First Thoughts: Why Extinction Rebellion needs to engage with power

 Blocking streets sends the subliminal message that concerns about global heating belong to the fringes.

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My sympathies lie with Extinction Rebellion, which is blocking London streets as I write. But I fear that continually preventing Londoners from going about their lawful business will provoke more people to dismiss the protesters as, in Boris Johnson’s words, “uncooperative crusties” with “heaving, hemp-smelling bivouacs”. Perhaps the activists should take inspiration from the Eurosceptics. A decade ago, their cause scarcely registered on the public mind. Now they are on the brink of triumph. Despite the sometimes violent language, they did not achieve that by taking to the streets in fancy dress.

An election is likely soon. What are the activists doing about that? Will they organise behind candidates who promise to work for net-zero carbon emissions by 2025? Instead of getting themselves locked up, will they knock on doors and deliver leaflets? Blocking streets sends the subliminal message that concerns about global heating belong to the fringes. Extinction Rebellion will be effective when it engages with the sources of political power.

Disorderly queue

A message sent to the Spectator’s political editor by “a contact in No 10”, presumed to be the Prime Minister’s aide Dominic Cummings, states: “We will make clear privately and publicly that [EU] countries which oppose delay [beyond the 31 October Brexit date] will go to the front of the queue for future co-operation… Those who support delay will go to the bottom of the queue.” Such language was last heard from Barack Obama during the referendum campaign. He warned that, outside the EU, Britain would be at the back of the queue for US trade deals. US presidents can talk like that. When British ministers and aides imitate him, it suggests they are still living in the 19th century.

It sucks

Fox’s Glacier Mints are to be removed from my home town Leicester, where they have been manufactured since their invention in 1918. Along with Walker’s crisps and Everard’s beer, they were part of the furniture of my childhood: my father sucked them between his otherwise incessant smoking of cigarettes, cigars and pipes, frequently reminding me, with pride, that they were made in Leicester. The brand logo, Peppy the Polar Bear standing on a mint, was ubiquitous. Five unfortunate creatures were shot and stuffed for display at public events around the country.

When I researched how the mints had been wrenched from their natural home, I discovered a story of sales, mergers and takeovers. The original company, Fox’s Confectionery, was launched in Leicester in 1880 by Walter Fox, a wholesale grocer. His son, Eric, invented the mint. After nearly 90 years under family ownership, Fox’s was sold to the Halifax-based Mackintosh, also a family company, which was then merged with Rowntree’s. It was later owned consecutively by Nestlé, Northern Foods, Big Bear (formed by a management buyout financed largely by an Irish investment bank), Finnish company Raisio and, since 2017, Valeo Foods, which owns more than 50 food brands across Europe. Last year, Valeo acquired Tangerine Confectionery, a descendant – through another set of mergers and acquisitions – of Barratt, which created the Sherbert Fountain in 1925. Tangerine has its headquarters in Pontefract with factories there and in four other northern towns. Moving Fox’s makes perfect sense.

But not perhaps to Fox’s Leicester employees. Thousands of companies across the industrialised world have been on similar journeys over the past half-century, with changes of ownership accelerating over the years. Everything happens far above the heads of the people who depend on them for a living. No wonder “take back control” proved such a potent slogan.

The sex-abuse bandwagon

The police watchdog’s report on the handling of the case of Carl Beech (previously known as “Nick”), who falsely accused prominent figures of child sex abuse, is widely denounced as a whitewash. Beech’s claims always seemed to me implausible, mainly because they included orgies, murders and other lurid details. But before I join the chorus, I should attend to the mote in my own eye.

When I was deputy editor of the Independent on Sunday in the early 1990s, the paper exposed organised child abuse at children’s homes in north Wales, including Bryn Estyn. It named Gordon Anglesea, a former police superintendent, as one of the abusers. I advised against publication of his name. I was overruled. Anglesea, presenting himself as an old-fashioned copper inspired by TV’s Dixon of Dock Green, successfully sued for libel. I felt vindicated. In 2016, Anglesea was convicted of the abuse of two boys, one at Bryn Estyn, in the 1980s. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison, where he died a few weeks later. I felt less vindicated.

Over the past 40 years, allegations of mass child abuse – in Cleveland, Orkney, Jersey and north Wales to name just a few – have come at frequent intervals. Even years later, many facts are contested. The police have not learned how to distinguish between allegations they should believe and those they shouldn’t. But nor have journalists, still less the politicians who jump aboard bandwagons of outrage and blame.

Correspondence of calm

If you want a (almost) Brexit-free zone in newspapers, I recommend the Times letters page. Over its first seven editions this month, the paper’s readers discussed, in courteous, moderate terms, gender-neutral loos, unwanted marrows, groping male hands, girly swots, endangered chestnut trees, frayed shirt collars, vaping, rugby scrums and many other subjects. Only two letters mentioned Brexit. Unfortunately, the Times has a paywall. But even if it means giving a few pennies to its proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, do please enjoy this oasis of calm in a country that seems to become angrier by the day.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article appears in the 09 September 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The fantasy of global Britain