Multi-issue Politics

The direct action movement is giving rise to a new and thrilling politics of empowerment

By George Monbiot. Published in the Times Literary Supplement 21st February 1997.

Bournemouth was the first town in Britain in which closed circuit television was installed in public places. In 1985, Bournemouth people welcomed it, but in the last few years some have begun to suspect that it is being used less for deterrence than for surveillance. One young man found that the cameras would swivel to follow him all the way to the shops and back, then rise to watch him in his flat. He investigated and discovered that, after 11 years, the government had still not issued any guidelines on the use of CCTV.

He might, like his neighbours, have simply drawn the curtains, made grumbling comparisons to 1984 and hoped the problem would go away, but he decided instead to get even. He set off down the Christchurch Road one night dressed as an eight-foot alien, equipped with latex tentacles and metal jaws. His friends secretly filmed him – and the cameras – from a balcony.

The cameras locked on as soon as he appeared. Within five minutes, two police cars skidded to a halt in front of him. The police got out, then realized there was nothing they could do but gawp. No crime had been committed, and no danger to the public was apparent. When the film the activists made appeared on Undercurrents – a direct action video newsreel – the authorities in Bournemouth became a national laughing stock. The cameras have stayed up, but they are a lot less frightening than before.

The alien invasion of Bournemouth appears at first glance to have little to do with the environment, still less to do with the massive environmental protests which have attracted so much publicity over the last four years. But, creative, grotesque, highlighting the expropriation of public space and the encroachment on freedom of movement, using video as a tool of protest, it owes everything to the environmental direct action movement. It is one of thousands of tiny local exploits promoted or inspired by the most explosive new political movement of the 1990s.

In one respect at least the movement is more like a religion than a political campaign: its origins are discrete. In March 1992, two New Age Travellers called Sam and Steff pitched camp on a chalk down near Winchester. They explored its remarkable archaeology and wildlife, and were pleased to discover that the hill was conserved by all the available landscape protection designations. So they were thunderstruck when a local rambler told them that the down was to be parted to make way for an extension of the M3.

For 20 years, local people had been politely campaigning to save Twyford Down. They had tried letter writing, petitions, submissions to the public inquiry, parliamentary lobbying and legal challenges. Now, they believed, the down was doomed. Sam and Steff refused to accept it. If petitioning had failed, they argued, then the real battle was surely about to begin: they must put themselves in the way of the work. Within days they were joined by others: travellers, environmentalists, students, pagans, even businessmen and Tory councillors, from all over the country. At first they were wildly successful. They rearranged the survey stakes, dug defensive trenches, chained themselves to the earthmovers and formed human barriers across the threatened landscape. As news spread, and the protesters distinguished themselves with feats of bravery – leaping onto moving machinery, throwing themselves down in the path of aggregate trucks – they won support from the most unlikely quarters, from local landowners to the European Environment Commissioner. When the Department of Transport hired hundreds of security guards to clear the way for the contractors, the protest finally reached the national newspapers.

Road protest camps soon sprung up at Pollok Park in Glasgow, in the Stanworth Valley near Preston, at Solsbury Hill near Bath, and along the route of the proposed M11 extension in east London. As they spread, non-violent direct action tactics seeped into other environmental campaigns. Protesters occupied timber yards and docks importing Brazilian mahogany. Bicycle and pedestrian blockades began in cities all over the country. Campaigners picketed McDonalds and delivered sacks of litter dropped by its customers back to the store. The movement was reviled by the government and the tabloids, and became a magnet for the young, the disaffected and the dispossessed.

At the 1993 Conservative Party Conference, Michael Howard announced a Criminal Justice Bill, which would create a series of new offences criminalising both peaceful protest and certain forms of homelessness. Crude, ill-drafted and repressive, it succeeded in uniting all the disparate factions whose interests or activities it threatened. Hunt saboteurs, peace protesters, football supporters, squatters, radical lawyers, gypsies, pensioners, ravers, disabled rights activists, even an assistant chief constable and a Tory ex-minister, joined the broadest, and oddest, counter-cultural coalition Britain has ever known.

By 1994, direct action was drawing huge crowds. An occupation at Twyford Down attracted 5000 people, the London rally called to protest against the Criminal Justice Act in October pulled in 100,000. Even hardcore Reclaim the Streets actions, blockading traffic and digging up roads, drew up to 10,000 protesters. The environmental campaign began to look more like an enfranchisement movement.

Twyford Down, protesters pointed out, was destroyed because there were no legitimate means of defending it. Public enquiries for trunk road schemes take place after the decision to build the road has been made: all the inquiry can discuss is where the road should go. Both the Department of Transport’s objectives and the potential alternatives to road building – such as public transport or traffic management – are ruled outside the inquiry’s terms of reference, and the department is both the promoter of the scheme and the final decision maker. Prompted by the Criminal Justice Act, campaigners began to see that a series of similarly glaring democratic and constitutional deficits underly our environmental crisis.

In 1994 and 1995, protesters occupied both the roof of the Palace of Westminster and Michael Howard’s garden. In Brighton, activists squatted the courthouse and put the government on trial. The Land is Ours, a coalition of environmentalists and housing campaigners, started occupying land in both cities and the countryside, calling for access to the decision-making processes affecting it.

Perhaps most significant is the sudden emergence of largely local direct action campaigns, often involving people who are the antithesis of the double-dreaded Dongas singled out by the papers. Respectable working class ladies in Shoreham and Brightlingsea attached themselves to the front of trucks carrying calves to the Continent; redundant colliers took to the trees in valleys scheduled for opencast mining in South Wales; tourist information officers and deep-sea fishermen offered to go to jail rather than pay the extortionate tolls on the new Skye bridge.

No description of this movement is less accurate than the one most frequently used: single issue politics. Around the camp fires at Newbury, discussions range from transport policy to the detention of immigrants, through alternative currencies, press ownership, genetic engineering, structural adjustment in the Third World, housing policy and the judiciary. But the movement remains at heart environmental: seeking to secure space for living, for recreation and for wildlife; campaigning to make development work for people and their surroundings, rather than against them.

Just as the virtues and failings of trades unionism are those of age, the new direct action movement’s are those of youth. It is bumptious, forceful, chaotic and creative. 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, working things out for themselves, seem slowly to be leading themselves out of the wilderness of disenfranchisement.

Their self-education has spawned a multitude of monsters. Milliennialist fantasies, cargo cults, conspiracy theories, tales of manifestations and alien abductions, crackle around the camp fires. But out of their wishful thinking, credulity and indiscipline 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. The movement’s emphasis on local empowerment, the sustainable use of resources and human rights would resonate immediately with South African parliamentarians, Brazilian peasants or the farmers of Karnataka, less so among state socialists or traditional anarchists. A new analysis – of Britain as a Third World nation – has been added to a long tradition of subversion.

Most of the books about the movement have yet to be written. George McKay’s Senseless Acts of Beauty (Verso) relates the social history of this crusade and its immediate antecedents. Andrew Rowell’s Green Backlash (Routledge) unearths attempts by corporations and governments to discredit new environmental campaigns. The newspapers are divided in their response to the phenomenom. The Guardian, Independent and Observer, even, occasionally, the Telegraph and the Evening Standard, have treated modern direct activism as a serious political movement. Other papers have floundered in their attempts to squeeze it into the wrong boxes: of special interest campaigning, Trotskyist revivalism or even, bizarrely, a terrorist conspiracy.

But nowhere is the new movement more effective than in generating its own media. Journals like Schnews, Squall and Corporate Watch and video newsreels such as Conscious Cinema and Undercurrents are among its most effective campaign tools, satirizing the government and multinational corporations, generating enthusiasm for new campaigns, relaying the news other parts of the media don’t reach. Their influence has extended beyond their immediate audience, not least because the video activists have supplied much of the broadcast footage news journalists have been too slow to catch. No other political movement makes such good use of the Internet. McSpotlight – the McDonald’s campaign site – and One World Online, which pulls together news on environmental protest from all over the world, are visited up to a quarter of million times a month. Most national campaigns have their own websites.

It is always hard to judge the success of an extant campaign, not least because the people targetted by protesters are unlikely to cite their efficacy as a reason for policy changes. But occasional slippages suggest that it might be making some progress. Preparing for the 1995 Budget, civil servants in the Treasury pointed to environmental protests as a reason for cutting the roads programme. In 1996, the Department of Transport urged caution in proposing a Hereford bypass, in case it provoked “another Newbury”. Two county councils have signed up to The Land is Ours’ manifesto. The Institute of Virology in Oxford changed its experimental procedures after being blockaded by activists concerned about the release of genetically engineered viruses. The Brazilian government has announced a two-year moratorium on mahogany exports.

No one, however, professes to be less impressed by the direct action campaigns than British members of parliament. Tony Benn and the Plaid Cymru MP Cynog Dafies are the only members of either house actively engaged in these new politics. Discussing the movement with both Labour and Conservative MPs, I have found that no topic is quicker to excite their hostility. On first sight this seems strange, especially from members who claim to pursue environmental protection and social justice, and who could never have stood, let alone been elected, were it not for the fruits of civil disobedience in the past. But perhaps we should not be too surprised: to acknowledge the validity of the protest movement is to concede that parliament may not be the only valid forum for national political debate.

One result is a series of peculiarly vicious new laws – the Criminal Justice Act, the Security Services Act and the Police Bill – sections of which, scarcely challenged by the Opposition, appear to single out the non-violent direct action movement. Activists regard them as a mark of success. Someone, somewhere, knows the movement is important. When the aliens are on their way, you don’t want to take any chances.