How Extinction Rebellion’s “Holyrood Rebel Camp” exposed the SNP’s lack of radicalism

The environmental movement is upholding the Scottish left’s honourable tradition of non-violent direct action. 

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Early last week, Tristan, a gardener in Leeds, heard from friends of friends in the Extinction Rebellion movement that something was happening in Scotland. He managed to move some shifts around and travelled to Edinburgh, where he joined over a hundred people from across Scotland, the UK and some further afield — one woman even travelled from Italy — to establish the “Holyrood Rebel Camp” outside the Scottish parliament. The camp, whose dozens of tents nestled amongst a copse of trees in Holyrood’s landscaped front garden, served as the base of operations for a week of disruptive protest as the Scottish government’s climate bill was debated.

Tristan was following in the footsteps of an earlier generation of young radicals who travelled to Scotland to take non-violent direct action against what E.P. Thompson called “exterminism”, though in their case it was the species-level threat of nuclear weapons. Anti-nuclear activists from across the UK camped out with kayaks on the shores of Holy Loch on Scotland’s west coast, where American Polaris nuclear submarines were based from 1961. Every time a sub or ship entered the sea loch, at least one kayak would shoot out from the shore, racing to board the vessel before American “frogmen” — permanently on duty for that very purpose — could tackle them into the freezing water. Captain Lanin, who commanded the USS Proteus, famously described the kayakers as “just a bunch of goddamn Eskimos”, securing them a place in the Scottish musical canon through folk songs like “The Eskimo Republic” and “The Glesca Eskimos”.

It wasn’t subs that Extinction Rebellion were disrupting last Monday but cars, as a group of carefully selected and briefed “arrestables” lay down at rush hour in the middle of Lothian Road, one of Edinburgh’s busiest streets, connected together by “arm-lock” tubing. Simultaneous attempts elsewhere in the city were less successful, as hordes of police took advantage of Edinburgh’s impetuously windy conditions and a suspiciously intimate knowledge of the protestors’ plans to block similar actions on George IV Bridge and North Bridge, two crucial thoroughfares between Edinburgh’s “Old” and “New” Town.

The goal was to draw attention to the environmental movement’s criticism of the Scottish government’s new emissions reduction targets. The SNP’s plans to achieve net-zero emissions by 2045 are relatively ambitious compared to other countries, and based on the recommendations of the UK government’s expert Committee on Climate Change. Extinction Rebellion, however, are calling for net-zero by 2025 and other environmentalist groups are focusing on the more achievable date of 2040. But the biggest concern is over the emissions target for 2030.

The UN’s agenda-setting IPCC report suggests that the next decade is nothing less than humanity’s last chance to stop climate change from becoming an unprecedented global catastrophe. If emissions are not radically reduced by the end of it, food supplies and whole ecosystems will collapse, and mass drought, flooding and wildfire will affect vast swathes of the planet, disproportionately harming the global South, the working class, women and everyone else marginalised by the current political and economic system. The knock-on effects of all this on those systems will be just as dire, as states and the super-rich take extreme measures to try and retain control.

The UK Committee on Climate Change, however, reached their own proposed Scottish targets for 2030 by simply drawing a straight line between now and 2045, claiming that there was not enough data available to go into more detail within the legislative timetable. The result — if these targets become law — is that only 4 per cent more emissions cuts will be made between now and 2030. Professor Kevin Anderson, one of the UK’s leading climate change experts, has called for a much more robust target for Scotland of an 86 per cent reduction by 2030, rather than the 70 per cent currently planned.

In this context, the campers outside Holyrood felt justified in causing some brief inconvenience for Edinburgh’s drivers last Monday. Polling suggests that Extinction Rebellion’s road-blocking activities in London last year contributed to a spike in public concern about climate emergency. Paddy, who lives in Edinburgh and was part of the Holyrood camp’s “wellbeing team”, emphasised the impact in Scotland: “Before London, nobody was talking about declaring a climate emergency… there were six people in [Holyrood] who voted yes to a Green amendment about a climate emergency, and then two weeks after London, Nicola Sturgeon announced it at the SNP conference.”

Sturgeon’s announcement did not match the urgency of the Greens’ proposal, which included a radical scaling-back of the North Sea oil industry. Scotland’s economy remains closely entangled with fossil fuels, from the sprawling infrastructure of oil to the petrochemical plant at Grangemouth, which gives the night sky above it a chemical glow that can be seen across much of Scotland’s “central belt” between Edinburgh and Glasgow. Beneath the central belt lie miles of disused mine shafts, buried reminders that the sudden closure of another, older fossil fuel industry certainly didn’t feel like global salvation to the people whose communities depended on it.

While the Holyrood Rebel Camp was packing up on Thursday, a meeting organised by the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) in Fife was discussing the fate of the “BiFab” fabrication yards in Methil and Burntisland. BiFab initially equipped the oil and gas sectors but moved into supplying the renewables industry, serving as a potential success story for the “just transition” from fossil fuels to green energy promoted by environmental activists and trade unionists alike. The yards currently sit unused, however, and the one in Burntisland glares accusingly at Edinburgh from the opposite coast of the Firth of Forth. While the energy company EDF has plans to build an offshore wind farm on the Fife coast, the contracts for making the turbine jackets may instead be awarded to Indonesia.

The STUC’s campaign is called “Ready for Renewal” and demands that the fabrication work be kept in Fife instead. This proposal is targeted at EDF, but the last time BiFab closed down, in November 2017, the Scottish government stepped in to broker a temporary fix. The latest crisis is a sign of the government’s growing helplessness as the long-term offshoring of Scottish economic ownership lethally combines with an accelerating shift away from what’s left of the country’s oil-fired industrial base. Gary Smith, the Scottish secretary of the GMB union, which represents many of BiFab’s workers, has fulminated against what he perceives to be a failure by Scottish environmentalists to engage with the dangers of allowing renewable energy to take over without bringing any jobs with it.

Did Extinction Rebellion’s Edinburgh antics risk intensifying such tensions? In a recent blog on her personal website, the former Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale lamented that the traditional rallies and marches favoured by organisations such as the STUC often receive little attention from government, while Extinction Rebellion’s more disruptive activities attracted several MSPs and party leaders, including Dugdale’s successor, Richard Leonard.

Dugdale, who recently appeared on ITV’s I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here! while serving as an MSP, described the camp as a “hippy holiday”. “Dancing the Gay Gordon’s,” she wrote, “and seeking to undertake ‘acts of civil disobedience with the risk of arrest’ is not going to convince the joiner in Leith to only eat meat once a week, or a millennial to ditch their Ryanair habit.”

I happen to know two joiners in Leith, both of whom are committed environmentalists, but that’s beside the point; several of the campers I spoke to acknowledged that there are valid criticisms to be made of Extinction Rebellion’s ability to represent wider Scottish society and culture. But raising awareness, as they have done, is surely not a failure, and neither is their escape from the dead end of individual consumer activism. If the traditional modes of protest are not working, then it is to their credit that they are successfully trying out alternatives.

The most predictable criticism of the Rebel Camp, however, was that they were a bit too quirky, and risked alienating “normal” people from the cause. This is nothing new. When CND camped out on the shores of Holy Loch in the early 1960s, some residents of Dunoon, the nearby town, staged small counter-protests with signs reading “Weirdies Go Home.” The Communist Party’s Daily Worker newspaper regularly denied involvement in the protests of these “so-called ‘weirdies’” — bearded radical students derided in the mainstream press and rejected as English outsiders by the local community. They insisted instead on the predominance of “ordinary men and women from the factories, housewives with their children, a liberal sprinkling from the professions and hundreds of young, patriotic Scots who love their country.”

When I first saw Paddy, he was wearing a full-body skeleton costume, face-paint and all, and leading a diverse array of people in a costumed “dance of the dead” through the camp accompanied by a small brass section; a symbolic nod to the terminal importance of our new exterminism. The dance was partly a way of getting attention, and encouraging people to get involved with the camp through fun activities that didn’t mean getting arrested. Yet it also reflected Paddy’s formal role ensuring the wellbeing of the people involved; every exhausted organiser I spoke to rolled their eyes at the suggestion it had been a “holiday” and stressed the value of the sillier activities in the “regeneration” of campers after hours spent lying down in the road and being swarmed by police.

I spoke to Kate, a retired veteran of CND camps at Greenham Common and Faslane, who had commuted to the camp from her home in Berwickshire every day. When her own group’s attempted road shutdown on Monday didn’t go well, it “was hugely demoralising, but we heard that the one at Lothian Road had worked, so we all went over there. We stood out in the street and just sang. So it was fantastic.”

“Weird” as it all was, the most striking thing about the camp was how easily its cheeky land-grab slotted into the architecture of contemporary Scotland. Enric Miralles, the Scottish parliament’s Catalan architect, devoted an enormous amount of attention to the landscaping of the parliament’s grounds. In early summer, the area that was used for the camp is normally teeming with tourists, students and workers from nearby offices eating lunch or just sitting around; children paddle in its shallow, abstract lochans and clamber over dunes of bright, curved concrete and grass. With the camp superimposed upon it, however, it was lifted into a near-perfect civic space, where a small “People’s Assembly” marquee, a food tent and other arts and activities spaces slotted into its angles and curves as if it was made for them.

It clearly was made for them; the heart of the camp was a subtle, three-sided amphitheatre that I’d barely noticed before, which hosted music, dancing and thorough interrogations of politicians. Sitting inside it, you find yourself gazing up at the massive, precipitous Salisbury Crags on one side, and the parliament’s own weird, angular facade on the other, a fusion of contemporary history and deep geological time that suits our anthropocene moment. The landscape designer Charles Jencks praised Miralles’ design for the way it “creates an iconology of references to nature and the locale, using complex messages as a substitute for the one-liner. Instead of being a monumental building, as is the usual capital landmark, it nestles its way into the environment, an icon of organic resolution, of knitting together nature and culture into a complex union.”

The immense, terrifying challenge of navigating a whole society safely out of climate emergency — encompassing everything from securing jobs and industry to blocking roads and “regenerative” dancing — seems to demand another “complex union”, in this case of “weirdie” radicalism and stern, on-the-ground pragmatism.

This is not at all alien to Scottish politics: reflecting in 2000 on the birth of the Scottish parliament, which is exactly twenty years old next month, the sociologist Lindsay Paterson argued that the campaigns for devolution always contained a similar tension between “utopians” and “realists”. The SNP’s lack of radicalism in the face of climate emergency (and much else) suggests that the playful seriousness of the Rebel Camp on their doorstep has been suppressed for too long. If the latter can be meaningfully united with the urgent realism of the Ready for Renewal campaign, then perhaps the Scottish left might come out of its renewed struggle against exterminism with more than a handful of folk songs to show for it. 

Rory Scothorne is completing a PhD on the relationship between the Scottish radical left and nationalism, and is the co-author of Roch Winds: A Treacherous Guide to the State of Scotland.