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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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Theresa May's "clean Brexit" is hard Brexit with better PR

The Prime Minister's objectives point to the hardest of exits from the European Union. 

Theresa May will outline her approach to Britain’s Brexit deal in a much-hyped speech later today, with a 12-point plan for Brexit.

The headlines: her vow that Britain will not be “half in, half out” and border control will come before our membership of the single market.

And the PM will unveil a new flavour of Brexit: not hard, not soft, but “clean” aka hard but with better PR.

“Britain's clean break from EU” is the i’s splash, “My 12-point plan for Brexit” is the Telegraph’s, “We Will Get Clean Break From EU” cheers the Express, “Theresa’s New Free Britain” roars the Mail, “May: We’ll Go It Alone With CLEAN Brexit” is the Metro’s take. The Guardian goes for the somewhat more subdued “May rules out UK staying in single market” as their splash while the Sun opts for “Great Brexpectations”.

You might, at this point, be grappling with a sense of déjà vu. May’s new approach to the Brexit talks is pretty much what you’d expect from what she’s said since getting the keys to Downing Street, as I wrote back in October. Neither of her stated red lines, on border control or freeing British law from the European Court of Justice, can be met without taking Britain out of the single market aka a hard Brexit in old money.

What is new is the language on the customs union, the only area where May has actually been sparing on detail. The speech will make it clear that after Brexit, Britain will want to strike its own trade deals, which means that either an unlikely exemption will be carved out, or, more likely, that the United Kingdom will be out of the European Union, the single market and the customs union.

(As an aside, another good steer about the customs union can be found in today’s row between Boris Johnson and the other foreign ministers of the EU27. He is under fire for vetoing an EU statement in support of a two-state solution, reputedly to curry favour with Donald Trump. It would be strange if Downing Street was shredding decades of British policy on the Middle East to appease the President-Elect if we weren’t going to leave the customs union in order at the end of it.)

But what really matters isn’t what May says today but what happens around Europe over the next few months. Donald Trump’s attacks on the EU and Nato yesterday will increase the incentive on the part of the EU27 to put securing the political project front-and-centre in the Brexit talks, making a good deal for Britain significantly less likely.

Add that to the unforced errors on the part of the British government, like Amber Rudd’s wheeze to compile lists of foreign workers, and the diplomatic situation is not what you would wish to secure the best Brexit deal, to put it mildly.

Clean Brexit? Nah. It’s going to get messy. 

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