The Women’s Institute and the Bolshevik tendency

If there are climate talks, then we must be marching. I’ve been coming to the big, annual <a href="h

If there are climate talks, then we must be marching. I’ve been coming to the big, annual Campaign Against Climate Change march for years, and it has been exponentially bigger every time. This year’s event on Saturday was no exception.

The focus of CACC is to press for international agreement on effective carbon dioxide emissions cuts. So, with the US holding this up ever since George Bush took power, the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square is always the focus of activities, either starting or ending the march.

This year, we began with a rally in the square. Seize the Day provided music between speeches from, among others, CACC vice presidents Norman Baker MP, Green MEP Caroline Lucas and writer George Monbiot. George’s speech was the most startling – he warned activists sternly against too much ‘doom and gloom’ in our campaigning.

He pointed out the disturbing fact that erstwhile climate deniers are changing their strategy and attempting to switch from blocking action by pretending there isn’t any problem into blocking action by painting climate change as too far gone to bother. With most sane people now in a mid-position where we recognise the problem at the same time as recognising a lot of really obvious solutions, he argued that we should tone down our rhetoric, be positive and get some action going at last - or we’d be just as culpable for the consequences. Harsh stuff, but it was something fresh we needed to hear.

On the more political side of things, Caroline Lucas warned Tony Blair that the time for delay and fudge was over. She said that failure to negotiate a fair and effective international treaty is morally negligent and called for real UK leadership in negotiations this week at climate talks in Nairobi.

Setting off for Trafalgar Square, I was struck by the vast range of different groups marching together. Along with the familiar CACC greenhouse, Friends of the Earth flags, a big Green Party contingent and of course our own Alliance Against Urban 4×4s' lollipop man, people dedicated to campaigning on individual issues were everywhere.

I tried to emulate John Reed, author of revolutionary epic ‘Ten Days that Shook the World,’ by collecting as many leaflets and postcards as possible and I now have a fine collection of literature from the likes of Plane Stupid, RoadBlock, Group Against Motorway Expansion, Airportwatch, World Naked Bike Ride, Rising Tide, the Vegan Society, Christian Ecology Link, Stop Stansted Expansion, Come Off It, and the DOVE campaign against the Newhaven incinerator (if I missed your group – sorry!)

Also notable was the rising number of political parties in the mix. I saw placards by the Greens, LibDems, Respect, Socialist Workers and even the Bolshevik Tendency being carried, and speakers from the platform at the Embassy also included Zac Goldsmith for the Tories and Labour MPs.

Arriving at Trafalgar Square, all thoughts of party politics were banished, however, as the CACC march joined thousands of people filling the square as part of the Stop Climate Chaos coalition’s ‘I-count’ rally. Groups supporting the coalition are an even more diverse collection than the activists on the march and include the Women’s Institute.

Instinctively piqued at the lack of real political fire coming from the actors, comedians and pop stars on the stage (no politicians were allowed on the bill), I tried to put my feelings aside at the sight of the huge crowd they had brought along to the day’s set of actions, many of whom wouldn’t have felt comfortable with the radical types outside the US Embassy.

Phil Thornhill, the founder of CACC, started this traditional day of action single-handed in 2001 after the USA pulled out of the Kyoto agreement, and it is the sign of a great achievement that this day is now both a mainstream and an international event, adopted by such a wide range of groups and nations.

Forty-eight countries around the world saw demonstrations on Saturday, including 90,000 in Australia and an inaugural event in Taiwan. Maybe soon we’ll see some results.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder