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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

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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