'People loved the idea of a posh girl falling on her face': Tamsin Omond faces her critics

Tamsin Omond's brush with jail was a gift to climate change sceptics. But Jerome Taylor finds her undaunted

Saturday 18 October 2008 00:00

For somebody who should be busily revising for the final stages of an MA in environmental and social policy, Tamsin Omond has had a rather busy week. First, there was a three-hour exam on Monday afternoon that needed to be completed in half that time so that she could lead a "rush on Parliament" by 500 female environmental activists calling on the Government to halt its airport expansion programme.

Then there was a night in Paddington Green – the Metropolitan Police's highest security police station – and a court appearance the following day, where the Cambridge graduate narrowly avoided being sent to prison for breaching bail conditions, which forbid the 23-year-old from going anywhere near Parliament. Then she had to move out of her trendy flat in north London to Clapton.

All this from a young woman who was until recently thinking of becoming a priest – and whose grandfather was a baronet. "I'm aware I've been given all sorts of headline-grabbing epithets," said Ormond, rolling a slim cigarette in her favourite café in the centre of Russell Square. "Tamsin Omond, the Cambridge graduate, the granddaughter of a baronet, the wannabe priest and the eco-campaigner. It's silly really and it's annoying that the climate movement always gets boiled down to personalities but I understand that the media need to look for personal stories."

Being a poster girl for the next generation of environmental activists is a label she feels uncomfortable with, but in the past 12 months Omond and her band of highly eloquent, middle-class graduate activists have forced what they believe is the Government's inaction over climate change firmly on to the news agenda.

First there were a string of attacks on the Department for Transport where campaigners frequently (and painfully) glued themselves to the glass doors bringing work inside the building on Horseferry Road to a standstill. Then there was the astonishingly bold protest on the rooftop of Parliament in February, which made headlines around the world and revealed a shocking lapse in security at the heart of government. One of their more comical stunts earlier this summer also involved blasting aircraft noise through the letterbox of transport secretary Ruth Kelly's Docklands flat at 7.30 in the morning.

But for the Parliament protest, Omond and her four colleagues – forever labelled the "Commons Five" – could be jailed for up to a year and fined £5,000 in their upcoming trial next month under anti-terror legislation that makes it an imprisonable offence to trespass on areas of "national security".

And it was while languishing in a cell earlier this week with a long-term inmate from Holloway Prison, she explained, that the terrifying prospect of months in jail suddenly hit home. "I'd never met anyone like that before," she recalled. "It made me realise that if I went to prison it would have to be for a very good cause. Prison is not a place you want to go to if you can help it. But I still believe it is essential that all of us are prepared to take the risk of going to prison because at the moment we are risking far more by not tackling climate change."

She balks at any idea that a woman from her privileged background should opt for a quieter life. "I hate the suggestion that just because I'm a woman I might not be able to handle prison. It is so patronising." she said, becoming angry. "Women are on the front line fighting climate change because they are the first people to suffer from it. About 70 per cent of people in the developing world who are already dying because of climate change are women."

She is also equally upset by those who have criticised her because of her family's ancestry. "The second you say you are fighting for something you believe in you open yourself up to having the rug pulled from underneath your feet. But it was horrible reading some of the comments that people have posted to stories in the newspaper this week. So many were celebrating the idea of this little posh girl falling flat on her face. It was the first time I was made aware of the fact that my lineage and background is a problem to some people."

As the granddaughter of Sir Thomas Lees, a fourth generation baronet and wealthy landowner from Dorset, Omond might have been expected to follow so many of her university colleagues into the middle-class rat race. But it was while at Trinity College, reading English, that she discovered environmentalism.

Omond admits she has been forced to put on hold her plans to become an Anglican priest because of her activism. "When I tried to do both and I ended up doing neither of them particularly well." However, she has vowed to continue using direct action, and, undeterred by her upcoming trial, if necessary break the law in order to force the Government to change its environmental policy.

She encourages other people to demand change because "climate change will soon have a huge impact on our everyday lives", she says. "The majority of scientific thinking is convinced that climate change is man-made and that it will soon have a huge impact on our everyday lives. But only about 30 per cent of the public believe that. How has such a glaring discrepancy been allowed to happen? That is why direct action is so important – it will keep the issue alive and raise consciousness of the disaster we face."

Family tradition: Social activism

*Tamsin Omond is the granddaughter of Sir Thomas Lees, a fourth-generation baronet and owner of the Holton Lee estate at Lytchett Minster in Dorset. Sir Thomas has publicly supported his granddaughters' activism, calling it part of a long family tradition of philanthropy and politics. Her great-great-grandfather Elliot Lees was an MP for Oldham in the late 19th century whilst Sir Thomas himself spends most of his time running a charity for disabled people on 350 acres of woodland in the Purbeck Hills. Omond's mother, Sarah, is Sir Thomas' eldest daughter and her father, John, fled Soviet Czechoslovakia in the 1970s. They live in north London.

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