If Not Now, When?

There are no excuses for not joining the protest against the Newbury bypass

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian, sometime in 1995

Ken Loach’s film Land and Freedom begins with a lecture by a propagandist for the Spanish Republicans. He shows his British audience footage of what the Fascists are doing, and explains that foreign troops are desperately needed to bring their atrocities to an end. At the end of his talk, men and women from the audience leave their chairs and crowd round to pledge their support. A few weeks later, they are crouching in the trenches of Aragon.

The battle of Newbury, like the fighting in northern Spain, exemplifies the hopes of those idealistic British people who claim that they want to make the world a better place. Like the Spanish Civil War, it is a struggle between those who wish to protect the nation’s resources for the benefit of everyone, and a coalition of landowners, big businessmen and right-wing politicians who want to annex them for themselves. Unlike the war, protesters at Newbury are not very likely to be blown to pieces.

Yet you, hypocrite reader, calling yourself green, perhaps even radical, lamenting the deficiencies of our transport policies and the destruction of the countryside, you who have seen the footage and heard the call, remain firmly rooted to your armchair.

There is no shortage of people like you. There are more than a million members of environmental groups in this country. According to MORI, 15 per cent of British people call themselves environmental activists. Nobody doubts that what is happening at Newbury is the most critical environmental battle ever to have been fought in Britain. It is exemplary not only because the proposed route traverses some of the most important wildlife habitats and archaeological remains in Britain, but also because the road scheme epitomises development of the kind that benefits only the developer.

We recognize projects like this when we read about dams in Malaysia or roads in the Amazon, nuclear power plants in the Philippines or plantations in Guatemala, but here on our doorsteps the case could not be clearer. Defying the findings of a Select Committee and the recommendations of a Royal Commission, requiring the short-circuiting of a public enquiry, the hasty pre-emption of two European directives and the premature termination of both a review and a government-initiated public debate, this project has forfeited any claim to accountability several times over. Its main purpose will have been fulfilled by the time the tarmac is laid – it pays off the political debts owed to certain prominent fund-raisers and party loyalists.

In other words, the time for sitting around and fantasising about what you would do if you were a native of Sarawak or an Amazon rubber-tapper is over. Anyone with eyes to see knows it is time for action. So why are you, armchair activists, leaving this critical struggle to a handful of cold, hungry and impoverished tree-dwellers?

Your first excuse is that you have work to do. But is it really so critical, does it really serve such urgent human needs that you can’t take a day or two off? You are, understandably, worried about getting arrested. But the police have to give you a clear warning before charging you with aggravated trespass – the choice of whether to get nicked or not is yours. You’ll almost certainly get yourself photographed, but the worst they can do is injunct you from the site – hardly a problem if you weren’t intending to stay there anyway. There’s also very little violence at the moment, so you’re unlikely to get hurt.

You feel that one person counts for little, and there’s scarcely any chance of stopping the bypass anyway. Well, there certainly isn’t while you sit glued to the TV. But the government is teetering over this project. What it needs to see is numbers, especially of respectable-looking people.

It’s cold, you say. It is, but if you’re worried about it, think of the guy who spent 16 days up a tripod. In truth, of course, there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing. You’re anxious that the protesters are a rough bunch, and you don’t know anyone there who can introduce you to them. Well, they’re the most diverse group of people you’re ever likely to encounter – ranging all the way from the wholly crusty to the impeccably conventional. In charged situations like this you make friends quickly, even with the most unlikely people. And if you think turning up at Newbury puts you beyond the Pale, look at the list of organizations on this page urging you to go.

All that is needed for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing. Where are you, and what are you doing?