Blockading Faslane

News from the frontline - the battle against Trident

When I heard the police car coming up behind us, I just shouted “Run!” and sprinted down to the road. Before I really knew what was happening, let alone before I had thought about it, I was flat on my back on the tarmac, linking hands with my friends through concrete-coated tubes, with police cars slamming on the brakes behind us. It was seven in the morning on a freezing late December day, and I had just defied the law for the first time.

We were trying to stop traffic entering through the South Gate of the Trident nuclear submarine base; not far away, we had friends climbing lampposts at the North Gate to set up a blockade there. We were a small group of Scottish students who had decided to spend some of their Christmas break in the cells. Our blockade was only one of over forty since the beginning of October; our eight arrests only eight among over four hundred and fifty. Faslane 365, the umbrella name for these blockades, is civil disobedience on an enormous scale.

I've been seriously involved in activism and protest since the time of the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq, when I, as did pupils at other schools across the country, helped organise a mass school walk-out in protest against our bloodthirsty foreign policy. Since then I've attended demos, spoken at meetings and rallies, and organised petitions on many different issues. But what I was part of at Faslane was something very different altogether.

I first realised just how dissatisfied with street protest I had become at London's iCount rally on November 4th—the biggest ever protest on the climate issue, it was a huge, slickly-organised, exemplary piece of inclusive activism. But its messages inspired almost nothing in me: that if we all did our bit then we could avert climate chaos, and that if we just shouted loud enough then the politicians simply had to hear us.

The problem was that they don't. “They” don't have to hear us at all. They can take our protest under advisement, and despite public outcry and opposition from political parties that are supposed to be to the right of Labour, our government won't even enforce measly year-on-year reductions in carbon emissions, buying us off with an impotent Climate Bill.

This should not have come as a surprise. Back in 2003, over a million people marched through London in the biggest protests this country has ever seen—and yet there has been no turning away from our disastrous course in Iraq. We do not have to be listened to.

And so amongst activists like me—especially students, with our luxurious lack of property and power—there is an increasing movement towards more desperate means. The thinking goes like this: if you won't cut carbon emissions, we will invade Drax power station and turn off its equipment ourselves. If you won't act on budget air travel, we will occupy the runways and stop the plans from landing ourselves. And if you won't even do so much as hold a meaningful debate in Westminster on the issue of our nuclear “deterrent” in this the year of its potential renewal, then we will prevent Faslane from functioning ourselves. If our right to speak publicly on these issues is so ineffective, then we will assert our right to ignore the laws of this apparently suicidal country in an effort to set it on a survivable course.

When enough people start to think like this, something very strange starts to happen, as it has at Faslane. The system we are protesting against can't cope. 474 people have been arrested for breach of the peace at Faslane so far, but only four have been prosecuted. The rest of us get a night in the cells and a slap on the wrist. There are simply too many of us to deal with properly; it is system malfunction.

Around a fortnight ago, a blockade of academics and students rushed the North Gate at Faslane en masse, taking the police there so by surprise that they had no choice but to let them stay. The blockade grew and grew in numbers until finally MoD police had to be called in to break it. It lasted a full six hours with a truly celebratory atmosphere; even veteran blockaders were taken back by its success. I defy anyone to find that uninspiring.

Press coverage of Faslane is increasing as the 365 movement storms onward. A lot of people have spent a lot of time, energy, and hours in the police cells to get that far. But there are many more people still willing to take on the cost to push the movement yet further.

For myself, I don't actually hold out much hope that the government will change its mind on this particular issue. But I still spent my time at Faslane hopeful, because what it has demonstrated to me is the extraordinary willingness of perfectly ordinary people to step outside of the law in the name of a cause. I can only suppose that that willingness has always been there throughout the history of activism whenever there is a desperation with the current state of the nation. But for me, discovering it properly for the first time has been a revelation of the most stirring kind. I can only hope that it will continue.

Photo: Getty Images
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How can the left make the case for immigration?

All too often, we drift into telling people we want to convince that they just don't get it.

We don’t give the public enough credit. You’ll often hear their views dismissed with sighs in intellectual circles. In fact on most issues the public are broadly sensible, most are these days supportive of cutting the deficit and dubious about political giveaways, but in favor of protecting spending on the NHS and education. Yet there is one issue where most, “knowledgeable” folks will tell you the public are well out of step: immigration. 

With [today’s] net migration figures showing yet another record high, it is an ever more salient issue. On a lot of measures ‘too much immigration’ ranks highest as the number one concern (see Ipossmori). The ongoing rise of right wing political parties across Europe demonstrates that simply enough. But concerns about immigration don’t just sit with those with more extreme views, they’re also shared across the mainstream of public opinion. Yet unlike thinking on cutting the deficit or funding the NHS the public consensus that immigration is bad for Britain, flies flat in the face of the intellectual consensus, and by that I mean the economics. 

Given the intense public debate many a study has tried to spell out the economic impact of immigration, most find that it is positive. Immigration boosts the nation’s GDP. As the theory goes this is because immigrants bring with them entrepreneurialism and new ideas to the economy. This means firstly that they help start new ventures that in turn create more wealth and jobs for natives. They also help the supply chains to keep ticking. A example being British agriculture, where seasonal workers are are needed, for example, to pick the strawberries which help keeps the farms, the truckers and the sellers in business. 

Most studies also find little evidence of British jobs being lost (or displaced) due to immigrants, certainly when the economy is growing. Indeed economists refer to such “ “they’re” taking our jobs” arguments as the “lump of labour fallacy’. On top of all that the average migrant is younger than the native population and less likely to rely on welfare, so their net contribution to the state coffers are more likely to be positive than natives as they don’t draw as much state spending from pensions or the NHS. 

So why haven't the public cottoned on? Many progressive types dismiss such views as racist or xenophobic. But it turns out this is to misunderstand the public just as much as the public ‘misunderstand’ immigration. When you study people’s views on immigration more closely it becomes clear why. Far from being racist most people asked by focus groups cite practical concerns with immigration. Indeed if you go by the British Social Attitudes Survey a much smaller number of people express racist view than say they are concerned about migration.  

The think tank British Future broadly set out that while a quarter of people are opposed to immigration in principle and another quarter are positive about it the majority are concerned for practical reasons - concerns about whether the NHS can cope, whether there are enough social houses, whether our border controls are up to scratch and whether we know how many people are coming here in the first place (we don’t since exit checks were scrapped, they only came back a few months ago). But more than anything else they also have very little confidence that government can or wants to do anything about it. 

This truth, which is to often ignored, begets two things. Firstly, we go about making the argument in the wrong way. Telling someone “you don’t understand immigration is good for our economy etc etc” is going to get a reaction which says “this person just doesn't get my concerns”. Despite the moans of progressives, this is precisely why you won't hear left leaning politicians with any nous ‘preaching’ the the unconditional benefits of immigration.

More importantly, the economic arguments miss the central issue that those concerned with immigration have, that the benefits and effects of it are not shared fairly. Firstly migrants don’t settle homogeneously across the country, some areas have heavy influxes other have very little. So while the net effect of immigration may be positive on the national tax take that doesn't mean that public services in certain areas don’t loose out. Now there isn't clear evidence of this being the case, but that could just as well be because we don’t record the usage of public services by citizenship status. 

The effects are also not equal on the income scale, because while those of us with higher incomes scale tend to benefit from cheep labour in construction, care or agriculture (where many lower skilled migrants go) the lower paid British minority who work in those sectors do see small downward pressure on their wages. 

It’s these senses of unfairness of how migration has been managed (or not) that leads to the sense of concern and resentment. And any arguments about the benefit to the UK economy fail to answer the question of what about my local economy or my bit of the labour market. 

Its worth saying that most of these concerns are over-egged and misused by opponents of immigration. Its only a small factor in stagnating wages, and few local areas are really overrun. But the narrative is all important, if you want to win this argument you have to understand the concerns of the people you are trying to convince. That means the right way to make the argument about immigration is to start by acknowledging your opponents concerns - we do need better border controls and to manage demands on public services. Then persuade them that if we did pull up the drawbridge there is much we’d loose in smart entrepreneurs and in cultural diversity. 

Just whatever you do, don’t call them racist, they’re probably not.

Steve O'Neill was deputy head of policy for the Liberal Democrats until the election.