Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.
Competing with Love Island Series 8 last week was social media footage from Italy of climate protestors blocking Rome’s main ring road.
The images of furious motorists manhandling the activists in an attempt to clear the carriageway has healed any remaining hurt caused by last summer’s penalty shoot-out in the UEFA final at Wembley. Bravi!
The opera buffa between activists and motorists was also played out on this side of the Channel last October on London’s Wandsworth Bridge Road, when the ninnies of Insulate Britain wearing cagoules and self-righteousness were dragged off the tarmac like sacks of spuds by guys who looked like they knew their way around rolled steel joists.
That day, three other major routes into the capital were blocked by demonstrators. Throughout last autumn motorways were brought to a halt. Countless working hours were lost and appointments missed until court injunctions were granted to keep the roads clear.
Ignoring the rulings, nine activists were jailed for contempt last November. Other convictions followed.
Supporters claimed that the protestors were exercising their right to protest; one solicitor stated, ‘the long and honourable tradition of civil disobedience is under attack again’.
Leaving aside whether any of us, facing the dreadful reality of being banged up in prison, would be comforted by our unsuccessful brief implying we were heirs to the Luddites, what about the public’s right to be protected from protest and civil disobedience?
We have the law, where’s the order?
The website legislation.gov.ukis a record of the laws which have been passed in the last two centuries, reflecting the reach of the state. Despite the avalanche of legislation – primary, secondary, EU, devolved administrations’ – and Acts, whether local or primary and personal, it seems that protestors can act now with impunity if their cause is deemed to be righteous.
Extinction Rebellion claims that seven supporters ‘carefully’ smashed the glass of Barclays’ HQ in Canary Wharf in April 2021. Using hammer and chisels, the women ‘took great care to ensure the safety of bank staff, fellow activists and passers-by’.
Somehow there is the assumption that wearing the colours of the suffrage movement and belief in ‘following in the footsteps of the Suffragettes’ exonerates the perpetrators from censure, let alone criminal conviction.
Aside from XR’s emetic faux concern, it has hard to decide what is worse: the criminal damage or the criminal ignorance of the history of women’s enfranchisement.
The inconvenient truth is that less is owed to Pankhurst-inspired arson and vandalism, and more to women’s practical support for the war effort after 1914.
Perhaps XR’s next target for caring hammer and chisel treatment is the Parliament Square statue commemorating Millicent Fawcett. The suffragist deplored the Suffragettes’ violent tactics, arguing they alienated public opinion and set back the cause of votes for women.
Similarly, despite all the hysteria about the climate emergency, the super-glue, the attacks on buildings and 2,000+ arrests of XR supporters since April 2019, the green cause is failing to gain any political ground.
Although it hailed the result as ‘phenomenal’, in the recent local elections the Green Party hardly had a prepare-for-government moment. They won about three per cent of the seats up for election – which means they lost 97 per cent. Even Aspire controls a council. The Greens’ share of the vote in the 2019 general election was 2.7 per cent.
Both judges and juries have let activists escape sanction.
In June 2021, the Supreme Court narrowly tipped the balance in favour of protest in its landmark Ziegler ruling, related to action outside the Excel Centre. The case was bound up with the freedom of expression and freedom of assembly guaranteed by Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, as well as the 1980 Highways Act.
Similarly, in two separate cases in December 2021 and January, juries acquitted climate protestors who disrupted the Docklands Light Railway in 2019.
Until very recently, the climate emergency topped the charts of fashionable causes. But we seem to overlook the possibility that there could well be a sizeable silenced minority who are sceptical that climate science is as “settled” as climate activists and the media claim.
If the Edward Colston statue can be torn down and end up in Bristol harbour, there is no reason why the Churchill statue in Whitehall should not be attacked or the Cenotaph spray-painted with “BLM” (Black Lives Matter).
In acquitting those responsible for the fall of Colston, a jury decided that the wilful destruction of property was legitimate. If they have cars, let’s hope they are equally relaxed about them being keyed or torched.
This week, “Backing Our Police: How Parliament Can Give Police Forces the Tools to Combat Disruptive Protestors” was published. Written by Hannah Baldock and Chris Loder MP, under the auspices of the Henry Jackson Society, the report highlights the difficulties police officers are facing in connection with “aggravated activism”.
It is not just funding – although the policing operation covering the three XR protests might have cost £70million –vbut the perception of a loss of political impartiality.
Images of officers taking the knee and dancing on Waterloo Bridge with climate activists startled middle Britain. The Sarah Everard murder and the policing of the associated vigil at Clapham Common has troubled many women, uneasy about the far more interventionist approach taken by officers compared with, for example, the BLM demonstrations.
Matters that day were unnecessarily complicated by the confusion over the Covid-related laws/rules/guidance, the blame for which rests with ministers and MPs. Passing the buck for the aggro to up-for-a-scrap militants with their Socialist Worker placards won’t wash, even given the low-key presence of that famous Trot, the Duchess of Cambridge.
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill is now back before the Commons – accompanied by protestors’ noisy demands to “kill the bill”. Perhaps instead of banging drums outside Parliament, they could try getting elected and arguing inside the building.
Too many arrogant, blinkered activists, convinced of justice of whichever cause they espouse, believe the end justifies their means. This is mob rule and profoundly undemocratic. Let’s ensure the rule of law.