The UK has a small but determined environmentalist movement characterised by its appetite for popular protest – and the diversity of its tactics. In the last twelve months these have ranged from the Tyre Extinguishers group letting down the tyres of private motor vehicles, Insulate Britain attempting to close the M25, Extinction Rebellion blockading Oxford Circus with a giant pink table, to Just Stop Oil protestors tying themselves to the goalposts during Premier League football matches.
Public frustration, and at times anger towards these protests, is marked. There is also a reputational risk for the authorities, with police officers seen standing about for hours as protestors ‘lock-on’ to each other, utilising chains or D-locks. Constructions, often based around barrels and tripods have also been designed for groups of activists to lock-on and to prevent their quick removal from the public highway. Writing after Extinction Rebellion protests in 2019, Policy Exchange fellow Richard Walton argued that we needed “new legislation to re-balance lawful protest with civic rights and a mindset change within the leadership of the Metropolitan Police towards more robust law enforcement.”
The Queen’s Speech presents some evidence of this happening. From what is revealed thus far, the Public Order Bill seeks to interfere not with the right to protest, but with the mechanics of the deliberate disruption of the public square, which a minority of activists revel in. Making locking-on, and going equipped to lock-on, criminal offences is overdue. As the UK seeks to modernise its public transport infrastructure, making it illegal to obstruct major transport works is a further inevitable change.
What has become increasingly clear from the protests we have seen since the emergence of Extinction Rebellion in 2018 is that a cadre of rather privileged activists has emerged. They are happy to be arrested and in many cases have little to lose if prosecuted. The same people keep being arrested time and time again at locations across the UK.
That many of these protestors are middle aged, middle class and well-meaning should not stop the law from responding. In any other walk of life, or if these protestors were from a different ideological background, it is reasonable to assume the state may have responded more robustly by now. Whilst more information is needed on the Serious Disruption Prevention Orders that are proposed, the targeting of protestors who repeatedly inflict their views on the general public by interfering with public transport networks, petrol supplies and even our national game is long overdue.
Claiming to save the planet should not put you above the law.