It's not violence that Middle England won't tolerate, it's police snooping

The clashes at Newbury will not put off affluent protesters, reports Jojo Moyes
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The Independent Online
As the operation to clean up burnt-out vehicles began near her home yesterday, Josephine Carter, an anti-roads protester, was feeling pensive.

"I was talking to my gardener this morning and he was asking me what it was like [on Saturday]. I told him, it's like football crowds. Not all are hooligans, and yet that small number of people makes it seem so," she said.

As pictures of balaclava'd agitators atop burning vehicles were broadcast, protesters were considering what they saw as a new development in the battle for hearts and minds over the Newbury bypass.

However, the middle-classes who have thrown their support behind the protest are just as likely to be appalled by police tactics as the violence.

In scenes reminiscent of the poll tax riots in 1990, a rally on Saturday to mark the first anniversary of the protest against the Newbury bypass had erupted in violence.

Following a peaceful demonstration, hundreds of demonstrators had stormed one of the contractor's compounds and set fire to the offices and equipment.

The fall-out threatened to overshadow a peaceful protest in Devon yesterday, when 17 anti-road protesters were arrested as sheriff's officers cleared the camp near Exeter, built in the path of a pounds 65m road scheme. Taking advantage of the fact that many protesters had travelled to Newbury, 150 police and sheriff's officers had swooped on the camp at Honiton, where 20 protesters had locked themselves into tunnels and bunkers.

The organisation Friends of the Earth was among those who were quick to distance themselves from the violence at Newbury. Its spokesman, Charles Secrett, said: "Burning construction machinery is totally counter-productive to the anti-roads campaign and Friends of the Earth condemn it utterly."

"Scenes like these will discourage the millions in middle England who believe in environmental protection and who want the Government to do things differently."

He was right to be concerned. Much of the publicity surrounding the battle over the Newbury bypass has been gleaned from its high-profile, middle- class support.

Figures such as Tracy Ward, the Marchioness of Worcester, and Bel Mooney, wife of Jonathan Dimbleby, have joined the protest and helped improve the image of anti-roads protesters, who are often stereotyped as dreadlocked dropouts.

But the middle England of which Mr Secrett spoke appeared to be made of sterner and more suspicious stuff.

Elise Cope, 23, a business development manager, lives just outside Newbury. She left the rally after it had officially finished, she said, and was "horrified" to see the scenes on the television afterwards.

"I don't think it was done by any of the local supporters. I think it's done purposefully because we've been getting so much public support," she said. "It's definitely done with the intention of putting people off. Now the vast majority of people are reading the newspapers and saying `typical, violence', and I say it's not true. But we're not going to be able to prove it or stop it."

Police, who made several arrests, were not able to comment on who they thought was responsible for the violence but noted that the majority of protesters were "well-behaved".

Jill Eisele, a teacher who lives in Newbury, suggested that the rally may have been hijacked by a "rabble-rousing element", as happened in the poll tax riots.

If that were so, she said yesterday, it would be because local politicians had stirred up feeling against the protesters.

She said that the possibility of violence would not deter her from protesting against the road, which she had done for five years. But she admitted that there were many people who, having witnessed Saturday's scenes, might be less keen.

"I think there are people who are less committed. Certainly there were people there who when they saw the criminal damage occurring thought `Oh my God, what am I doing here?'. But by the same token I think you could speak to any middle-class people there, who might well be offended by the firebombing, but who will also tell you the police were extremely heavy-handed."

She had spoken to a number of neighbours, and claimed that most of them were alarmed not so much by the violence, but by the police presence in the town in the lead up to the anniversary.

"People have been amazed at the police presence in Newbury for the last week. They were filming everywhere, filming people as they were getting off the train," she said. "Middle-class people hate being filmed. More than anything. They find it very invasive, very offensive. Now that was very upsetting."

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