A consummate example of peaceful British protest, this summed up the absence of an electoral mandate for the Prime Minister’s unpopular new policies. And as if to underline the gap between this orderly act of disruption and the Conservatives’ political chaos, the protesters even brought a spare banner.
The technical answer to the banner’s question is 0.3 per cent of the population. As my colleague George Eaton points out, this is the number of Conservative Party members who selected Liz Truss over Rishi Sunak as their leader in this summer’s internal election (81,326 individuals).
But behind the question is a wider message to government: policies which threaten to weaken protections for climate, communities, habitats and wildlife are uniting green interests around the country like never before. People and groups from across the political spectrum have been prompted to come out against aggressive deregulation and in favour of a greener future, from opposing fracking to demanding support for nature-friendly farming.
Instead of fuelling a green culture war, Truss’s growth-at-any-cost agenda could inadvertently help to end it. When she accused an “anti-growth coalition” of standing in the way of economic development she only cited Greenpeace and Extinction Rebellion, but organisations as wide-reaching as the National Trust, the RSPB and the CPRE, the Countryside Charity, are all up in arms over the threats that deregulation poses.
“This disingenuous ‘anti-growth coalition’ rhetoric ignores rural communities up and down the country who have heartfelt concerns about the government’s agenda,” the CPRE told reporters after the speech. “It’s not eco-protesters organising the resistance to fracking, it’s ordinary people who are furious at what they see as a litany of betrayal and broken promises.”
The audacity of some of the government’s proposals has emboldened campaigning organisations. Charities such as Greenpeace do not lightly risk their ability to attend future party conferences by staging protests, and no similar stunt was attempted during the speeches of Boris Johnson. Similarly, the RSPB, the UK’s largest nature conservation charity, is not in the habit of making targeted political statements on Twitter. “Make no mistake, we are angry,” it wrote after announcements that new “investment zones” could strip away environmental protection laws. This includes, it now seems, inside national parks and sites of special scientific interest).
Truss’s “anti-growth coalition” is thus fast becoming a movement everyone wants to be part of. It is also a misnomer. Far from opposing growth, green groups are in fact the ones putting forward plans for a truly sustainable economic future, from home insulation to healthy soils. What they are opposed to is growth at any cost.
At a global scale too, the need for a greener approach to thinking about growth has never been greater. Even the International Monetary Fund said this week that there was an “overwhelming” case for tackling climate change urgently, with the short-term cost to GDP being “dwarfed” by the long-term benefits to productivity, stability and health. Many models for reaching the Paris Agreement’s climate goals also rely heavily on largely unproven technologies or land-intensive means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions; economic thinkers such as Jason Hickel argue that this means “growth” needs to be rethought if net-zero emissions is to be achieved in a sustainable way.
Of course, there is still a way to go before the false divide between “eco-protesters” and “ordinary people” is banished for good. But previous campaigns against fracking showed the power that local individuals and national groups could have when they worked together, and they are likely to return ten times stronger.
As Labour’s new emphasis on green policy demonstrates, they, not the Tories, are now readying themselves to be rural England’s biggest parliamentary defenders. In coining the “anti-growth coalition”, Truss has only made that transition all the easier.
[See also: Why King Charles must speak at Cop27]