Timing is all in PR, they say. So, this week, I had a letter in The
Daily Telegraph criticising the City for its stupid political
correctness in excluding nuclear-related companies from its 'ethical
index'. Without nuclear power its operations would be on the blink. The
Guardian then identified me as 'the self conscious model of patriotic,
rural, northern English bluff common sense who spearheaded the campaign
against wind turbines in the 1990s'.
Just the sort of morning, I thought, to interview Charles Secrett,
executive director of Friends of the Earth (FoE), without whom no
environmental campaign or sustainable development commission would be
His office, in a corner of Underwood Street, off Shepherdess Walk,
sounds impeccably environmentally friendly. But the urban jungle of
London's City Road seems guaranteed to produce eco-warriors. As they
rode into reception on their bikes, I had this vision of General Secrett
dispatching them on two wheels to the ends of the earth, to save the
rainforests and all that dwell therein.
It was no flight of fancy. Secrett really is the General of
He has a pressure group strategy, tactical appreciation and the troops
who, he says, contribute 90 per cent of the FoE's £6m turnover in
He is also fluent in socio-economic NGO-speak. So what drives this
47-year-old divorcee, who uses public transport when he doesn't cycle
the 12.5 miles in from Mortlake?
After running a gardening business following university and a spell as a
residential social worker in Hammersmith, he says he was impelled 21
years ago by public duty and environmental conviction towards FoE. And
no burning ambition to earn lots of money, I add. 'Yes,' he says, 'I am
fortunate to have had middle-class advantages.'
He learned his trade on wildlife, countryside and rainforest campaigns,
and became the boss in 1993. Two years ago, The Observer ranked him as
the 36th most influential person in Britain. The British FoE is a
Secrett creation to which other branches globally look for inspiration.
So what, I asked, is the secret (oh dear) of his success?
He has 'three key rules' for effective campaigning in a democracy. The
first is good information based on 'sound argument, rational analysis
and robust thinking'. This is why, he says, you can't dismiss FoE
campaigns as wrong. My experience of wind power, with which Secrett
seems uncritically besotted, and nuclear power does not entirely support
But I let it pass.
Having got the information, he says, they use it to create public
awareness in a way relevant to people as citizens, voters and taxpayers
or, in the marketplace, as consumers, shareholders and investors. They
then mobilise that awareness to act on the information in a transparent,
accountable and peaceful way. He might have added a fourth rule, which
is to make yourself indispensable to the media.
I couldn't resist picking up on his emphasis on 'peaceful'
So he didn't approve of Greenpeace rampaging all over the place -
latterly at the 'Star Wars' station near Harrogate? Secrett looked
pained. He wasn't into rubbishing fellow environmentalists, though he
later betrayed his distaste for 'headline-grabbing stunts' that, while
raising awareness, don't shift the argument.
Instead, he began what I thought was a dangerous attempt to
differentiate between acceptable and unacceptable illegality. He draws a
line between the four women who openly knocked seven bells out of a Hawk
aircraft in the name of peace trying to avoid the consequences of their
actions in court, and 'genuinely violent masked protesters' who are
'Standards vary over time and between cultures. Different assessments
will be made,' he says.
So what have been the successes of his strategy? Top of his list came a
high level of public awareness of environmental issues. More tangibly,
he listed the end of commercial whaling, the slowdown in nuclear power
station building, protection of wildlife sites and the Montreal Protocol
against ozone-depleting chemicals.
He was clearly excited by his success over the past five years in making
democracy work for the environmental movement - mobilising support
across communities - which, he says, led to FoE drafting 14 bits of
legislation on anything from road traffic reduction to recycling.
I do not argue that the FoE isn't the bees-knees at campaigning. But I
reckon that in seeking to restructure society into the renewable energy/
conservation economy, it will have to persuade people they aren't going
to become poor or have their lifestyles wrecked. He accepts FoE's
challenge is 'to show we aren't anti-human, anti-progress,
anti-technology and anti-development'.
Nor, disarmingly, is he against nuclear power, which doesn't emit
greenhouse gases. Not, he says, if it can show it is safe, economic and
manages its waste. I harbour ambitions of recruiting him to Supporters
of Nuclear Energy. Which raises the question as to what industries such
as nuclear have to learn from FoE. 'Join us,' he laughs.
I suspect FoE and the nuclear industry have much to learn from Secrett's
enthusiasm for 'constructive engagement'.