Starting Over

Britain’s direct action movements have become a force for cultural and even economic renewal

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 8th May 1996.

In February this year, climbing harnesses began to appear in clubs. Most of the wearers wouldn’t have known a karabiner from a caravan, and had never been to Newbury, Pollak, Exeter or Preston. The harnesses were, in other words, a fashion accessory, the highest tribute to the treefolk that an Eed-up, techno-deafened raver could make.

Direct action is as ancient an art as political repression. It was a part of life in Britain long before the Iceni faced up to the Romans, or William the Conqueror felt compelled to flay the impudent Northumbrians. But in the last two or three years it has achieved a cultural penetration that’s almost unprecedented. Direct action, as seldom before, is cool.

It is not hard to see why it resonates even with people who would never dream of defying the law. Most people in most parts of Britain are disaffected. They see little virtue in any political party and entertain few illusions about the gradual concentration of both economic and political power. Subtly, resentment is fuelled by the uncomprehending intolerance of those who have pulled up the drawbridge behind them, the Tory flag-wavers who have insulated themselves from the lives of others so successfully that they no longer perceive that there are people with needs more pressing than their own.

There is no longer a national project. The deregulation of corporate activities and public services has been accompanied by the increasing regulation of the citizen. Quangos and corporations are freer to alter our lives as they see fit, while, thanks to new laws and new enclosures, we have ever less freedom to challenge their presumption.

Paradoxically, the government has also prised open some of the political space in which the direct action movement has grown. By attacking teachers, doctors, the clergy and the judiciary, it has lifted the lid of deference and respect which helped restrain people from taking their destiny into their own hands. For good or for ill, the decline in the status of these professions has made room for home education, alternative medicine, animism and a home-made rule of law.

The direct action movement is multifarious and hydra-like, always branching, splitting and redefining itself, impossible to know fully, still less to contain. But two things seem to define its culture and politics. Like the Chartists and the Suffragettes, it is, at heart, an enfranchisement movement, seeking to regain some of the control which the state and corporations are perceived to have expropriated. It is also a movement that works in distinct opposition to the mainstream expressions of frustration and atomisation. The non-violence, reciprocity and general shagginess of so many direct activists is the antithesis of posturing aggressively outside the pub at closing time before screaming round town in a souped-up XR3. For this reason among others, it seems strange that the movement should be lamented by the police, rather than celebrated.

The direct action movement, in all its forms, has no trouble defining what it doesn?t like. But equally powerful are its positive influences. I remember sitting around a fire four years ago at Twyford Down and asking people who their heroes were. Heroes, I was told, had no place in this movement, but if they had to name anyone, it would be Nelson Mandela, Chico Mendes or Wangari Maathai. Just as the rebellions in Guinea, Mozambique and Angola catalyzed the fall of Portugal’s dictatorship, the politics of the most distant nations are beginning to affect our own. British direct activists find that the perspectives evolved by rubber-tappers confronting ranchers and roads, or black South Africans confronting an economy even more enclosed than our own, are both necessary and sufficient to explain our situation. A new analysis – of Britain as a Third World nation – has been added to a long tradition of subversion.

Last week I visited Stan Palmer, one of the people who, fifty years ago today, started the biggest squatting movement Britain has even known. A demobbed serviceman, he occupied the officers’ mess on the disused airbase at Berinsfield in Oxfordshire. Before long, hundreds of people had joined him. Around the country, 1000 sites were occupied by tens of thousands of families. I told Stan that the mass movement he had helped precipitate was inspirational, but he was astonished that anyone should be making a fuss about it today. All they were after, he told me, was homes. Moving into the empty buildings was simply the obvious thing to do.

Today, almost every direct action is embedded in an extensive political matrix. No description is more misleading than “single-issue politics”. The people who started the squatters’ estate agency in Brighton, just like those occupying the derelict land in London today, want to change the whole world, not just their tiny part of it.

Some of the issues this movement confronts are traditional. Land campaigns were common currency long before the Diggers took St George’s Hill in 1649; they have simply become more urgent as enclosure has progressed. Hunt sabotage has a long and grisly heritage, ranging from politically-motivated poaching to the direct assaults of the Waltham and Windsor Blacks. CND and the other de-armament movements can trace their heritage back to the 16th century campaign against the crossbow. There are even precedents for anti-roads activism, stretching back at least as far as 1715.

But others are products of the century. Animal rights campaigning is symptomatic of our loss of engagement in and influence over food production. As the government conspires in its own replacement, granting its corporate allies ever greater concessions, activists have stepped into the vacuum of accountability. There is scarcely a multinational company operating in this country which has not attracted campaigners. Hundreds of people have dedicated their lives to curtailing the activities of McDonalds, British Aerospace and Shell.

Direct activism in Britain is now inseparable from attempts at cultural and even economic renewal. The roads protests, Reclaim the Streets actions, Ploughshares campaigns and the New Luddites’ trials have all been accompanied by explosions of creativity, from the tree sculptures, ballads and pixie gardens of Newbury to the giant chess sets and dismembered mannequins of Claremont Road and the armoured sound system in Islington High Street. 1990s activists, finding that the newspapers and TV stations have often been reluctant to tell their side of the story, have also been attempting to reclaim the media, through websites, video newsreels and pirate radio stations. Local Exchange Trading Systems, organic box schemes and food co-operatives are used by protesters as a demonstration of how a sensible economy could work.

While the protesters are moving fast, the government’s response has been regressive and ill-judged. The 1994 Criminal Justice Act offers prescriptions and punishments which bear an uncanny similarity to those of the 1662 legislation designed to contain travellers, squatters, “masterless men”, Quakers and Levellers. In 1662 the law worked, not least because the movements it addressed were already in decline, while the strength of the reactionary state was growing. By contrast, perhaps because the movement is growing while the government is in disarray, the CJA has achieved exactly the opposite of what it set out to do. Far from eliminating Britain’s dissidents, by casting its net wide the Act has brought them together.

Today the direct action movement is making alliances that its protagonists could only have dreamt of in 1992. In Yorkshire and South Wales, double-dreaded Dongas have been linking up with unemployed coal miners to try to stop open-cast mining. In Brightlingsea and Shoreham the coalitions have been even less likely. Unlike Chartism, these are movements which transcend class and traditional loyalties. Once again, the world has been turned upside down. This time it may not be the state which comes out on top.