The direct action movement is putting the passion back into politics
By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 11th January 1996.
The Newbury protesters were faced with an almost impossible situation. They knew that 400 security guards were due to move onto the route of the bypass on Tuesday, yet only 30 people were on hand to stop them. Reinforcements were coming from other parts of the country, but they wouldn’t arrive in time.
Their response contained something of the blazing effrontery with which Orde Wingate’s handful of men captured 15,000 Italians in Abyssinia. Having found the farm, ten miles away, where the guards had been secretly billeted, they turned up just after the company’s transport arrived and straddled the lane with their scaffolding tripods. If one leg of a tripod were moved, the occupant would fall to his death. They used their only effective weapon – their vulnerability – to devastating effect.
Whatever one makes of the ethics of non-violent direct action, it would be hard not to admire such tactics. Creative genius seems to be a property of the movement, whose strategy has frequently left its stronger opponents spluttering.
Without such resourcefulness, it could neither progress politically nor maintain its commitment to non-violence. As evidenced with tedious regularity at Socialist Workers’ Party and Class War gatherings, violence fills the gap when creativity fails. When activists are unable to channel their frustration into invention, the urge to throw paving stones can become irresistible.
Like increasing numbers of young people, many of the protesters feel that mainstream politics has left them in the cold. They see the concerns of Westminster as wholly apart from their own, and believe that none of the political parties either understands or cares for the fate of those who have been gradually excluded from work, benefits, representation and physical space. Young people and politics mix well, but in Britain they have tended to keep away from each other. The poll tax knocked many off the electoral register; bafflement and cynicism have kept them away.
But the direct activists seem slowly to be leading themselves out of the wilderness of disenfranchisement. By working things out for themselves they have begun to engage with politics on the only terms they find acceptable – their own, rather than other people’s. Coming from a world apart from the town hall and the constituency association, they have been able to step lightly over problems the rest of us would see as insuperable.
Their self-education has spawned a multitude of monsters. Millienialist fantasies, cargo cults, conspiracy theories, tales of manifestations and alien abductions, crackle around the camp fires. Political awakening and half-baked religious syncretism often seem to be inseparable – last year a Hopi Indian woman was trying to discourage activists from bastardising her people’s rituals. While most of society is afflicted with an excess of discrimination, the protest camps seem to suffer from too little.
But out of this mess of wishful thinking and credulity is emerging not, as one might have expected, an acute form of the moral relativism infecting so many young people in Britain, but a system of thought which, as it sheds its excesses, is gradually accreting into a new and workable politics. For many people ill-served by this government, the protesters’ message is beginning to make more sense than the bulletins from Walworth Road.
The movement has frequently been described as a flowering of single issue politics, but only by those who have had little contact with its participants. Among the people swaying in the tree tops at Newbury, discussions range from transport policy to the detention of immigrants, through alternative currencies, press ownership, animal welfare, structural adjustment in the Third World, land reform, air pollution, housing policy and the judiciary. Road building is top of the list today, but when that battle is over, many of the activists will move on to something quite different.
Indeed, their range of interests often seems to be wider than those of our representatives. People of broken families, broken communities, a broken society, are, falteringly, idiosyncratically, beginning to make sense of the world once more, to put it back together in their heads again.
The issues championed by these protesters have steadily migrated from the fringes of other people’s concern towards the centre. Four years ago, when the first protestors arrived on Twyford Down, few people had paused to think twice about the roads programme. Within two years it had reached the front page of every national newspaper.
Whether it wins or loses at Newbury, there are plenty of political lessons to be learnt from the direct action movement. It has figured out how to command attention and how to alter the terms of a political debate. But most importantly it has rediscovered something the rest of us seem to have forgotten. It has learnt that the meek do not inherit the earth, but stand by while the presumptuous snatch it from them. If the disenfranchised of Britain are once more to become politically engaged, they must, like these activists, have the impudence to snatch it back.