Modern India has mastered the art of cricket but a sure touch with the tiresome etiquette of the British honours system has not endured into the post-colonial era.
If Sir Jonathon Porritt Bt and The Rt Hon the Lord Prescott of Kingston upon Hull held out hopes at last week’s Delhi Sustainable Development Summit (DSDS) of being addressed in the approved manner as “Sir Jonathon” and “Lord Prescott”, they will have been disappointed.
Amongst an assortment of appellations, it was Sir Porritt and Lord John which gained most favour with conference facilitators and representatives of the media. Perhaps sensitive to further embarrassing his hosts, Porritt had evidently abandoned as hopeless the task of explaining that he chooses to leave his hereditary baronetcy in the bottom drawer and has always been known in the UK as plain Jonathon.
Indeed I doubt if either of the two battle-hardened campaigners gave a moment’s thought to such minutiae of diplomacy. In their very different ways, both made a telling contribution to the debate about sustainable development, a subject of almost desperate significance in the Indian sub-continent.
Lord Prescott’s role, as it has been for several years at the DSDS, is to liven up the rather earnest proceedings. The Indian delegates love his racy confiding delivery, punctuated with slightly bad language from the 1950s; they relate to his empathy for social justice and they love his flattery of all things Indian.
Every year Prescott launches a tirade against the business-as-usual agenda of the World Economic Forum, which always falls in the week before DSDS. This evisceration of the elite invariably concludes with the punchline: “the real Davos is in Delhi!”
Porritt had no time for such niceties. Without mentioning India by name, he warned against the fashionable idea that programmes of business deregulation “will lead us to the Holy Land of sustainable development.”
“Governments should regulate to stop the bad and facilitate the good,” he said. There is of course considerable pressure on the Government of India to relax conservation laws to open up access to the extractive industries and to urbanisation.
Porritt ended with a more direct reference to the core environmental challenge in India: “a truly sustainable world has no room for a thriving coal industry. Sorry to spell it out explicitly but that’s the reality in a country that generates 70% of its electricity from coal and will generate even more in future. That a tough reality to deal with.”
The conference organisers squeezed more value out of the British duo by persuading them to join forces in a Google hang-out on the trendy social TV section of India’s CNN-IBN news service. This is the media equivalent of sending your granddad to the disco.
Resembling those fuzzy clips of 1960s cosmonauts, the intrepid Porritt and Prescott put up a spirited performance, full of telling observations about UN climate negotiations and decarbonisation. Sure enough, in an expression of thanks at the session’s conclusion, the interviewer stumbled over his crib sheet on titles. John Prescott put him out of his misery by kindly interjecting: “we’re a combination of lords and knights. That’s British!”
It was Lord Prescott who delivered the coup de grace on this day of uncertain manners. Becoming excitable towards the end of his conference speech, he referred to the driving force behind DSDS as “my good friend, Mr Pachauri.” There followed such frequent references to Mr Pachauri that the good doctor who is the distinguished head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change may by now have despatched a box of business cards to Kingston upon Hull as a gentle reminder in the matter of titles.
In this section of the CNN-IBN hang-out, Jonathon Porritt and Lord Prescott discuss how the US will pay the penalty for falling behind Germany and China in the development of low carbon technologies and why the science of climate change may soon compel the world’s politicians to act.
For the full discussion, click on the YouTube link.