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Laurie Penny on Climate Camp: The revolution will be civilised

Does Climate Camp show us the future of youth activism?

It's very easy to make fun of hippies. It's so easy, in fact, that the press has largely elided the serious political project that has driven roughly 700 activists to gather outside the Royal Bank of Scotland's Edinburgh headquarters for Climate Camp. Unfortunately, hippies rarely make their critics' jobs harder. Early on a dazzling morning at the makeshift campsite, I am roused from my tent by what sounds like Pink Floyd's apocalyptic children's choir, grown up and grown tone-deaf.

The Climate Campers, most of whom seem to be puppy-eyed graduates in their mid-twenties, are rehearsing a version of Lady Gaga's "Poker Face" with the words agonisingly rewritten to detail RBS's role in financing the fossil-fuel industry. There are even hand actions.

From the outside, this week-long occupation looks suspiciously like a bunch of students harmlessly pratting about in a field -- but through the trees, we can see police in riot vans assembling. What are they afraid of?

Floppy fringe

In the daily consciousness-raising workshops, it becomes clear that the ideology of Climate Camp is impressively nuanced and uncompromising.

“You can't just stand around and shout: 'The system is fucked,'" says Sam, a shy 20-year-old who peers at the world from underneath a floppy fringe. "That's not politics, that's the absence of politics. We need to keep re-examining the interactions of money and power that brought us to this situation."

Climate Camp is ostensibly as much about anti-capitalism as environmentalism; RBS, which has bankrolled fossil-fuel extraction and is now under public ownership, is being targeted to raise awareness of the links between the two. However, some of the younger campers, having come of age during the worst recession in living memory, feel that the narrative around climate change needs to be more revolutionary.

“Most governments and big businesses have now accepted that we need to tackle climate change," explains Sam, as we share a filthy roll-up and a surprisingly delicious plate of vegan mess. "For them, though, that's just about protecting private property. We have to get the message across that climate change is caused by capitalism -- and you can't fix one without fixing the other." Some of the protest stunts border on silly -- marching a papier-mâché pig full of oil through central Edinburgh, for instance -- but the daily life of Climate Camp is just as important as the direct action.

With gruesomely wholesome reclaimed toilets and chores distributed between all comers, this is more than a campsite -- it's a model community built on sustainability and a lack of hierarchy, and the campers are extremely serious about the praxis of the place. "I'm not just here to protest," says Annabel, a special-needs teacher working on site security. "I'm here to up-skill in tools I can use for life in a world without oil and hegemony."

These are kids who have grown up with structured after-school clubs, summer camps and activity goals -- and they are now applying that ethos of managed attainment to their own microcosmic utopia. They may have dreadlocks and may be wearing flowers in their hair but these are not the shambling activists of the 1960s. Everyone is sober and in bed by midnight, and there's no room for mucking about -- we've got to be up in time to save the world.

Future activism

The next day, after mobilising their legal observers and arriving at a democratic action consensus via an arcane process of wiggly hand signals, the campers don biohazard suits and march to RBS headquarters for the first stunt of the day. Expressions of grim commitment belie the cheery carnival atmosphere. Like a genteel, fusty Anglican congregation, the Climate Campers would probably prefer a cup of tea and an awkward sing-song to fire and brimstone any day of the week -- but should the necessity arise, they are quite prepared to lay everything on the line for what they believe.

These serious young people did not grow up in the carefree 1960s: they know what a criminal record could do to their job prospects in today's treacherous economic climate. Nonetheless, they storm the bridge, pushing the police out of the way. At the time of writing, at least 12 people have been arrested -- and, according to legal observers, two have been hospitalised following alleged police brutality.

This is the future of youth activism in Britain: decked out in silly costumes and socialist ideals, intelligent, iconoclastic and willing to take on the system no matter the cost. As the Climate Campers approach, police are mustering outside the glittering glass of the RBS headquarters. Perhaps they are right to be nervous.

This piece appears in the current issue of the New Statesman.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 30 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Face off

Photo: Getty
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Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.