfortable.
"The free market well it's kind of an abstract idea that doesn't exist. Would I subject Richmond Park to the brutality of the free market? No, of course not. It needs protecting, and most people in the country would agree with that. Certain things need protecting, and that's the role of the government."
I don't doubt that Goldsmith is a Tory, but I suspect it is as much by birthright as anything else, for he never says anything to make it obvious that the party is his explicitly ideological home. In fact, interestingly, he tends to talk about the party as if he weren't even a member, let alone a candidate; it is never "we", but always "the Conservative party". But when I suggest that the leadership has backtracked from some of his more radical green policy proposals, since the recession began to bite, he says quickly, "Yeah, see that's wrong, factually wrong. There is certainly that narrative, and it's certainly what a lot of people think. But it's wrong." HOW??
He is also anxious to correct recent newspaper reports that he believes his wealth will make him a more effective MP than other less well off colleagues, who spend too much time diddling their expenses. "I want to stress that is nonsense," he insists. He will lose a considerable chunk of that fortune in the forthcoming divorce from his wife of 10 years to the socialite Sheherazade, with whom he has three children but their separation, announced earlier this month, does at least draw to a close years of rumours about extra marital indiscretions involving a young Rothschild, the sister of Goldsmith's sister-in-law. The speculation couldn't fail to invoke the memory of his father, whose own romantic arrangements were famously unorthodox, and if Goldsmith is elected to parliament the comparisons are unlikely to end there.
Is there any truth, I ask, in the theory that he is trying to succeed where his father failed? "I understand why people say that," he smiles, "because it's an interesting thing to say. But it's not true. It's not true because I don't think that he failed. The idea of the Referendum Party was simply to force the issue right up the agenda and he did that, no question about that."
Given the choice, I wonder if he rather be just Zac Smith a self-made political campaigner in his own right, without all the baggage of inheritance. He doesn't even pause before answering.
"No. I'd be dishonest if I said I wanted to be Zac Smith. Because of the interest newspapers had in my family, that's given me a platform which I've exploited and I'm not embarrassed about that at all."
The Constant Economy by Zac Goldsmith is published by Atlantic Books and is out now, £16.99