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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The future of policing is still at risk even after George Osborne's U-Turn

The police have avoided the worst, but crime is changing and they cannot stand still. 

We will have to wait for the unofficial briefings and the ministerial memoirs to understand what role the tragic events in Paris had on the Chancellor’s decision to sustain the police budget in cash terms and increase it overall by the end of the parliament.  Higher projected tax revenues gave the Chancellor a surprising degree of fiscal flexibility, but the atrocities in Paris certainly pushed questions of policing and security to the top of the political agenda. For a police service expecting anything from a 20 to a 30 per cent cut in funding, fears reinforced by the apparent hard line the Chancellor took over the weekend, this reprieve is an almighty relief.  

So, what was announced?  The overall police budget will be protected in real terms (£900 million more in cash terms) up to 2019/20 with the following important caveats.  First, central government grant to forces will be reduced in cash terms by 2019/20, but forces will be able to bid into a new transformation fund designed to finance moves such as greater collaboration between forces.  In other words there is a cash frozen budget (given important assumptions about council tax) eaten away by inflation and therefore requiring further efficiencies and service redesign.

Second, the flat cash budget for forces assumes increases in the police element of the council tax. Here, there is an interesting new flexibility for Police and Crime Commissioners.  One interpretation is that instead of precept increases being capped at 2%, they will be capped at £12 million, although we need further detail to be certain.  This may mean that forces which currently raise relatively small cash amounts from their precept will be able to raise considerably more if Police and Crime Commissioners have the courage to put up taxes.  

With those caveats, however, this is clearly a much better deal for policing than most commentators (myself included) predicted.  There will be less pressure to reduce officer numbers. Neighbourhood policing, previously under real threat, is likely to remain an important component of the policing model in England and Wales.  This is good news.

However, the police service should not use this financial reprieve as an excuse to duck important reforms.  The reforms that the police have already planned should continue, with any savings reinvested in an improved and more effective service.

It would be a retrograde step for candidates in the 2016 PCC elections to start pledging (as I am certain many will) to ‘protect officer numbers’.  We still need to rebalance the police workforce.   We need more staff with the kind of digital skills required to tackle cybercrime.  We need more crime analysts to help deploy police resources more effectively.  Blanket commitments to maintain officer numbers will get in the way of important reforms.

The argument for inter-force collaboration and, indeed, force mergers does not go away. The new top sliced transformation fund is designed in part to facilitate collaboration, but the fact remains that a 43 force structure no longer makes sense in operational or financial terms.

The police still have to adapt to a changing world. Falling levels of traditional crime and the explosion in online crime, particularly fraud and hacking, means we need an entirely different kind of police service.  Many of the pressures the police experience from non-crime demand will not go away. Big cuts to local government funding and the wider criminal justice system mean we need to reorganise the public service frontline to deal with problems such as high reoffending rates, child safeguarding and rising levels of mental illness.

Before yesterday I thought policing faced an existential moment and I stand by that. While the service has now secured significant financial breathing space, it still needs to adapt to an increasingly complex world. 

Rick Muir is director of the Police Foundation