Extinction Rebellion, the ecological protest group founded in 2018, has initiated its “Summer Uprising”. Namely, blockading roads in cities around the country in order to highlight our reliance on fossil fuels.
In response, Policy Exchange, a think tank set up by three Conservative MPs in 2002, has released a paper labelling the group as “extremist” and seeking “to break down the established civil order and liberal democracy in the UK”.
XR protests are, by their nature, provocative, and whilst there is widespread sympathy for their ambitions to save the planet, there has also been a pronounced backlash. The Policy Exchange report’s conclusions have been greeted with pleasure by tub-thumping right-wingers, hysteria by some of the media, and bemused incredulity by most of civilised, normal Britain.
We should be a country that embraces protest. We should be a country that challenges ideas, not actions, because actions are protected in law. When we see international protests – such as the young activists struggling for legal sovereignty in Hong Kong – we have a tacit national agreement that “liberal democracy”, which Policy Exchange so prize, is worth marching in the streets for.
The same presumption of good intention is rarely extended to our own protestors. After all, Extinction Rebellion are not a rabble in the mould of France’s quarrelsome gilet jaunes. They are a young, motivated, organised group and, above all else, they stand for something very specific, something that affects us all.
In the UK, people are far more comfortable criticising Extinction Rebellion’s methods than they are their motivation. Back in April, when a small fraction of London was brought to a standstill by XR protestors, ComRes polled the public on their climate change opinions. Over half – 54 per cent – agreed that climate change posed a direct threat to humanity’s survival, yet only 22 per cent of respondents supported XR’s actions.
Nowadays, if you publicly question the real threat of climate change you are outing yourself as a crank. Yet voicing the same scepticism about a grassroots movement designed to combat manmade ecological disaster is seen as sufficiently mainstream as to be parroted by politicians, think tanks and even the BBC.
In the preface to the Policy Exchange report, Richard Walton, a former head of the Met’s counterterrorism unit, writes that XR is “rooted in the political extremism of anarchism, eco-socialism and radical anti-capitalist environmentalism”, without acknowledging the fact that anarchism and socialism are fundamentally antithetical. The paper, as a whole, is a tangled collocation of scare terms and dogwhistles. It concludes by conceding that the protestors “appear sincere about urgently wanting to prevent ecological crisis” yet bristles at XR’s belief that human structures might bear some responsibility.
It is “unlikely”, the paper concludes, “that these leaders would settle for any accommodation that proposed to address environmental damage while keeping the present economic and political system in place”. These critics suffer from the same problems that they’ve identified in XR: ideological purity, bloody-mindedness, and a failure to talk openly with the other side.
Despite the magnitude and urgency of the issue XR is representing, they have been overwhelmingly peaceful and conducted with the oversight of the police. The organisation has been transparent about its funders – will the Policy Exchange be as open? – and has consistently put forward spokespeople for the media, in order to open a dialogue about the disruption. It is, in many ways, a textbook example of how civil disobedience should be conducted in a democracy.
As we look across to Hong Kong and the way that the mainland Chinese police have inflamed peaceful protests through the use of excessive force, we ought to remember the essential place that activism and disruption hold in our national history. The foundational text of British democracy, Magna Carta, was born out of a rebellion at the absence of rule of law under King John, back in the 13th century. It is essential that we protect the spirit of that document by defending peaceful protestors against hyperbolic charges that seek to make political statements under the guise of public protection.
However radical XR’s political agenda may or may not be, however “anarchist” or “socialist” or “anti-capitalist” you read them, and however late for work they might make you, the severe consequences of climate change are far too real and impactful on all of us to dismiss and ignore.
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