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Interview: Catherine Rowett, Green Party MEP

27 September 2019

‘We need people intellectually equipped to see through bad arguments’

Joseph Casey Photography

I was Professor of Ancient Philosophy at the University of East Anglia till my election as MEP. My research includes Presocratic philosophy, Aristotle, and Plato. Three of my seven academic books also discuss bits of theology, such as Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, and Hippolytus. I’ve also written for a wider audience, publications like Presocratic Philosophy: A very short introduction.

I’m proudest of my recent article showing that the “myth of the metals” and the “Noble Lie” are Plato’s way of promoting egalitarian upbringing for the young, to eliminate inherited privilege [Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 50]. It overturns erroneous ideas about the socio-political structures which Plato advocated. He’s also interesting on how a good society can be built round a sense of shared belonging to, rather than owning, something that matters to you, and how this is corrupted by pursuit of money and glory.

There’s a lot of political thought in the works of Plato, Aristotle, and others that’s hugely relevant for today. I’ve returned again and again to Plato’s Republic, and that’s what I’d be writing a book on right now, if I wasn’t serving as a philosopher-queen.

I was inspired by Orthodox spirituality: for instance, The Rape of Man and Nature by Philip Sherrard. So, I see our world imbued with the precious stamp of the Creator. I’ve always tried to live up to my ideals — without a car, using trains, not planes, and a bicycle for daily chores. I support organisations such as Christian CND; but, politically, the Green Party’s policies fit best, I find. I’ve been lucky to live in Oxford and Norwich, where voting Green is normal.

My decision to stand for election was driven by anger and despair at the cheating and fraud that went on in the 2016 EU referendum, the lack of action on the climate emergency, and the crucial importance of staying in the EU if we’re to retain and improve environmental protection at international levels, without which we’re destined for a very nasty future. Thankfully, we’ve not left yet.

My two daughters have husbands and children of their own, in Essex and Prague. I spend weekdays in Brussels or Strasbourg; so I’m generally on the train or ferry. Weekends are full of political work — rallies and public meetings — though I try to keep Sundays free. I’m still a lay worship assistant, and preach every three months. When I can, I visit my family, and do outdoor exercises on Saturday mornings in the park.

I want to defend the ideal of participatory engagement in politics. Both the EU and Westminster suffer from a debilitating democratic deficit in different ways.

People find that their votes don’t count, their voices aren’t heard, and their work for the collective good is never assigned, or it’s poorly rewarded and under-valued.

I’ve had many enthusiastic students, but their lives are miserable compared with my experience. When I was a student, we had fees paid, full maintenance grants, ample teaching time, and wonderful resources. How lucky, you might think. But it wasn’t luck: it was proper investment for everyone to develop to the best that they were capable of. Now, when we badly need clear minds capable of judging what’s worth pursuing and at what cost, philosophy degrees are denigrated, as though it’s technology and science that can make the world a better place.

We need people intellectually equipped to see through bad arguments, and question the economic models, values, and consumerist rhetoric that are responsible for the mess that we’re in. Instead, we’re producing graduates who are trained to operate within the existing system, and sleepwalk us all into disaster. Doubtless there are politicians who are happy to raise a docile and ignorant electorate who never challenge the status quo.

The seven British Green MEPs in Brussels now make up nearly ten per cent of the Greens/European Free Alliance Group [EFA], which comprises Green parties from all across Europe, plus some other parties in EFA, including the SNP and Plaid Cymru. We’re the third largest national grouping within the Greens after Germany and France. The Green group has increased massively, but if we leave, and bring home the ten UK members, the group will be weakened — to the detriment of our children’s future.

Because of our sizeable influence at EU level, the Greens can make changes that favour environmentally responsible traders and farmers, and prioritise the most needy people. Sadly, in UK politics, the Green voice goes unheard, and it’s only ethically dubious global megaliths that are prioritised.

In July, our tasks began with voting for the top EU positions. I also got to negotiate and speak on a resolution whereby the EU condemned certain human-rights and anti-democratic abuses in Russia. We’re concerned with defending the EU ideal to be an instrument of peace and democracy, and to help other nations to live up to those standards. The resolution passed.

Committees are now working on new and ongoing legislation, refining proposals to meet the approval of parliament and get support from member states. I serve on committees for foreign affairs, human rights, and transport.

The transport committee gets to do more actual legislation. We’re working on getting freight off roads on to rail, and ensuring that the polluter pays in respect of road usage and aviation.

It’s crucial, from a Christian perspective, to grasp that EU protectionist policies can potentially aggravate inequalities globally. Those who suffer most from climate change are often the indigenous people, and women. We are working to ensure that goods imported from outside Europe are produced with the same level of environmental and social responsibility as within the EU. This is something that we can do at EU level, but the UK will be unable to do if it is outside the bloc.

The Green Party is not a socialist party per se, because we don’t entirely fit the Right-Left spectrum. Many former Conservatives voted Green in the EU elections. We’ve matured over time from a small hippy party with ambitious utopian ideals. All parties involve compromise, and, of course, I don’t agree with every policy.

In choosing a party, you have to decide what’s the most important issue, and which party addresses it. We stand for doing the very best we can for all people and the planet that we love. We favour localism, and small, independent businesses; but, most of all, we care about ensuring that people have good life-chances and the opportunity to thrive, regardless of their birth, race, or background.

My father was a prep-school teacher: a Renaissance man interested in everything intellectual, artistic, musical, and theological. My brothers and I had a pretty happy childhood. My parents were committed believers, and I knew prayers by heart before I could talk — though I didn’t like going to church because it involved putting on a frock, and I preferred shorts.

I was one of two Anglicans in my Roman Catholic convent school. I learned to go to confession, and attended Benediction with the others. Every summer, my family went to the annual conference of the Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius; so I was immersed in a heady mix of Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, and Anglican liturgy, theology, spirituality, and music.

Choral singing makes me happy. Sadly, I’m now away too often to sing in my chamber choir. I love the sound of plainchant in a dark and resonant church. I studied at King’s College, Cambridge, and served in chapel. A world-class choir seemed normal at the time — but, wow!

I spent ten years in my first job fighting on behalf of colleagues against malicious accusations and campaigns to destroy them. After that, nothing can scare me.

I’d like to create a residential intergenerational research community in the country — free from the crap, targets, and interference of contemporary academic life, with a farm and a garden to maintain, and older scholars to talk to.

Inequality, consumerism, carelessness of the created world make me angry. And bowdlerising hymns, or misattributing bowdlerised words to the author.

The children striking for the climate give me hope for the future: Greta Thunberg’s campaign, and the work of Extinction Rebellion.

Sometimes, the only prayer that’s required is a total hymn of joy and thanks. My most intense, angry, or passionate prayers are for people being unjustly treated or facing extreme sufferings. I’m better at lighting candles, while leaving the actual request to be silently understood. Sometimes, I remember to pray for the people I hate most, and remember that I’m supposed to love them. I occasionally pray to be better at that, though not very often.

Rowan Williams and I were locked in a church — maybe because we were praying after Tenebrae, and there was so much revelry in the town that no one noticed we were there. I learned theology at Cambridge with him, and he’s been a great friend and inspiration to me. Being silent together in a holy place would be a way of being alone with God.

Professor Rowett was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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