Many of us of a certain age will have a vivid memory of what happened on the streets of London and other major cities throughout the land on Saturday 15 February 2003. Mass demonstrations against the prospect of war in Iraq. The biggest protest London had ever witnessed. An estimated 1.5million people took to the streets. For the organisers it was a triumph. Such a massive outpouring of public sentiment was surely something Tony Blair could not ignore. But ignore it he did. Within weeks American tanks were rolling across the Iraqi border supported by British forces. The immediate result was a triumph. Saddam was overthrown. But the longer term effect of that war has proved to be an unmitigated disaster. The protesters failed.
So why return to it now? After all, the days of mass marches seem to have faded away over the past twenty years. Instead we have a seemingly endless stream of protests organised by a plethora of different interest groups. Small groups of activists doing their darndest to draw attention to their disparate causes by creating the maximum inconvenience to the greatest number of innocent bystanders.
But is it possible that we might be approaching the end of even these protests? And, if so, will you breathe a sigh of relief or will you regret their passing? Might they have struck a chord with those of us who may agree with their cause but wouldn’t dream of taking part in a public protest ourselves?
The last attempt to disrupt a great public event was, of course, the Grand National. It failed largely because the Daily Mail had managed to infiltrate an undercover reporter into the group planning to disrupt the big race. The next big one was to be the London Marathon, scheduled for this weekend. And the extraordinary thing about this latest attempt to draw attention to a cause by disruption is that the very people threatening to do the disrupting are now promising the opposite. They want to help make sure the nation’s biggest marathon goes smoothly.
But, even as I write these lines, the BBC presenter Chris Packham is lending his support to a four-day protest against climate change outside Parliament this weekend. It’s timed to coincide with Biodiversity Earth Day and it’s being organised by Extinction Rebellion (XR) who are demanding an end to all licences, funding and approval for new fossil fuel projects and the immediate creation of 'emergency citizen assemblies'. The ultimate aim is to bring about an end to what XR calls the 'fossil fuel era'. Here’s how Packham puts it: ‘It’s about how we can change the world to make it a better place for people and wildlife. It's really important at this time that we all recognise that we all have a role to play in making sure that our planet has a safe and secure and healthy future.’
XR have claimed that many thousands have registered for the protest and more than 200 organisations will be involved. So far … so predictable. XR was set up five years ago and set about drawing attention to the climate crisis by making life difficult for many people trying to go about their daily business. Not this time though. According to its spokeswoman Marjin van de Geer, the organisation will remain ‘very disruptive’ but this weekend's protest is not about 'intentional disruption in the way that you've seen from Extinction Rebellion in the past'.
The critics of disruptive protests are not likely to be mollified by such assurances. They may have in mind protesters such as Edred Whittingham, the student who interrupted the World Snooker Championship last week by leaping onto a snooker table and spreading chalk dust on it. Last year he had glued his hand to the frame of a painting by Turner, joined the blockade of an oil terminal and tried to bring the M25 to a standstill. So it may seem unlikely that ‘Just Stop Oil’ protesters will call it a day. On the contrary, their critics (and admirers) reckon they have some pretty big targets in their sights – including Wimbledon and even the coronation.
The critics make the point that the real victims of what Stephen Glover in the Daily Mail calls ‘these pathologically self-centred militants’ are not usually the rich and powerful, but instead the ordinary person in the street. Here's how he puts it: ‘If they were to concentrate their ire on pin-striped nabobs strolling into their London clubs, the man and woman down at the Dog and Duck might not be too upset. As it is, the denizens of the Dog and Duck are right in the firing line. The Grand National is far from being an elitist event. Nor is the World Snooker Championship exclusive. The hard-pressed plumber or nurse is as likely to be impeded on the M25 as the fat cat perusing the Financial Times in the back of a limousine.’
Put simply, says Glover, the rights of ‘the law-abiding, hard-working majority are being attacked by a lawless, unrepresentative minority.’ And this, he says, creates a heaven-sent opportunity for a politician with a finger on the pulse.
That message has, it seems, been received by the Prime Minister. Mr Sunak told The Sun newspaper: 'People who disrupt decent, law-abiding people's lives, trying to gratuitously ruin great sporting events that many have worked hard and saved to enjoy, should be ashamed of their selfish behaviour.'
But that, says Glover, is not enough: ‘It can hardly be said that the Government has so far taken a tough line against the anti-democratic extremists who would like to bring this country to its knees. What is needed… is for the Prime Minister to put himself at the head of a crusade. He should make a keynote speech in which he affirms the right to protest peacefully while attacking the behaviour of a small — though perniciously effective –— number of troublemakers. Instead of limiting his dismay to outrages by activists who have gone too far, Mr Sunak should make the argument that civil society can only function if we accept differences of opinion without resorting to guerrilla tactics.’
Glover concedes that many of us are right to be deeply worried about issues such as climate change and animal rights but he identifies what he calls a ‘caste of bigoted, hysterical militants with zero sympathy for their fellow citizens’. He also concedes that such people have always existed, but he blames social media for ‘empowering’ them.
The writer Mick Hume claims that the legal system has become a ‘revolving door for green fanatics, who can go from protest to courtroom and back again almost without stopping.’ He says it’s little wonder that the eco-activists don't fear the law: ‘Most judges, lawyers and police are criminally soft on them, acting more like proud parents than disciplinarian authorities. Even if a judge does give them a light rap on the knuckles, it will often be garlanded in praise. In February, one judge was so moved by the “deeply emotive” explanations given by seven Just Stop Oil defendants for their mayhem, he praised their “admirable aims”.’
In fact some steps have already been taken to toughen up possible penalties. The Police, Crime Sentencing and Courts Act, which was passed last year, raised the maximum penalty for 'wilful obstruction of the highway' to 51 weeks in jail. The Public Order Act, which is in its final stages in Parliament, will create Serious Disruption Prevention Orders. A court will be able to impose a civil order restraining repeat offenders, who may previously have received little or no punishment.
But will they be used by the police and the courts to crack down on the protesters and, perhaps more to the point, do you believe they should be? Are you one of those who believe that protesters have no right to interfere with our daily lives whether it be blocking a motorway, trying to disrupt a great sporting event or even staging a demonstration to attract attention on the day of the coronation? Or do you take the view that some issues – specifically climate change - are so profoundly important that some inconvenience to our daily lives is a small price to pay?
In short… should the protesters be punished or praised?
Let us know what you think.