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10 May 2022

Protest curbs put power above people

National security is not contrary to climate activism, it depends on it.

By India Bourke

The UK government could have used the Queen’s Speech to warn – as scientists have done today (10 May) – that the world only has a perilous “50-50” chance of staying within a safe limit of global warming. Alternatively, it could have taken the opportunity to announce action to reduce the country’s dangerous and expensive fossil fuel emissions (a new home insulation programme would have been a good place to start).

Instead, the Conservative administration clamped down further on those calling out the urgent need for reform. In other words, it chose to turn off the fire alarm instead of putting out the fire.

A new Public Order Bill, announced in today’s parliamentary address, will propose a further wave of anti-protest measures. The legislation looks set to make criminal offences the act of “locking-on” (in which protesters attach themselves to something or someone so it is difficult to remove them from a place of protest) and interfering with key national infrastructure, such as trains or power stations. The former could potentially include anything as simple as locking arms, while the latter has been a staple of successful environmental protests in the past – such as Greenpeace’s 2007 occupation of the Kingsnorth power plant (the activists involved were cleared of causing legal damage on the grounds of a climate defence).

Stop and search in relation to protest, without grounds for suspicion, will also be back on the table under the new bill. As will “serious disruption prevention orders”, which could prevent some individuals from attending protests at all. “These are dictator’s powers,” warned Dave Timms from the NGO Friends of the Earth. “The potential for the mass harassment of protesters could deter concerned, law-abiding people from entirely legitimate and peaceful protests. Especially for communities who are the most policed already, such as younger people and people of colour.”

The government already attempted to squeeze the above measures into its recently passed Policing Bill, but, as late amendments, they were thrown out by the House of Lords. Now, these measures have returned through the Public Order Bill, and will be much harder to oppose. So why rush to introduce further restrictions when there has not yet even been time to enforce the Policing Bill (let alone to scrutinise it)?

One answer is that the move is part of a wider, draconian attempt to secure power by suppressing dissent. “From restrictions on protest to scrapping the Human Rights Act, this is all part of the government’s continued attempts to rewrite the rules so only they can win, and prevent ordinary people from having their say,” said Sam Grant, head of policy and campaigns at Liberty. And dissent over the country’s climate record is certainly widespread: protesters have felt the need to glue themselves to fuel pumps in recent weeks, and two environmental groups are currently taking the government to court over its net zero strategy. 

Caroline Lucas, a Green Party MP and its former leader, went as far as to say that today’s measure “was not a public order bill – it was a public oppression bill. Our right to peaceful protest should be protected, not attacked, and it’s a mark of shame on this government for bringing back these dangerous proposals. This illiberal and anti-democratic bill is the embodiment of a Tory party which is hell-bent on increasing its own powers, while turning a wilfully blind eye to the biggest crises of our time.”

And yet, just because the government wants to stifle climate protesters doesn’t mean it will succeed. Last winter, the ecologist Emma Smart spent two months in prison after taking part in an Insulate Britain road block. “Personally, I’m not frightened of going to prison, I’m frightened of my five-year-old niece growing up in a world where they face crop failure and worsening climate conditions,” she said. “We don’t want to be disrupting people, but we are trying to prevent the biggest crisis humanity has ever faced.”

Ultimately, the government’s protest crackdown seems bent on perpetuating a false opposition between national security and “disruptive” climate activists. They fail to see that national security in fact depends on the success of climate activists. As none other than the UN secretary-general António Guterres warned this April: “Climate activists are sometimes depicted as dangerous radicals. But the truly dangerous radicals are the countries that are increasing production of fossil fuels.” By this logic, it is currently the government, not protesters, who are in need of arrest.

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