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.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Tony Blair might be a toxic figure - but his influence endures

Politicians at home and abroad are borrowing from the former prime minister's playbook. 

On 24 May at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a short distance from where he once governed, Tony Blair resurfaced for a public discussion. Having arrived on an overnight flight, he looked drawn and puffy-eyed but soon warmed to his theme: a robust defence of liberal globalisation. He admitted, however, to bafflement at recent events in the world. "I thought I was pretty good at politics. But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it."

Blair lost power in the summer of 2007. In the ensuing nine years, he lost reputation. His business ventures and alliances with autocrats have made him a pariah among both the public and his party. A YouGov poll published last year found that 61 per cent of voters regarded Blair as an electoral liability, while just 14 per cent viewed him as an asset. In contrast, John Major, whom he defeated by a landslide in 1997, had a neutral net rating of zero. It is ever harder to recall that Blair won not one general election (he is the only living Labour leader to have done so) but three.

His standing is likely to diminish further when the Iraq inquiry report is published on 6 July. Advance leaks to the Sunday Times suggest that he will be censured for allegedly guaranteeing British military support to the US a year before the invasion. Few minds on either side will be changed by the 2.6 million-word document. Yet its publication will help enshrine Iraq as the defining feature of a legacy that also includes the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start, devolution and civil partnerships.

Former leaders can ordinarily rely on their parties to act as a last line of defence. In Blair’s case, however, much of the greatest opprobrium comes from his own side. Jeremy Corbyn inclines to the view that Iraq was not merely a blunder but a crime. In last year’s Labour leadership election, Liz Kendall, the most Blair-esque candidate, was rewarded with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The former prime minister’s imprimatur has become the political equivalent of the black spot.

Yet outside of the Labour leadership, Blairism endures in notable and often surprising forms. Sadiq Khan won the party’s London mayoral selection by running to the left of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies. But his successful campaign against Zac Goldsmith drew lessons from Blair’s election triumphs. Khan relentlessly presented himself as “pro-business” and reached out beyond Labour’s core vote. After his victory, he was liberated to use the B-word, contrasting what “Tony Blair did [in opposition]” with Corbyn’s approach.

In their defence of the UK’s EU membership, David Cameron and George Osborne have deployed arguments once advanced by New Labour. The strategically minded Chancellor has forged an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Peter Mandelson. In the domestic sphere, through equal marriage, the National Living Wage and the 0.7 per cent overseas aid target, the Conservatives have built on, rather than dismantled, significant Labour achievements."They just swallowed the entire manual," Mandelson declared at a recent King’s College seminar. "They didn’t just read the executive summary, they are following the whole thing to the letter."

Among SNP supporters, "Blairite" is the pejorative of choice. But the parallels between their party and New Labour are more suggestive than they would wish. Like Blair, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have avoided income tax rises in order to retain the support of middle-class Scottish conservatives. In a speech last August on education, Sturgeon echoed the Blairite mantra that "what matters is what works".

Beyond British shores, political leaders are similarly inspired by Blair – and less reticent about acknowledging as much. Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old centre-left Italian prime minister, is a long-standing admirer. "I adore one of his sayings,” he remarked in 2013. “I love all the traditions of my party, except one: that of losing elections."

In France, the reform-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the minister of economy, Emmanuel Macron, are also self-described Blairites. Macron, who in April launched his own political movement, En Marche!, will shortly decide whether to challenge for the presidency next year. When he was compared to Blair by the TV presenter Andrew Marr, his response reflected the former prime minister’s diminished domestic reputation: “I don’t know if, in your mouth, that is a promise or a threat.”

The continuing attraction of Blair’s “third way” to European politicians reflects the failure of the project’s social-democratic critics to construct an alternative. Those who have sought to do so have struggled both in office (François Hollande) and out of it (Ed Miliband). The left is increasingly polarised between reformers and radicals (Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos), with those in between straining for relevance.

Despite his long absences from Britain, Blair’s friends say that he remains immersed in the intricacies of Labour politics. He has privately warned MPs that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot in the event of a leadership challenge would be overruled by the National Executive Committee. At Methodist Central Hall, he said of Corbyn’s supporters: “It’s clear they can take over a political party. What’s not clear to me is whether they can take over a country.”

It was Blair’s insufficient devotion to the former task that enabled the revival of the left. As Alastair Campbell recently acknowledged: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour failed to outlive its creators.

It instead endures in a fragmented form as politicians at home and abroad co-opt its defining features: its pro-business pragmatism, its big-tent electoralism, its presentational nous. Some of Corbyn’s ­allies privately fear that Labour will one day re-embrace Blairism. But its new adherents would never dare to use that name.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad