Herbi Blake

So many wonderful words have been said here about Peter – I echo them all. One of the most extraordinary things about him was how he spread about his warmth, confidence, respect, humanity, wit and razor sharp intellect so evenly and generously to all he worked with and to all who worked for him.

I think I can take some credit for playing a small part in his conversion to organic, through a quite extensive correspondence we had in the 90’s when he was director of Greenpeace but still farming conventionally and I was running the Soil Association’s certification scheme and standards. He was quite a catch when he did convert his farm, but little did we know then how that was only the start of it!

Some years later, after he joined the Soil Association as Policy Director and I was Standards Director, I had the privilege to be in his team. What an amazing example he was to learn from and to be close to. His management inspired and empowered everyone, as so many have so eloquently written here.

He told me a few years ago that the reason he started working for the Soil Association was to continue campaigning but without all the management responsibility, so that he could simply enjoy himself. Well, of course he kept being persuaded to take on a bit more management, and then trying to shed it again! Needless to say, he was a superlative manager, as well as a superlative campaigner and strategist, and inspiring speaker, and all the rest! We were so very lucky he chose us!

Peter gave my wife, Jane, and I an open invitation to his farm when we came to visit our son at UEA. We spent a happy afternoon in his and Cass’s company and appreciated the source (and the result) of his inspiration: a beautifully managed farm thronging with wildlife, healthy crops, happy pigs and cattle, and the rest. It was a shining example of organic principles in action, and of his love of the farm and his fine management.

Peter, you were truly a ‘great’ man, in all senses of the word. That’s why we all loved you. We, and indeed the whole World, owe you so very much. Thank you, and thank you to Cass for sharing him so generously with us all. Our hearts go out to you and your family.

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Emma Slawinski

I first encountered Peter when I joined Compassion in World Farming in 2011. It was my first foray into animal welfare/farming campaigning and I didn’t know the sector well. We spoke on the phone and I had this incessant, niggling feeling that I had met Peter before but couldn’t place it. Before first meeting Peter in person had a quick google and was confronted with a picture of Peter trampling down GM crops in his bio-suit, one of the enduring campaigning images of the 90s, and one which had informed my decision to become a campaigner. Unknowingly on both our parts, my campaigning career is Peter’s doing. I never told him that, and now I will never be able to.

I was a bit nervous about meeting him in person, having realised exactly who he was. I met him outside a tube station. He arrived on his bicycle and insisted we go to the pub. He was just so open and friendly, you felt like a fellow conspirator within minutes of being with him.

We worked together, with colleagues at Sustain, on the overuse of antibiotics in factory farming and other issues for many years and shared many laughs, frustrations and plans to change the world. I loved his irrepressible conviction that because we were on the morally right side of the issues, we would eventually prevail, and his ability to punctuate any tension with a mischievous aside.

We once went together to lobby the Government, it was an important meeting and I was a little anxious. I shared this with Peter who gave a wry smile and said: “I think it is them who should be feeling nervous, don’t you?”

Once when we went to talk to The Guardian an Irish journalist there was incredibly excited to meet Peter, remembering when he had visited her school when he was a Minister. I remember her saying “It meant so much to us that you visited, and you really seemed to care.” He glowed at being remembered in this way, but being Peter, modestly moved the conversation on to other things.

You could feel, and normally hear, his presence when he joined any meeting or event. I don’t think I ever saw him ill at ease or perturbed, and that sense of confidence permeated to all those working with him.

His loss is felt deeply by all those who know him at Compassion, he was such a pivotal figure for so many people.

I counted him as a friend and I find it hard to believe I will never hear his voice booming out of my phone again.

Carrie Stebbings

I worked with Peter when I became Coordinator of the GM Freeze campaign in 2003. Although I was new to campaigning and very much a novice he accepted me as part of the team and included me in the job we had to do. He readily agreed to be a speaker at the GM Nation public debate I organised at Borough Market, and he never presented himself as being superior, despite his huge wealth of experience. I moved away from London in 2008, and a few years later Peter came to give a talk in Kendal where I live. After the talk I went to say ‘hello’ and told him that I was at that point a full-time Mum to my young son. He smiled and said ‘Ah, the hardest job of all’. I found him a kind and inspirational man and am grateful that he put so much skill and energy in to protecting and promoting the environment for so many years. And he did have a great chuckle.

Letter to Steve Warshal

Written the day after Peter’s death

 

Dear Steve

I was shocked and upset to learn from John Sauven yesterday of Peter’s death. It’s so hard to imagine still less bear.

I know how much you loved him and I have some idea, I think, of quite how much of life you two shared. My deepest condolences and sympathy.

My own first encounter with Peter was with you. It was my interview for Greenpeace (1986), in a dingy backroom of the timber wharf warehouse in Islington. A pretty unpromising place, I thought. I was prepared to be disappointed by the experience having something of a dim view of Greenpeace at the time. Then I met you guys. There was a friendly intensity – an absolute seriousness, leavened by immense charm. These people mean business, I thought. And you did. And then we did.

Working with Peter was one of the great privileges of my life. Greenpeace was a powerful experience, but having the opportunity to work and be alongside Peter was transformational. I was green (as in naive) as a spring leaf but he was patient and coached and encouraged. His energy and organisational skills were prodigious, his intellect and powers of measured reasoning sublime, and the bastard also had empathy and humanity too. I adored him.

Of course, Peter was in bold contrast to others who were impressive and admirable in many ways but, for me, a drain. I would have left Greenpeace within a year and thereby missed out on one of the most powerful experiences of my life without Peter’s calm and reassuring presence in the background. We eventually let rip of course and it was a blast…anything and everything began to seem possible. We started to feel we could change the world and I think we did. We got Greenpeace in shape, created a culture of trust and creativity and for calculated risk-taking that enabled an explosion of campaigning energy, flair and impact. The world shifted on its axis.

And Peter was the foundation, the father, the engineer. He got us in the right places, helped us practically, introduced a rigour in critical reasoning then let us do our thing. It was an object lesson in leadership: quiet actually, relatively unassuming but omnipresent too so that we never felt alone and exposed. We also knew, for sure, that the opposition – from world governments to global corporations – didn’t have anyone to compare with our leader; no-one who either had his stamina or could out-reason him, match his quiet passion and his unassuming but wholly resolute confidence. It made us feel impregnable.

I’d been in the organisation for two weeks when Peter abandoned me one evening in a Greenpeace international trustee meeting in Lewes. David McTaggart was on the prowl; in electric mood and mode, promoting World Park Antarctica and a Greenpeace base there with a fierce and crystalline intensity. Peter cooly announced he had a parent teacher evening or something akin in Kentish Town and I was suddenly the UK trustee…I was crapping myself and McTaggart was staring straight at me. It came to a vote. About half of the trustee body was for David’s proposition and half against. Mine was the deciding vote. Oh fuck. What did Peter want, or Alan? Who knew? Fuck, fuck. I decided that having a base in Antarctica was a good idea for us; I listened to the arguments and made a decision – casting vote, here we go!! The next day back in London Alan furious, Peter amused! Not sure he agreed that I’d done the right thing but he supported me all the way. I later confessed I’d found David somewhat intimidating and asked whether Peter felt the same way. Well, ‘no, not really’, Peter replied. As Under Secretary-of-State in Northern Ireland he’d had the Reverend Ian Paisley bellowing at him day in day out and while McTaggart was a force he didn’t quite compare. And there it was…in a nutshell – Peter had that worldliness, that experience, that assurance and he deployed it to embolden us all whether or not and maybe even sometimes especially when we made mistakes. He was of course always ready to reflect and laugh and as I looked at photos of him last night I was reminded that he had one particularly kind eye and one particularly steely eye. Did you see that too?

I’ve got a million stories and lovely memories but I suppose over and above the personal friendship, the mentoring, the everyday support he provided, Peter was a great campaigner.  In fact, I would say he was arguably one of the great campaigners of the environmental or indeed any other movement.

Others had more external charisma perhaps and even brighter fires burning, but few, if any, had his strategic skills, his inexorable logic, his systematic application. And he didn’t try to do it (all) himself by any means; he let us build an organisation that across the piece was extraordinarily confident, well-tooled and able. The sum of the parts was a mighty thing as he knew it could be and he was its stealthy, assured source and coil spring.

And look what he/we did! Of course we were part of an immense and hugely talented international organisation with outstanding values, a fearlessness and a hard-earned brand to die for. But with this fantastic foundation Peter shaped and led a programme of work that changed the world and gave birth to the modern environmental movement. Let’s remember that time for a moment – our time. The Montreal Protocol (actions against ICI, ‘sorry grandpa’); the North Sea campaign; Acid Rain; major actions on Sellafield and against BNFL that almost killed the nuclear industry in this country; one of the world’s first major Global Warming campaigns; nuclear free seas…The launch of the new Rainbow Warrior. The reinforcement and amplification of the most compelling brand in the environmental world. We grew the Greenpeace membership from 40,000 to nearly 400,000 in four years, giving us immense influence; created the Greenpeace Environmental Trust.

These and much more created the imperative, the space and the popular support for political action. They released the forces that caused better businesses to change their policies, culture and behaviours. They led to the Earth Summit, the IPCC and COP…They gave rise to a thousand, a million kindred campaigns and actions and organisations…

And this was Peter. He was its locus, its forcefield.

You have lost a great friend, I a mentor. Professionally my relationship with Peter was the most inspiring and enlightening of my life. I became a different, better person. And after last night’s news when I look back to 32 years ago I can remember that period now – almost all of it – as vividly as if it was yesterday.

I hope you are coping and finding solace. It would be great to share some grief, reminisce and have a laugh at some point soon.

My very best wishes

Jonathan

 

Tracy Worcester 

It is hard to imagine working against factory farms without having Peter’s wisdom and partnership to call on. As one of the world’s most articulate and brilliant warriors, he was a true hero. We will all miss him and cherish the privilege to have worked on together on campaigns like the Midland Pig Producers plans to build building a a massive pig factory next to a village and women’s prison in Derbyshire. His generous heart and whopping brain inspired and led us and the locals to continue to shine the light on the horrors of factory farming till the Environment agency came up with such stringent regulations, that MPP abandoned the project.

He Had Our Back – Peter Melchett’s Contribution to Greenpeace

 

Chris Rose

IMG_0046

Peter on a walk round his farm in April this year.  Behind him is a field full of cowslips, part of a new wildlife habitat.

Peter Melchett, who was a Minister in the Northern Ireland office used to dealing with Ian Paisley across the conference table, was never going to be fazed by the 15 years he spent as chair and Executive Director of Greenpeace UK (1985 to 2001).  To supporters, politicians and media in the UK he is best remembered for his part in a white-suited action against GM maize but the greatest contribution he made to Greenpeace was as a leader, and most of that was invisible to the public gaze.

Once Peter put himself at the service of Greenpeace, although he continued to give speeches and interviews, his personal profile was far lower than it had been when he forged the alliance of environment and conservation groups as Wildlife Link and led many political and legislative battles for the environment in Parliament.

Resilience

By the mid 1980s Greenpeace was already in transformation from a charismatic but chaotic entity often riven by personal rivalries, into an effective international campaign group but Peter guided its UK development into a resilient and stable campaigning machine, and professionalized and grew the organization at the same time.

He brought systems and organization, introducing specialist science, legal, accounts and political units, together with HR policies and management practices drawing on his previous experience in government and the third sector.   Although resented by some campaigners used to a more anarchic environment, he made these changes not just to treat the staff better and improve efficiency but to make Greenpeace harder to infiltrate or attack by government or corporates.

Power

With a background in politics and a family background in business large and small, Peter understood power and influence in a way few other NGO campaigners or leaders did, then or now.  He knew that politicians might never win a popularity contest with Greenpeace, but could disable or sink it through stealthier means such as injunctions, asset seizures or subversion.  As its support grew, it posed a greater challenge to vested interests so the stakes got higher.

Largely un-noticed both inside and outside, Peter set about making Greenpeace’s UK ‘ship’ legally and financially watertight, with reserves to ride out headwinds.  On his watch, it invested in the expertise necessary to locate strategic targets that could change the trajectory of environmental outcomes, and then plan and run high-risk campaigns involving non-violent direct actions, with the optimal chance of living to fight another day.

He Had Our Back

Peter had a massive sense of duty and honour.  He took a personal interest in looking after the volunteers who physically and legally put themselves on the line when he often could not.  So he was always ready to take responsibility and lead from the front when the organisation came under fire.  “He made me feel safe”, said a director who served under him. “As a young campaigner”, an activist said “you knew whatever you did, he’d would support you in public: he had our back”.

Two Jewish friends who worked with me at Greenpeace say they used to call him a a ‘mensch’ – Yiddish – a man of integrity and honour.  “He was so solid, and reliable especially when the shit hit the fan – you could always count on Peter” says one.

In the 1980s he had already been involved in several demonstrations against nuclear weapons.  Just before his time at Greenpeace, he and partner Cass Wedd were arrested on a CND protest at Sculthorpe a USAF base not far from his farm in Norfolk.   It amused him that as he stepped forward to make his symbolic cut in the fence, plummy voice of Lady Olga Maitland (of ‘Women and Families for Defence’) rang out: “Peter, Peter, don’t do it. It’ll ruin your career!”

Once Chair and Executive Director, Peter rarely took a front-line part in Greenpeace actions, not because he didn’t want to but because he felt responsible for remaining available at the helm.  In 1999 he broke with this rule by leading an action to remove a GM maize crop.   A former criminologist, he spent a night in Norwich Jail.  I asked what it was like: “everyone was nice to me” he said, “anyway Eton prepares you for that sort of regime”.   Eventually a jury found all defendants not guilty of criminal damage, agreeing with Greenpeace’s defence of ‘lawful excuse’:  by destroying the crop they had stopped a greater harm of polluting other maize crops with GM pollen.

Peter could be obdurate and domineering as well as avuncular, self-deprecating and charming.  In the 1980s I once described him as more Grizzly than Teddy Bear.  He was also modest, for example rarely mentioning his time as a Minister in which he achieved changes which would have provided most people with a lifetime of stories to dine out on.  I think what drew him to Greenpeace was a combination of its potential to deliver results in terms of outcomes for causes he cared about – more or less Green and Peace – and its way of doing things.

For most people, its principles of non violence and bearing witness, inherited from or inspired by the Quakers in their early protests against nuclear testing in the pacific, were simply historical backdrop but for Peter they were lodestones used in in real-life, on a regular basis, and especially when faced with difficult and testing decisions.  As a personal bonus, in the UK this often meant cajoling, pushing or forcing a political and social Establishment deeply opposed to environmentalism, into change.  Greenpeace campaigns repeated the dynamic of that Olga Maitland moment, in which the establishment tried to stop Peter doing what he thought and felt was right, not just once or twice but over and over.  His principles made him a natural fit with the organisation’s hallmark tactics and worldview.

The Truth

Peter said he left Westminster for NGOs because he was fed up with the “lying game”.  In 1995 after the successful Brent Spar campaign to stop Shell dumping a huge redundant oil storage facility at sea, his sense of honour put him and Greenpeace at the centre of a media firestorm fanned by government ministers enraged at Shell’s capitulation.   Just before Shell gave way, Peter had written to the UK Shell Board laying out Greenpeace’s case and including an estimate that the Spar might still contain thousands of tonnes of oil.   It then realised this was due to a misinterpreted sample from an inspection pipe and the likely figure was far less.  Peter wrote to Shell ‘apologizing’ for potentially misleading them. This apology was misused to attack Greenpeace about the campaign as a whole, which was never about the tonnage of oil on board but oil companies and the government wanting to reopen the debate about dumping waste at sea.

Although not personally to blame for the error, Peter took responsibility.  Earlier this year I talked to Peter and he recalled how he had been “hauled over the coals” by Jeremy Paxman on BBC’s Newsnight.  He said: “after we were off air – I wish this had been recorded – [Paxman] said to me, “I bet you regret telling the truth now don’t you ?”.   I was so gobsmacked, I couldn’t think of a snappy reply.  I mean he just assumed that everyone would normally lie about something like that, and to me it was just unthinkable that an NGO would lie”.

The same year, Greenpeace ‘invaded’ Sellafield and at Aldermaston blocked a pipe discharging radioactivity into the Thames.  Furious Defence Secretary Malcolm Rifkind sent MoD police to raid Greenpeace’s offices in search of evidence to charge activists with ‘conspiracy’.  Peter responded with an open letter in The Independent ‘J’accuse Malcolm Rifkind’ challenging the minister to come for him rather than ‘scapegoat’ individual activists.

Peter made Greenpeace UK more international, upping its contribution to international operations, and expanded its influence by using his vast network of contacts among more establishment NGOs.  His personal affability and confidence, and his experience of dealing with opponents face-to-face in politics in ways that avoided escalation of differences, were qualities that enabled him to sit down with Greenpeace’s opponents and often talk them into accepting an inevitable change in their ways after a campaign had peaked, rather than continue to opposing it.

Peter’s personal connections came in useful at unexpected moments. Elaine Lawrence, a Campaign Director of Greenpeace remembers:

When we did that die in in front of Downing street by the memorial where we were dressed in nuclear radiation suits [part of a campaign against THORP], Peter and I led the first group around the corner to the site from the House of Commons.  So we were walking at the front of about 30 people trying not to look suspicious when who should come round the corner but Tony Blair who stopped, greeted Peter and started chatting to him.  Everything – every group – was timed down to the last second so this was potentially a disaster.  Peter totally kept his cool and managed to politely get Tony to stop talking – seconds later we round the corner, get in position and put our suits on – it was very funny.

Solutions and Business

I worked closely with Peter as Programme Director responsible to the Board for ‘re-strategizing’ and creating the campaign programmes of Greenpeace UK, and then as his Deputy Executive Director, in the 1990s.  At this time power was shifting from governments to corporates and there was a new demand from the public for practical ‘solutions’ they could buy or adopt in everyday life.  Partly inspired by the example of Greenpeace in Germany, we added to the usual problem-driving element of campaigns, the engineering of solutions.  Today this sounds obvious but at the time it was controversial and counter-intuitive to many activists and environmental groups.

This often meant working with companies doing the right thing or at the least saying “this is a good thing”, and opposing those doing the ‘wrong thing’.  Peter gave businesses what they took to be an ‘establishment figure’ as an interlocutor and his pragmatism played a big role in helping extend the influence of the organization, for example through establishing Greenpeace Business, a newsletter which also ran conferences.  The approach of campaigns plus face to face engagement with corporate CEOs that he helped develop, has been continued and expanded by others in Greenpeace such as its current Executive Director in the UK, John Sauven.

Peter’s love of animals made him a lifelong  passionate anti-whaling campaigner, and played a role in his pursuit of organic farming.  After Greenpeace he returned to the fight against the impact of pesticides which he had first encountered in grey partridge studies on his family farm in Norfolk.  He and Cass were proud of having badgers return to the farm.  Apparently tireless, he was still working as Soil Association Policy Director, only days before he died.

Some people who inherit assets and position become philanthropists and support good causes.  Peter and Cass did indeed support projects with grants from their family Courtyard Trust but his greater contribution was to spend the capital of his inherited privilege (Eton, Cambridge, The Lords, High Office, family businesses, land) like a philanthropist giving away status and opportunity, to make a difference for the environment.  He was a great friend to me and a truly generous man.

 

(Thanks to current and former staff of Greenpeace for reminding me of things about Peter).

Liz O’Neill, GM Freeze

Peter was a great friend to GM Freeze and I am writing on behalf of myself and the rest of the GM Freeze team – staff and management committee, both past and present.

We all have different memories to treasure. Some were at Peter’s side in that field of GM maize back in 1999; others have always taken a more behind-the-scenes role. Some have worked with Peter for the best part of twenty years; others are relative new-comers. What we all share, though, is the keen awareness that what we do, and what we have achieved, has been influenced by Peter’s knowledge; by his flair for campaigning; and by his generosity of spirit. For myself, I always knew that I could rely on Peter for support, advice and – when necessary – challenge.

Some people leave the world a better place than it would have been without them and Peter was most definitely one of them. We miss him terribly.