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Laurie Penny: Lessons from the Pope Protest

Now the Pope has gone home, the left needs to rediscover the courage of its convictions.

The atmosphere amongst the liberal left in the aftermath of the Pope's state visit to Britain calls to mind the uncomfortable eye-avoidance that takes place after someone suddenly turns the lights on at an orgy. Yes, we had a lot of fun, and we probably got rather carried away, but we're not overly keen to discuss it the next morning and we might well hesitate before leaping into any more messy entanglements with gay rights, feminism and anti-state activism.

The protest itself was a joyful chorus of self-congratulatory liberal paralysis. As bagfuls of naughty blown-up condoms floated up into an azure Piccadilly sky, central London thundered with the sound of twenty thousand broadly centre-left Britons failing to make up their minds about why they were there. Some of the printed-out slogans bemoaned the extra public expense of lugging the Popemobile around the country; some complained about homophobia, others about the oppression of women, but never too impolitely. There was, in fact, a horrific delicacy about this collective mumble, as if to make any real, overarching complaint about regressive state and religious indoctrination would be, well, a little tasteless.
'It's fantastic that there's a protest," said queer theorist James Butler, who I met in the crowd, "but it's telling that the only thing being chanted with any enthusiasm is 'Pope Go Home!' That sentiment seems less about creating real change than registering a formal objection while retaining the status quo."


Well, the Pope has now gone home, as he was always planning to. Hurrah. Well done us. Unfortunately, homophobia, misogyny, bigotry, intolerance and abuse have not gone home with the Pope.

The impulse towards egalitarianism and collective rationality that nominally brought twenty thousand liberals to Piccadilly last week should not now be permitted to disperse like incense in an empty church. It's vital that the left remembers that for many of us, there was more to this demonstration than the chance to stand around central London wearing pink paper mitres and making unhelpful jokes about men in dresses.
Even more dispiriting than the silly-hat brigade was the peevish fixation, by way of speeches, slogans and placards, on the cost of the Papal visit. Even Peter Tatchell and the Secular Society chose to focus attention on the twelve million pound bill to the state, in this new age of austerity, seemingly in order to rally the disparate strands of popular anti-papism into one miserly chorus of public annoyance.

This type of shoddy reasoning panders entirely to the clunky conservative line on the necessity of public sector cuts, and implies that, in this instance, liberal Britain would have been entirely happy to host the anointed head of an organisation which has covered up institutional child-rape, opposed women's rights and promoted homophobia across the globe if only it hadn't been so jolly expensive.

Packaging our ideology in the language of financial prudence is a dangerous move for the left, not only because it allows the conservative right to set the agenda, but because meaningful social change is rarely part of any state's five-year budget. Consider the declaration this week by Ben Summerskill, head of LGB campaigning group Stonewall, that his organisation plans to abandon its lobby for marriage equality for homosexuals - because it would be too expensive for the government to implement.

Many LGBT activists justly make the case that the right to form family units of which Iain Duncan Smith would approve should not be the primary focus of the queer movement when homophobic attacks and murders are still taking place up and down the country. Nonetheless, equal legal recognition within a flawed system is an important first step for liberation movements, and I for one will march until my feet bleed for the right of gay and bisexual men and women to bugger up their lives just as frivolously as straight couples. Moreover, being the public face of safe, unthreatening homosexuality is Stonewall's job - but nothing in that job description includes the caveat: "we'd like our human rights, but only if you're absolutely sure you can afford to splash out on us."

It's worth remembering the most positive social revolutions in history, large and small, have all come at cost to the state. Britain, after all, couldn't really afford to stop trading in slaves. We couldn't afford votes for women, or universal suffrage. We certainly couldn't afford to institute a welfare state and universal healthcare just after a world war that left our national deficit at several times the level it is today. Those battles were fought and won because a few brave social innovators believed that justice and progress were more important than balancing the books.

Radical, useful social change does not wait around for those in power to decide that they can afford it. It does not shrink from genuine confrontation to stand at the sidelines sniping about funny hats and fancy frocks. Radical, useful social change is always uncomfortable, it's always expensive, and it always involves an element of personal risk for those who take up the banner. The left needs to stop pandering to conservative parochialism and remember the courage of its convictions.

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

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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry insiders imply that job creation in the UK could rival that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs the industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that fracking is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we are only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.