Did it happen to you? Are you one of the many thousands who were barrelling happily along the motorway when the world came to a sudden halt. An accident to blame maybe? Or perhaps the dreaded SWT. And if you don’t know what those initials stand for, consider yourself lucky. Sheer Weight of Traffic. But not this time. No, this time you were not the victim of unforeseen circumstances. This had been carefully planned and ruthlessly executed with the specific intention of causing you great inconvenience. Once again the Just Stop Oil protesters were bringing the M25 to a halt just as they had paralysed so much of London over the past weeks and months. Now, as I write, they have announced that there will be no further “demonstrations” on the M25 for the foreseeable future. But the spokesperson added: "We're not saying we won't go back either. But we've stopped this for the moment," they said. They were, they said, “giving the government a pause to do the right thing".
But what is “the right thing” and how should we react if – or perhaps when - the protesters renew their campaign?
The Daily Mail will have been speaking for many angry motorists when it published a leading article on the subject just as the activists were planning to announce their “ceasefire”. It said: “The deranged Just Stop Oil activists aren't only testing the nation's patience with their sociopathic stunts. They are also exposing the absurdity of our witless criminal justice system. The story is always the same. Climate change fanatics ceaselessly block motorways, vandalise priceless artworks or commit other acts of disruption. They are arrested, charged and invariably bailed by the police or courts. Then, lo and behold, these pious arrogant idiots head straight out and do it all over again. Isn't it time this farcical merry go round was brought to a stop?
“Listening however to the bleatings of the chief constable in charge of policing demonstrations, it's no wonder the eco mob are emboldened. Openly defying the home secretary's demand for a crackdown on anarchists he feebly called instead for a conversation about protesters rights. What planet is he living on? It's really quite simple. If a green zealot commits a crime, the law should come down on them like a ton of bricks - not mollycoddle them. But once again the police appear more concerned with the welfare of the wrongdoers than the ordinary working people whose lives they make a misery.”
Well, that’s one view. Another, expressed with equal anger by many at the COP27 climate change summit in Egypt over the past days, is that our planet is facing an existential crisis and something must be done. Here’s how Antonio Guterres, the secretary general to the United Nations, put it in his opening speech: “The answer is in our hands and the clock is ticking. We are in the fight of our lives. And we are losing. Greenhouse gas emissions keep growing. Global temperatures keep rising. And our planet is fast approaching tipping points that will make climate chaos irreversible. We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot still on the accelerator.”
Strong language indeed. So what are the protesters demanding and who are they?
Just Stop Oil came into existence in March when two other groups of eco protesters joined forces: Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain. Their immediate demand is that the government stop awarding licences to oil and gas companies for the exploration of oil and other fossil fuels in the UK. The group says it wants action both in the short and long-term to reduce demand for fossil fuel energy - such as home insulation and renewable energy. Its website says: "We must urgently end our reliance on fossil fuels to avoid irreversible changes in the earth's climate system.”
They first began to make headlines with a series of protests including pitch invasions at several Premier League football grounds. One activist locked himself to a goalpost during the Arsenal vs Liverpool match on 16 March. He said afterwards: "I don't want food to run out for me or my loved ones when severe weather events mess up our food supply. I don't want billions of people to be forced from their homes.” Another protester said: "If we lose control of our climate, which is exactly where we're headed at the moment, then we put everything and everyone at risk. My generation won't have a future." Gary Lineker, no less, tweeted afterwards: “Whether you approve of this young man's methods or not, he's right, his future is perilous".
To which those who fully support that “young man” will say: if not those methods… then what? In the past few months, protesters from Just Stop Oil have thrown soup at Van Gogh's Sunflowers at the National Gallery, tried to disrupt the British Grand Prix, hung a banner on the QEII Bridge between Kent and Essex and, of course, climbed gantries over closed major roads including Europe’s busiest. In short, pretty much anything that amounts to what they call "non-violent civil resistance". Their reward, so far, has been a huge amount of publicity and, they say, their supporters have been arrested nearly 2,000 times since April. Five of them are still in prison.
All this disruption, says the Home Secretary Suella Braverman, is “a threat to our way of life”. The business secretary Grant Shapps has called motorway closures “completely outrageous”. A chief constable has warned that if the protests are renewed someone is going to get killed. All of which raises a series of questions. Perhaps the most simple is whether it Is legal to block motorways or any other highway for that matter.
The answer is no, it is not legal. The maximum penalty for the wilful obstruction of a highway is 51 weeks in prison. Offenders can also receive a hefty fine. And the government is also trying to put through new legislation to crack down on these types of protest. The Public Order Bill would grant new powers to prosecute someone who interferes with the operation or use of key national infrastructure in England and Wales - whether on the roads, railways, or air transport infrastructure.
High Court injunctions have been sought by several transport bodies, including National Highways and Transport for London, to prevent protesters disrupting major roads. Those who breach an injunction can be held in contempt of court and could, in theory, face imprisonment, an unlimited fine and seizure of assets.
Unsurprisingly, the government has no intention of meeting the activists’ immediate demand. There are plans to license more than a hundred new oil and gas projects over the next three years and most experts in the field say the chances of those projects being cancelled are approximately nil. Not least because of the effect on world energy supplies of the war in Ukraine.
And let’s not forget that Just Stop Oil and the other climate change activists out there are not going away. They may be holding back on blocking the M25 but only in order to give the government a “pause to do the right thing". And then, we have to assume, it’s back to the barricades. There will be more disruption to daily life. Remember, too, that there was a Supreme Court ruling last year which found there should be a "certain degree of tolerance to disruption to ordinary life, including the disruption of traffic" caused by non-violent protest.
So, my final question is: what do you regard as an acceptable degree of tolerance? Let’s assume that most of us have at least a degree of sympathy with the activists’ overall objectives. After all, don’t we all want a planet fit for our children and grandchildren to inhabit? And let’s agree that the protestors have achieved at least one of their objectives: forcing us to think about climate change and the indisputable harm the burning of fossil fuels has caused.
And let’s also assume that the protesters will be back and many of us may very well find ourselves stuck in traffic jams. Or worse. Will you be cursing them? Or cheering them on?