‘They’re patronising, arrogant …’ Caroline Lucas on fighting the Tories, leading the Greens and leaving parliament

<span>Caroline Lucas: ‘When you look at what the government is doing, it’s so demoralising.’</span><span>Photograph: Peter Flude/The Guardian</span>
Caroline Lucas: ‘When you look at what the government is doing, it’s so demoralising.’Photograph: Peter Flude/The Guardian

On a Monday afternoon in a bamboozling warren of offices next to the Palace of Westminster, Caroline Lucas is in yet another hurry. Forty-five minutes into the first part of our conversation, she reminds me that she has to sprint to the House of Commons to make sure her voice is heard in a debate – this time about Iran’s attack on Israel, and the RAF’s role in shooting down some of the drones involved. As usual, there is an inescapable obligation to fulfil: as the sole Green party MP, she says, she has no choice but to be there.

A few hours later, I watch her contribution online: an eloquent, confident, slightly weary voice, delivering an argument unheard from either the Tory or Labour frontbenches. “Like the whole House, I condemn the attack on Israel by the tyrannical Iranian regime, just as I deeply condemn the atrocities of Hamas, but I am also incredibly concerned that our prime minister has now pitched the UK into a perilous war,” she says. When Rishi Sunak gets to his feet, his reply lasts all of 10 seconds: “I am completely comfortable that what we did over the weekend was the right thing,” he says. And that’s that: the point Lucas was making, it seems, was not even worth considering.

Here, perhaps, is a perfect example of why, after 14 arduous years – and stints as her party’s leader and co-leader – Lucas, 63, is calling time on being an MP. “I’ve been the Green party’s frontbench spokesperson on absolutely everything for 14 years and it is exhausting,” she says. “I’d love to continue talking to you now, but I’m the only person who can be there for the Green party to hold Rishi Sunak to account. There’s been no debate or discussion: we’re suddenly potentially on the edge of world war three, without any scrutiny. So someone’s got to be in there.”

What she says might suggest something close to absolute futility: taking important and principled stances while the people in power blithely wave her interventions away. She herself talks about her endlessly condescending treatment from highups in the government who are often not just “patronising and arrogant”, but downright rude. The fact that Lucas’s parliamentary career has coincided with all those long years of Tory-led government and the chaos and tumult that have come with them – not least Brexit, which she passionately opposed – has made her job all the harder. But when I ask her to name her achievements as an MP, she rattles through them without missing a beat.

She was first elected to represent the Brighton Pavilion constituency back in 2010, with a majority of just over 1,200 votes, but at the last election the figure was almost 20,000. She talks about using her time in the Commons to “put things on the political agenda that simply wouldn’t have been there without me being here” – such as fracking, and the political establishment’s constant fetishisation of economic growth. One of her proudest achievements, she says, is the creation of a new GCSE in natural history, the result of four years’ work in partnership with the author and conservationist Mary Colwell, assisted by Conservative ministers including Michael Gove, and unveiled in 2022.

But on her party’s most defining political issue, for every step forward, there has always been at least another in the opposite direction. “When I first came into parliament in 2010, whenever budget day came around, I knew what I would say, because I knew that there was going to be a climate-shaped hole at the heart of it,” she tells me. “And to some extent that’s changed: the people in charge do now at least pay lip service to those things.”

Her face then darkens. “But when you actually look at what they’re doing, this government in particular is rolling back climate commitments. And that’s been just so demoralising. And dangerous.” There’s then a pause, followed by a word that she pronounces like a profanity. “So cynical.”

To coincide with her exit from the Commons, Lucas is promoting a new book. Another England is straplined: “How to reclaim our national story”, and represents her contribution to a long-running conversation that has largely taken place on the political fringes – about why the left is so allergic to thinking seriously about the UK’s largest nation and its lack of a coherent political voice, and how it thereby lets rightwing Tories and populists have that terrain to themselves.

One obvious result of that imbalance, she says, was Brexit. On the Friday morning when the result of the 2016 referendum was announced, she recalls waking up in central London and experiencing an overpowering feeling of disaster. “I felt like I’d been punched,” she says. “It felt really physical. I felt really sick, and disorientated. Like we’d really, really fucked up. And we had. That was the sadness of it: that we didn’t run a very good campaign.”

Soon enough, she began to make sense of what had happened by visiting a handful of Brexit-voting localities around England – the Isle of Wight; the Midlands town of Dudley; Huddersfield in West Yorkshire; and Dagenham in outer London – and listening to people explain why they supported leaving the EU. Under the banner of Dear Leavers, this resulted in a series of videos that combined a sense of those places’ powerlessness (“London could have been on another planet in terms of decision-making; there was this just real sense that people had been totally ignored for a hell of a long time”) with glimpses of their history and traditions. It was this experience that seems to have planted the seeds of the book.

Partly, it’s a manifesto, setting out the case for a universal basic income, radical devolution, an English parliament, drastic climate action and more. It is also her answer to what she calls “Anglocentric British nationalism” – or, put another way, “the Boris Johnson version of England; just blathering on about everything being world-beating”. But its big sources of inspiration lie a long way from the world of Westminster: again and again, the arguments she sets out begin with the work of such authors and poets as William Blake, HG Wells and Zadie Smith.

In that sense, the book reflects aspects of its author’s backstory that she has very rarely talked about. Lucas was born and raised in the elegant town of Malvern in Worcestershire, which nestles under the towering Malvern Hills. Thanks to the time she spent at Exeter University, she has not only a degree in English literature, but a PhD, for which she focused on a sub-genre of Elizabethan chapbooks: short romances aimed at female readers, whose plots were borrowed by Shakespeare for such plays as A Winter’s Tale. “A lot of them were stories in which women were incredibly powerful,” she says. “But without exception, they were killed off on the penultimate page. The moral was always kind of upended: ‘Dear reader, it really doesn’t pay to be a feisty, awkward woman.’”

Her husband is an English teacher – and, just to emphasise the sense of village-green tradition that runs through some of her personal biography, a former professional cricketer. Lucas’s life before politics also includes other interesting details, such as the year she spent as a student at the University of Kansas in the small city of Lawrence, where she volunteered at a feminist bookshop called Spinsters – “the only one for hundreds and hundreds of miles around”, which people would make long pilgrimages to visit – and took modules on such subjects as modern art, Buddhism and folk stories.

You can detect all these influences in a book that comes close to suggesting that the left should adopt a completely new mindset. “It’s not enough to have technocratic answers,” she insists. “You’ve got to speak to people’s emotions and tell compelling stories. And I don’t think we on the left are very good at doing that. And so part of this is about reclaiming the power of story and saying that the right must not have complete carte blanche when it comes to choosing the stories to tell about England. Unless we get on the pitch and start telling our own, we lose a way of reaching people that is incredibly resonant and important.”

The book is peppered with examples of the kind of stories she means. She goes back to the Charter of the Forest of 1215, which set out rights of popular access to the land, something we might now think of as dangerously radical. She traces the evolution of the myth of Robin Hood, and how it turned into the story of a “character who is opposed to greed and power, and who combines this resistance to the powerful with compassion for those in need”. By way of a rebuke to the standard rightwing view of the second world war – basically the tale of doughty Brits staunchly standing alone – she points out that one in 10 of the RAF’s fighter pilots in the Battle of Britain were refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe.

Put these stories together, she suggests, and you get a more forward-looking vision of England than the one offered by the people who brought us Brexit – something we may very well need if the ties that bind the UK continue to loosen. “There’s solid support for independence in Scotland,” she says. “In Wales, there’s just been a new commission on the future of the country which has included independence as one of the options. We’ve heard that now Sinn Féin has far more power in Northern Ireland, they are actively thinking that a referendum for a united Ireland could happen before 2030. But in England we’re not even thinking about any of that. And if we don’t, you can bet your life that the populists and the rightwing people will be, because they always get there first.”

At that point, she grabs the stack of paper on the desk and legs it to the Commons. The next morning at nine o’clock sharp, we talk by video call for another half-hour – firstly, about how she feels about the seemingly inevitable end of Tory rule, and the arrival of a government led by Keir Starmer. “My first response would be, of course Labour is going to be a hundred times better than this government,” she says. “But that’s a very low bar. The bigger question is: is it going to be good enough? And to my mind, with everything that I’ve seen so far, the answer to that is no.”

Self-evidently, a lot of her political attention is focused on helping the Greens to retain her slightly remodelled constituency (her prospective successor in Brighton is the party’s former London mayoral candidate Siân Berry). She also talks up their chances in the new seat of Bristol Central – and, somewhat more ambitiously, the prospect of taking the rural seat of North Herefordshire. Very soon, she says, one of the party’s tasks is likely to centre on somehow pressuring Labour to be “bolder and braver” – on such issues as green investment, reversing the Tories’ cruel benefits policies, and changing the tax system to tackle huge wealth inequality. “Labour is going to go nowhere on any of those issues,” she says. “And yet they need to. So the Greens will push them.”

But what will she be doing? She has some ideas about getting involved in the more political aspects of art and culture, and reconnecting with nature, but they are still vague and tentative. One aspect of her post-parliament life, however, is already under way: she is training to be an end-of-life-doula – essentially, a care worker who sees to the needs of people nearing death, and their friends and families.

“The organisation I’m training with is called Living Well Dying Well,” she says. “And I think the ‘living well’ part of that is important. We live better when we keep in mind that life is short. And there’s a practical point about the fact that we do death so badly in this country.”

In what way? “Well, we’re embarrassed about it. It’s the last taboo. People will cross the road rather than speak to a friend who’s lost a loved one because they don’t know how to talk about it.”

Some of these thoughts, she says, were first triggered when her father died of prostate cancer just as the pandemic began; since then, she has also lost her mother. “When my dad was dying, I didn’t recognise the different stages of death. And I’ve learned since that just as there are different stages of birth that you can recognise, with dilation and contractions and so on, in many deaths there are the same kinds of moments: the changing of people’s breathing or the amount of time someone spends being conscious. But that familiarity with death is something that we have lost. And we could make people’s deaths so much more meaningful – even beautiful sometimes. There’s just so much more we could be doing.”

As she explains all this, the conversation eventually returns to the life she is leaving behind. “It’s very nourishing to be among people who cut through the crap and get to what really matters,” she says. “In some ways, that’s the opposite of parliament, isn’t it?”

Another England by Caroline Lucas is published by Cornerstone (£22). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.