Summary: The Economist magazine has a look at Extinction Rebellion (XR), and finds it’s not a top-down rigidly organised institution familiar to those in political parties.
In my experience of the Cambridge collective, most of the activists have not. They’ve got better things to be doing – like saving the planet.
Similarities with the student protests of 2010
Some of you may remember the protests on the back of the vote to raise tuition fees. In Cambridge, students occupied Senate House. One of the trade unions I was a member of at the time, the PCS Union (I was still a civil servant at the time) encouraged members to go along to express solidarity with the protesting students – this was a time when the civil service was facing massive job cuts as austerity began. I remember many a weekend being taken up by a protest rally or event in Cambridge or London. What struck me with the occupation in Senate House in winter 2010 was the swift grassroots nature of decision-making. It led to some Monty Python-esque exchanges with the police.
Constable: “Who is in charge?”
Crowd of students: “No one is!”
Constable: “Then who is responsible for you?”
Crowd of students: “We all are!”
This was completely lost on the officer who was completely confused as to what to do next. It’s a bit like that with the mainstream media trying to figure out how Extinction Rebellion functions today.
“We’re gonna kidnap Pilate’s wife, take her back, and issue demands!”
From one of greatest comic troupes to emerge from Cambridge, Monty Python.
“What are XR’s demands?”
The are listed here – the essential top three are below.
“Who’s in charge?”
If you asked most people taking part in the current occupation in London, they probably wouldn’t know. Some might be vaguely familiar with the names Roger Hallam and Gail Bradbrook, (see the FAQs here, specifically ‘where did the idea come from?‘), but that’s about it. The very simple demands, very simple but bold brand (which raised a few eyebrows at first) and the autonomous nature of the local groups means that most groups have no idea of what the other groups are doing unless they make the effort to research who is doing what. In the grand scheme of things, most people are too busy doing stuff than trying to micromanage a very large network of independent collectives. Which is why this outburst from Transport Secretary Grant Shapps on QT last night was embarrassing.
…and not only because his claims about the UK’s record on climate change is questionable to say the least (i.e. he ignores the emissions from the UK’s consumption of imports, and the emissions from shipping and aviation fuel required to get the goods to the UK in the first place).
Minister: “Why don’t you do as I tell you and go and protest over there in that bloodthirsty dictatorship?!?”
Protesters: “Because we are a network of autonomous collectives that decides what each collective is going to do democratically, rather than having decisions imposed on us by someone like you!”
On the same show, one of the controversialists on the panel described XR as a cult – which sounds suspiciously like the same insult thrown at it by other controversialists trying to steal oxygen and all too often given broadcasting platforms by media companies that should know better. There are more than a few criticism you can throw at XR but as an autonomous movement trying to save humanity and nature from a climate catastrophe, a death cult is the last thing it is.
The autonomous nature of XR combined with the constituency representation model the House of Commons has means that the relationship between each MP and their local collective of Extinction Rebellion is unique.
While the Transport Secretary spouted off on TV last night, not long before a former Cabinet Minister was praising the movement.
Over 400 MPs collected a tree from activists raising the need to plant lots and lots of trees.
That’s nearly two thirds of the MPs in the House of Commons. Furthermore, the stronger the pressure, the more likely a [backbench] MP is to speak out on it. In Cambridge the environmentalist movement is larger and more well-informed than in most places. This reflects in the actions local MP Daniel Zeichner (Lab – Cambridge) undertakes in the House of Commons, such as leading the debate on the fires in the Amazon.
Note the link between MP and constituents is one where for such debates, MPs can and will ask constituents with expertise in a given field for information and briefing to inform speeches. With the institutions in Cambridge, he’d have access to some of the most up-to-date and expert advice in the world. Which then makes his contributions harder for ministers to ignore.
For somewhere like Cambridge, current and former MPs will tell you it is one of the most demanding constituencies in the country. Many a weekend is lost on constituency visits, but whenever groups of constituents turn up to lobby their MPs in and around Parliament, both Mr Zeichner and his predecessor Dr Julian Huppert (Lib Dems, Cambridge 2010-15) would make themselves available.
Accordingly, you’ll find many MPs already on first name terms with more than a few environmental campaigners in their constituencies. Hence the outbursts from Cabinet Ministers fall on deaf ears.
The print press – praise or outrage?
A number of high profile people have also gotten involved from outside of the world of politics.
I’m picturing the headlines now:
“We slam TV Benedict for joining eco-crusties’ demo in London! Get his protest-chic look from these fashion outlets!”
One publication slammed the ‘Eco Mob London Chaos’ while chuckling over the increase in orders for vegan meals for those arrested – over 1,000 at the last count.
Of course it’s having a huge impact on policing and resources. But this situation is not without historical precedence – similar points have been made with other very large demonstrations, marches and protests.
Ministers must realise that the police cannot rely on arresting protesters to resolve the situation. The solution is a political one.
I remember watching a documentary years ago about Northern Ireland in the 1960s and the decision by UK ministers to send in soldiers. One of the comments featured was from one of the senior officers who said that while the army could help keep the peace in the short term, they were no substitute for a permanent peaceful political resolution. Tragically that sentiment was not listened to. That’s not to say the same thing is going to happen again with this case despite the similarities of a weak government (in that case, Labour which was about to lose power to Edward Heath’s Tories), Europe dominating the news (on whether to join the EEC), and economic strife.
Old people getting arrested, and people of faith getting involved.
One of the oldest being a 91 year old man.
…in a tweet posted by a teenager. The people taking part are not just ‘the usual suspects’. There are far too many of them, and far too many home-made placards around for a traditional far-left hijacking attempt to succeed. (They have tried).
One of the other groups prominent aside from the Prime Minister’s Dad, are people of faith.
…and again this makes the picture all the more challenging for the politicians in power:
…which followed the Prime Minister slamming the protesters as crusties. Picture the scene inside No.10 Downing Street.
Special adviser: “Prime Minister, the Anglicans from South London are protesting in Trafalgar Square against your climate change policies”
Boris: “Christian Crusties again – you can ignore them!”
Special adviser: “Prime Minister, they are being joined by Muslims at 6pm”
Boris: “OMG – why didn’t you tell me? This is a National Security situation! Activate Cobra! [COBR] – get me the chiefs of the defence staff! The Home Secretary!”
What will the longer term impact be – in particular with a long-rumoured general election?
Very difficult to call because there seems to be a polarisation/political faultline developing with pro-leave, pro-car, anti-immigration grouping on one side, and pro-stay-in-EU, pro-environment, anti-racism grouping on the other – with the splits *within* those groupings being just as passionate and powerful as the ones between the two poles.