State-sanctioned radicalism

The Greenpeace activists acquitted of criminal damage are not true protesters: they are part of a new caste of agitated bourgeois insiders.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics Politics UK

Environmentalists have hailed the acquittal of six Greenpeace protesters on charges of causing criminal damage at Kingsnorth power station in Kent, England, as a great leap forward.

The ‘Greenpeace Six’ scaled a smokestack chimney at the coal-fired power station in October last year, and daubed the word ‘Gordon’ on it. (They had planned to write ‘Gordon, bin it’ – as in ‘bin the burning of coal’ – but were caught before they could finish the job.) On Thursday last week, a jury at Maidstone Crown Court found the six not guilty of causing £30,000 of criminal damage on the basis that they had ‘lawful excuse’: that is, they were damaging property only to prevent damage to other property – in this case, to the planet.

We ought to respect the jury’s decision. Certainly we should reject the specious idea put forward by one climate-sceptical columnist, who argued that the jury’s not-guilty verdict shows the ‘terrifying… power of [green] brainwashing’ (1). However, we should be under no illusions that the Greenpeace action in Kent last year was any sort of true, meaningful, oppositional protest. Rather, this was a new form of state-sanctioned protest, or elite-agreed radicalism, which merely pits one section of the powers-that-be against another. It represented the denigration of protest, and the theft by elite elements of one of our most important freedoms: the freedom to demonstrate.

Green protesters still pose, somewhat embarrassingly, as radicals on the edge of society who are waging war against uncaring governments and corporations. In truth, they are better seen as the militant wing of the elite itself, as a kind of tambourine-bashing committee which reminds the authorities – sometimes through spectacular stunts – that they must remain true to their promise to curb CO2 emissions, rein in road-building and other forms of development, and re-educate the public about our bad habits of overconsumption.

The myth of green protesters as outsiders or oppositionists was well exposed during the Kingsnorth trial. One of the key witnesses for the defence was Zac Goldsmith, the millionaire son of the billionaire businessman James Goldsmith, and a Conservative Party prospective candidate for the super-leafy suburb of Richmond and adviser to David Cameron: not normally the kind of person who stands up for the right to fight back.

Another was James Hansen, the head of NASA’s space studies department and a science adviser to presidential candidate turned climate change king, Al Gore. In keeping with the undemocratic, essentially elitist nature of the Greenpeace protest, Hansen did not evoke the language of liberty or rights or people’s needs to justify Greenpeace’s alleged criminal damage; instead he claimed that the ‘scientific evidence’ proved it was legitimate for protesters to try to shut down power stations (2).

The protesters were also championed by much of the media. Their acquittal was greeted with frontpage splashes claiming: ‘CLEARED: Jury decides that threat of global warming justifies breaking the law’ (3). That these protesters were more like agitated insiders than radical outsiders was illustrated by Tony Juniper of Friends of the Earth, who argued after the verdict: ‘The Greenpeace campaigners claimed… their intention was to help avoid the costs and damages that would arise from future climate changes. That seems to me utterly consistent with the policy implications of the Stern Review.’ (4)

In short, the protesters represented not the spirit of the people or the spirit of radical change, but the spirit of that 700-page, government-published tome written by Lord Stern which called on British society to stop producing and consuming so much in order to help offset climate change (5). This was a Stern-authorised protest; the six campaigners who scaled the smokestack chimney were not acting on the authority of the people or of any disgruntled section of society, but on the authority of a Lord who has advised his government to do more to tackle climate change. They were the ‘criminal’ wing of the Stern Review.

This protest was part of an intra-elite argument about the extent to which British society should shrink its carbon footprint (all sides agree on the need to shrink the footprint). This is clear from Goldsmith’s evidence. He argued that there is a ‘gap between rhetoric and action’ in Gordon Brown’s government: ‘Brown has publicly acknowledged the seriousness of climate change [but] he has failed to deliver any real policies to tackle it.’ The role of the protest, he said, was to bridge the gap between this ‘rhetoric and action’ – that is, to remind Brown to stay on the Sternite path of large-scale CO2 reduction (6). The protesters were effectively throwing the book – the Stern book of CO2 catastrophism, that is – at the government, reminding ministers of their promise to implement the Stern recommendations and treat seriously the need to reduce CO2.

The stunt at Kingsnorth, carried out by a green group that is extremely well-connected and influential, was insider lobbying disguised as radical protest. Tellingly, Greenpeace tried desperately to present the protest as springing from some kind of social sentiment. It argued that the acquittal was ‘a potent challenge to the government’s plans for new coal-fired stations from jurors representing ordinary people in Britain’ (7). It is true, of course, that juries are an oasis of democracy in our legal system. Yet Greenpeace’s claim that it has the backing of ‘ordinary people’ doesn’t sit well with the fact that its protest was built exclusively on The Word of scientists, Stern and super-rich politicians like Zac Goldsmith. This was a transparent attempt to disguise an elite insider clash as something more democratic, to give a lick of profundity to a bourgeois squabble.

Over the past 10 years we have seen the rise and rise of green and consumer outfits that disingenuously present themselves as marginalised groups speaking on behalf of ‘the powerless’. In truth, many of these groups are intimately linked with the British establishment and are frequently key players in the corridors of power. Very often, their campaigns and protests win a great deal of adulation from the media and from public officials, and do not so much oppose illiberal or misanthropic government action as speed it up, sharpen its edge, push it forward in worrying new directions.

The symmetry of thinking between supposedly radical movements and government institutions has been striking. The anti-roads protesters of the early and mid-1990s still talk about themselves as an historic radical movement, on a par with the Luddites or the Levellers, which successfully stopped Conservative and Labour governments from building new roads. In truth, the British elite has for many years lacked the political will to overhaul Britain’s road infrastructure, and ‘concerns for the environment’ provided a useful platform from which it could abandon many of its road-building plans. Today we have government officials who have ‘ruled out more road-building as a solution’ (8). Likewise, the anti-GM protests of the late 1990s and early 2000s had the backing of Prince Charles, the heir to the British throne, and were exacerbated by the British government’s own lack of faith in, and interminable consulting on, these ‘possibly dangerous’ GM crops and foods (9).

The new protesting is the opposite of democratic protest. Indeed, it thrives on contemporary political disengagement and apathy. It is no coincidence that these new forms of consumer activism and green agitation have risen as traditional mass movements have declined and as political participation has waned. The more that politics becomes an elite, expert pursuit, evacuated by those ‘ordinary people’ Greenpeace claims to represent, then the more room there is for the rise of a new bickering class to demand that its friends in the corridors of power listen to its concerns and take them on board.

If anything, the new protesting elite is more backward than the traditional elite. All sides accept the misanthropic idea that the ‘human footprint’ is in some way a bad thing. Yet where the government must continually balance its scary pronouncements on climate change with an everyday need to get things done – generate energy, keep society moving, ensure people don’t starve – the even-more disconnected, unrepresentative caste of elite agitators has no such concerns. That is why someone like Goldsmith, ensconced in the offices of The Ecologist rather than in Whitehall, can call for the government to erase the distinction between rhetoric and action – because for him, rhetoric is all; the need to keep society ticking over is not an issue.

Cut off from the electoral process, and with no responsibility to a mass base of supporters, the elite agitators can now even commit acts of ‘criminal damage’ to make their point to their friends in power. What next? Will one section of the elite (Brownites) half-heartedly build a new power station, and another section (Sternites) blow it up? There is nothing remotely progressive in this. It is decadence; a disgusting display of disarray within the upper echelons of society. Worst of all, some of them have co-opted the right to protest, that key freedom which allows ‘ordinary people’ to challenge the powers-that-be from without. Who wants to claim it back, and use it to deal first with the snobbish agitators who falsely claim to represent us, and then the government officials who are selling us short?

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton in October. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

Rob Lyons accused the attendees at the Kingsnorth Climate Camp of uncritical conformity.Nathalie Rothschild described the protesters at last year’s Climate Camp as not-so-happy climate campers. Rob Johnston argued that nuclear, not wind is the answer to our energy problems. Joe Kaplinsky demanded that the government put a positive case for nuclear power. Or read more at spiked issue Energy.

(1) Greenwashing a jury, Spectator, 11 September 2008

(2) World’s leading climate scientist gives evidence, Greenpeace, 3 September 2008

(3) CLEARED: Jury decides that threat of global warming justifies breaking the law, Independent, 11 September 2008

(4) Policy, not protesters, should be on trial, Comment Is Free, 11 September 2008

(5) See A Stern lifestyle lecture, by Mick Hume

(6) See Zac Goldsmith’s evidence, Greenpeace

(7) Not guilty: the Greenpeace activists who used climate change as a legal defence, Guardian, 11 September 2008

(8) See Welcome to the stay-at-home society, by Brendan O’Neill

(9) See GM: where the science doesn’t count, by James Heartfield

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Politics UK

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