Extinction Rebellion’s disruption of right-of-centre newpapers was always going to gain more coverage than its disruption of lots of other businesses – and people. Which is why its members, if that’s quite the right word for them, acted as they did.
But it was only the latest wrecking-ball swung by this apocalyptic cult, which is essentially religious end-timism wrapped in environmentalist clothing. Home Office sources say that the tactics of these green extremists are constantly evolving: using encrypted systems to get ahead of the police – and glueing or locking themselves to structures to slow their removal.
Today being today, there must be a Government response in the Sunday papers, and one can’t help wondering how much of what we read has been thoroughly thought through. Ministers apparently want to stop demonstrators from entering particular areas – but these are not pre-planned, pre-announced demostrations. They may bolster protections for critical national infrastructure, but the police can’t be everywhere at once. Parliament could outlaw disruption to “tenets of democracy” – such as MPs voting in the Commons, judges attending court, and the printing and distribution of newspapers. But passing new laws is one thing; enforcing them can be quite another.
So a key question to ask is not whether new laws are needed, but whether the ones we have are already being enforced. There are two main aspects of police work in this context – preventing disruption from happening in the first place, and enforcing the law if it does.
Not everything that the zealots do is encrypted, so there is plenty of scope for prevention: monitoring what they get up online, recruiting and deploying informers, and using the significant public order powers that already exist. The public don’t usually see that side of police work. However, they do see enforcement, or rather a lack of it. The police seem all too eager to leap in at anti-lockdown Piers Corbyn and right-wing protesters; but all too ready to stand back when a mob is chucking a statue in a river in Bristol. Many people know more about Black Lives Matter than they did during early protests here: all the same, what on earth were some police doing “taking a knee”?
It’s being written today that Extinction Rebellion is trying to shut down free speech. That’s the truth but not the whole truth, which is that its target isn’t so much what’s said as who says it. Hence its targeting of right-of-centre think tanks. Which is part of a bigger picture. Some of its features are institutional – such as, say, support within the civil service at senior levels for Black Lives Matter’s theology of “white privilege”.
And some of it is personal. Consider the case of Tony Abbott. Maybe his trade appointment is a good idea and maybe it isn’t. But either way, supporting same-sex marriage shouldn’t be a disqualification. Boris Johnson clearly holds that view but didn’t quite say so when confirming Abbott’s appointment. Why not? We will return to the question tomorrow.