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1 May 2024

Farmer protests and Just Stop Oil are two sides of the same coin

The government has warmed to one group of protesters while clamping down on others.

By Priya Rajasekar

More than a hundred “go-slow” tractors, with a handful blaring their horns as they rolled past the Houses of Parliament, caught the nation’s attention last month. Farmers were protesting cheap imports, inaccurate food labelling and the environmental focus of the government’s farm payment scheme, which they claim puts their livelihoods at risk.

Just weeks ago, Rishi Sunak expressed solidarity with the protesters at a demonstration in Wales, but that did nothing to reassure angry farmers. At the time, the founder of the campaign group Save British Farming, called out the Prime Minister’s “gimmicky slogans” as a feeble bid to garner votes for the upcoming election.

And yet Sunak, who didn’t hesitate to show support for the farmer protests, has also led the Conservative government’s crusade to shrink public space for dissent on climate change. The latest in a slew of measures includes a recent ruling against the consent defence, which allowed protesters to argue that the owners of targeted private property would have consented to the protest’s act of damage had they known about the dangers of climate change. The UK has also recently tightened its anti-protest legislation by expanding policing powers to control the actions of groups like Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion.

Protests are made up of ordinary people calling for extraordinary attention and action.

They disrupt the state of play and, on occasion, when those in positions of power show their support the movement gains momentum. These can be academics, celebrities, lawyers, human rights activists or even politicians. Alongside powerful institutions of democracy, protesters – and the right to protest – preserve the fundamental rights of citizens in a democracy. With some protesters being cracked down on so harshly, the question is: what is at stake?

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Climate protests have been increasing in frequency all over the world in the past few years, including in the UK, Belgium, Germany, France and India. Whether its farmers’ coming together to protest against pro-net zero measures, or climate groups such as Just Stop Oil, Les Soulèvements de la Terre and Fridays for Future out on the streets, these are two sides of the same coin.

Protest groups are often treated poorly and ridiculed by wider society. But they are not out on the streets for fun – they feel they have no choice. What we really need is for governments to act. Both the farmers’ movement and climate activists, though they might seem in opposition to each other, have the same goal: a liveable future in which we are protected from escalating climate change.

These protests are about livelihoods, poverty, food and social security, climate change, unfair trade practices and geopolitics.

Some of these aligned issues have been raised by climate protesters for decades. What is being framed as a protest against climate action is really a protest against the unjust transition. People are feeling left behind.

Climate protesters are compelled by their moral and political motivations. However, when the status quo is the very cause of worsening inequalities and social injustice, then a call to action through peaceful protest becomes a civic duty. This includes steps to awaken the consciousness of public institutions, businesses, the media and consumers.

Governments backtracking on net zero measures to gain short-term electoral advantage is a worrying trend. It is particularly alarming that, as Europe remains the fastest-warming continent in the world, efforts to pass a diluted version of the Nature Restoration Law were indefinitely postponed last month in the EU, as a response to farmer protests. In the UK, too, the ruling party has stepped back on its net zero ambition while approving gas projects that will further weaken the country’s response to the climate crisis.

The growing interest among businesses to lead the charge on lobbying for climate policies is its own form of activism. The power of business can be leveraged to force governments to act, and for policy mechanisms to be more responsive to the many threats we face. Businesses can benefit from protest movements that highlight problems they too are faced with.

Indeed, businesses need to go further and faster to support protest movements. Global supply chains are being constantly tested by climate breakdown.

Most tend to watch protest spectacles on television. But they should not be ignored. The perspectives of normal, hard-working people are critical – as they are the missing voices in the board room. Whether it’s the factory worker who will not speak up for fear of censure or losing their job, or the supply chain manager who will not make the move because it is better for their career to preserve the status quo.

Businesses have much to gain in the long term, in leveraging their power to urge politicians to protect the right to protest. In doing so, they are responding to the calls of ordinary people who are their most important allies.

A democracy is hollow without the right to dissent and protest peacefully. CEOs might not be taking to the streets themselves, but corporations face collapse too if they fail to recognise that profit-obsessed business-as-usual is no longer sustainable.

[See also: You’re not paying as much tax as you think]

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