This Easter the Extinction Rebellion protests remind us what true passion is all about

Climate change is another issue, like Brexit, that will turn out to engage the British public in a way that politicians have been slow to notice

Janet Street-Porter
Friday 19 April 2019 15:01 BST
Extinction Rebellion campaigner Rupert Read accused of being a hypocrite during LBC interview for taking taxi

The Extinction Rebellion climate change protestors are an easy target for middle England. The true believers include passionate pensioners (few have full time jobs), well-spoken teenagers (on Easter breaks from private schools), and – the icing on the cake – the presence of leading luvvie Dame Emma Thompson, who flew in from Los Angeles to state her allegiance, running up a large carbon footprint in the process.

All week, as parts of central London ground to a standstill, drivers fumed and raged. Bridges remained closed, with temporary campsites replacing the roar of diesel engines. With over 500 arrests and every cell full, police officers have had their holiday leave cancelled, accused of not doing enough to control the demonstrations. Protestors glued themselves to public buildings and trains and even pitched up outside Jeremy Corbyn’s house. They were heartbroken (according to the press) when the Labour leader eventually emerged with his wife and refused to speak to them.

One person’s passionate cause is another’s source of unspeakable irritation. Tourists and visitors might have found the demonstrations entertaining, but office workers and commuters weren’t so tolerant. I had to catch a train from Liverpool Street on Wednesday and spent all morning worrying whether the underground was going to be closed down (it wasn’t). Today, tempers will flare as half a million travellers attempt to fly out of Heathrow on Easter breaks. Protestors have signalled they’d like to close the airport down, claiming air travel should be rationed and only used for emergencies.

It’s not hard to mock these earnest Extinction Rebellion protestors. The Daily Mail has been the most vociferous – yet the newspaper claims to care about the environment, with campaigns targeting plastic in oceans and tons of wet wipes clogging up the Thames. The newspaper is marshalling an army of volunteers to collect litter up and down the country, but this is just window dressing in the big picture regarding environment pollution. For real change, every one of us must rethink how we shop and travel, pushing councils and politicians into radical action if we really want clean air and our rivers to be free of pollutants.

The ER participants are willing to be mocked to gain our attention and their tactics – to put “peaceful and smiley arrestables” in the front line of any demonstration, to engage as many police officers as possible in dealing with these (largely middle class) sacrificial lambs who don’t fear conviction and regard it as a badge of honour – has been remarkably effective in obtaining maximum publicity.

Many scientists say Britain is already doing its fair share in targeting emissions and dealing with pollution, but these protestors reckon it’s too little, too late. ER want net-zero carbon emissions by 2025 – an impossible target, according to experts, who say that 2050 is more realistic.

How appropriate that Easter – a solemn celebration of one holy man’s decision to make the ultimate sacrifice and die for his faith – is being marked with such public displays of heartfelt conviction. Passion has more or less disappeared from our politics over the last decade. The Poll Tax riots brought passion (along with violence) onto city streets. Combative protests at the G2 summit and the spiralling demonstrations over student tuition fees (which culminated in a statue of Winston Churchill and the Cenotaph being defaced) didn’t really engage the whole population, who looked on appalled at images of kettling and containment and armed police. In 2016, Brexit stole up on us, and turned ordinary people on to politics again, it enraged them and engaged them in equal measure.

Since the 2016 referendum, people who would never have spent five minutes discussing Labour policy or Tory tax evasion spend at least five minutes every single day moaning about Brexit. We might think politicians are a scabby untrustworthy bunch, full of hot air and false promises, but at least we now talk about all our options going forward. We might hate the existing parties, and many of us dream of a new centrist movement. Brexit has been like Viagra, it has re-energised parts that traditional politics has failed to reach. Passion (along with bad manners and loathing) has returned in everyday life. By the way, Brexit wasn’t the “biggest democratic exercise” in modern politics – more people voted in the 1992 general election.

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Or course, being British, we disguise our new-found interest in politics as exasperation and cynicism, but it’s undeniably there. Climate change is another issue, like Brexit, that will turn out to engage the British public in a way that politicians have been slow to notice. The London mayor has been lacklustre, failing to make radical changes to transport which would improve air quality. He failed to curb deliveries during office hours, failed to ban heavy lorries during daytime, failed to force all cabs and rental vehicles to convert to electricity. He hasn’t forced fast food outlets to reduce wrapping waste by 50 per cent or pay to clean the surrounding streets. In short, he has tinkered around the edges of the biggest problem impinging on the lives of city dwellers and workers.

This Easter, let’s celebrate the return of passion to our streets. It’s exactly what Jesus would have wanted.

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