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.

Green Party
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Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley: "The Greens can win over Ukip voters too"

The party co-leaders condemned Labour's "witch hunt" of Green-supporting members. 

“You only have to cast your eyes along those green benches to think this place doesn't really represent modern Britain,” said Caroline Lucas, the UK’s only Green MP, of the House of Commons. “There are lots of things you could do about it, and one is say: ‘Why not have job share MPs?’”

Politics is full of partnerships and rivalries, but not job shares. When Lucas and Jonathan Bartley were elected co-leaders of the Green party in September, they made history. 

“I don't think any week's been typical so far,” said Bartley, when I met the co-leaders in Westminster’s Portcullis House. During the debate on the Hinkley power plant, he said, Lucas was in her constituency: “I was in Westminster, so I could pop over to do the interviews.”

Other times, it’s Bartley who travels: “I’ve been over to Calais already, and I was up in Morecambe and Lancaster. It means we’re not left without a leader.”

The two Green leaders have had varied careers. Lucas has become a familiar face in Parliament since 2010, whereas Bartley has spent most of his career in political backrooms and wonkish circles (he co-founded the think tank Ekklesia). In the six weeks since being elected, though, they seem to have mastered the knack of backing each other up. After Lucas, who represents Brighton Pavilion, made her point about the green benches, Bartley chimed in. “My son is a wheelchair user. He is now 14," he said. "I just spent a month with him, because he had to have a major operation and he was in the recovery period. The job share allows that opportunity.”

It’s hard enough for Labour’s shadow cabinet to stay on message. So how will the Greens do it? “We basically said that although we've got two leaders, we've got one set of policies,” said Lucas. She smiled. “Whereas Labour kind of has the opposite.”

The ranks of the Greens, like Labour, have swelled since the referendum. Many are the usual suspects - Remainers still distressed about Brexit. But Lucas and Bartley believe they can tap into some of the discontent driving the Ukip vote in northern England.

“In Morecambe, I was chatting to someone who was deciding whether to vote Ukip or Green,” said Bartley. “He was really distrustful of the big political parties, and he wanted to send a clear message.”

Bartley points to an Ashcroft poll showing roughly half of Leave voters believed capitalism was a force for ill (a larger proportion nevertheless was deeply suspicious of the green movement). Nevertheless, the idea of voters moving from a party defined by border control to one that is against open borders “for now” seems counterintuitive. 

“This issue in the local election wasn’t about migration,” Bartley said. “This voter was talking about power and control, and he recognised the Greens could give him that.

“He was remarking it was the first time anyone had knocked on his door.”

According to a 2015 study by the LSE researcher James Dennison, Greens and Kippers stand out almost equally for their mistrust in politicians, and their dissatisfaction with British democracy. 

Lucas believes Ukip voters want to give “the system” a “bloody big kick” and “people who vote Green are sometimes doing that too”. 

She said: “We’re standing up against the system in a very different way from Ukip, but to that extent there is a commonality.”

The Greens say what they believe, she added: “We’re not going to limit our ambitions to the social liberal.”

A more reliable source of support may be the young. A May 2015 YouGov poll found 7 per cent of voters aged 18 to 29 intended to vote Green, compared to just 2 per cent of those aged 60+. 

Bartley is cautious about inflaming a generational divide, but Lucas acknowledges that young people feel “massively let down”.

She said: “They are certainly let down by our housing market, they are let down by universities. 

“The Greens are still against tuition fees - we want a small tax for the biggest businesses to fund education because for us education is a public good, not a private commodity.”

Of course, it’s all very well telling young people what they want to hear, but in the meantime the Tory government is moving towards a hard Brexit and scrapping maintenance grants. Lucas and Bartley are some of the biggest cheerleaders for a progressive alliance, and Lucas co-authored a book with rising Labour star Lisa Nandy on the subject. On the book tour, she was “amazed” by how many people turned up “on wet Friday evenings” to hear about “how we choose a less tribal politics”. 

Nevertheless, the idea is still controversial, not least among many in Nandy's own party. The recent leadership contest saw a spate of members ejected for publicly supporting the Greens, among other parties. 

“It was like a witch hunt,” said Lucas. “Some of those tweets were from a year or two ago. They might have retweeted something that happened to be from me saying ‘come join us in opposing fracking’, which is now a Labour policy. To kick someone out for that is deeply shocking.”

By contrast, the Greens have recently launched a friends scheme for supporters, including those who are already a member of another party. “The idea that one party is going to know it all is nonsense,” said Bartley. “That isn’t reality.”

Lucas and Bartley believe the biggest potential for a progressive alliance is at constituency level, where local people feel empowered, not disenfranchised, by brokering deals. They recall the 1997 election, when voters rallied around the independent candidate Martin Bell to trounce the supposedly safe Tory MP Neil Hamilton. Citing a recent letter co-signed by the Greens, the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru condemning Tory rhetoric on immigrants, Bartley points out that smaller parties are already finding ways to magnify their voice. The fact the party backed down on listing foreign workers was, he argued, “a significant win”. 

As for true electoral reform, in 2011, a referendum on changing Britain's rigid first past the post system failed miserably. But the dismal polls for the Labour party, could, Lucas thinks, open up a fresh debate.

“More and more people in the Labour party recognise now that no matter who their leader is, their chance of getting an outright majority at the next election is actually vanishingly small,” she said. “It’s in their interests to support electoral reform. That's the game changer.” 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.