A draconian police and crime bill is making its way through parliament, and on Tuesday the home secretary, Priti Patel, told her party’s conference that she planned to remove even more rights from political protesters. New offences of disrupting motorways and national infrastructure will be added to legislation that already dramatically expands police powers. Tory members applauded their illiberal home secretary loudly as she denounced the Insulate Britain protesters who have repeatedly blocked roads.
Many others, including the former prime minister Theresa May, have voiced concerns about a bill that creates a new criminal offence of trespass, lets the police dictate the timings of demonstrations and restrict protests deemed (by them) to be causing noise and “nuisance”. These are shocking restrictions, clearly designed to make impossible the kinds of actions that anti-racism and environmental protesters have undertaken in recent years, including those that followed the murder of George Floyd. Six-month sentences for new offences that were previously treated as civil matters are excessive. But Ms Patel is unafraid of the charge of authoritarianism, and knows that it plays well with her home crowd. Her speech sought to present desperate Channel-crossing migrants and road-blocking protesters as the enemies of law-abiding Britons, along with the paedophiles and murderers whose sentences her bill will also increase.
Insulate Britain’s statements have been defiant. In an open letter to Ms Patel last month, the group said: “You can deny us our liberty and put us behind bars. But shooting the messenger can never destroy the message: that this country is going to hell unless you take emergency action to stop putting carbon into the air.” With at least 115 protesters and more than 400 arrests – some protesters have been arrested multiple times – for now this disruptive form of direct action looks set to continue until its organisers decide to stop (at present, police are unable to hold arrested protesters on remand – another thing that Ms Patel plans to change).
Anyone who shares the activists’ profound anxiety about the climate emergency, and deep frustration at the government’s failure to tackle it, is likely to feel at least some sympathy with the protests, even if they disapprove of the tactics. Climate experts agree the UK is lagging behind on home insulation, along with transport. Most of the UK’s carbon reductions so far have come from the energy sector. And while buildings are responsible for around 17% of emissions, our homes are among the draughtiest and least energy-efficient in Europe. For years, environmental campaigners and Green party politicians have pushed the retrofitting of housing as a policy; now, direct action has put insulation in the headlines and kept it there for weeks.
But activists aiming to influence policy through the power of protest must always be mindful of public opinion. And reaction to the M25 and other blockages should give pause for thought – as Insulate Britain presumably decided when it offered a qualified apology. Tactics that cause large sections of the public to get angry carry political risks. And while the vast majority of the public supports policies to cut emissions, many also feel strongly that they have a right to choose when and how often to drive around.
The past few years have seen a flowering of environmental protests, from the divestment movement and challenges to fossil fuel sponsorship, to school strikes. Activists are right that the climate problem cannot be left to politicians; this was tried and it didn’t work. With their protests, green activists perform a kind of public service. But in the build-up to next month’s crucial UN negotiations, and with a serious threat to civil liberties hanging over it, their movement should aim to stay a broad church.