I should be angry at Insulate Britain blocking motorways – but what choice have they been left with?

·4 min read

It is now a month since the Insulate Britain protest campaign got underway. The group may have announced that it will suspend its “campaign of civil resistance” until 25 October, but there is no sign that they’re giving in completely. Just as anyone could have told Priti Patel, the police crackdown and all the court orders designed to stop them stopping the traffic have made no difference.

Watching the videos of the peaceful protests, though, it seems pretty obvious that fairly soon someone is going to get hurt. There is such a thing as road rage and it’s ugly. Some of the drivers look to be taking matters into their own hands. We see them threatening to drive through the protesters, edging their vehicles ever closer to them, manhandling the protesters, some a little frail, and slinging them to the side of the road – from where they soon get back into position before the driver has had the chance to get their car or lorry moving again. If one protester is picked up out of the road, another moves into the vacated place.

A small number of protesters is being pitted against a much larger force of their fellow citizens, sometimes enraged that they can’t deliver an important load, get to work or take the kids to school. You have to have some sympathy with the woman we saw the other day who pleaded to be able to get to her elderly mother in hospital. Tempers are flaring, and that’s never good.

It looks and feels like another “culture war”. When Boris Johnson claims that Insulate Britain are not legitimate protesters but “irresponsible crusties” he’s doing more than making one of his little jokes – in his position of leadership he’s disrespecting them and dehumanising them.

In truth, there wouldn’t be much disagreement between these protesters and the public if they met each other in more normal, agreeable circumstances – down the pub or at a focus group. In a less stressful setting there’d be little argument that the government should indeed help to insulate Britain’s homes and workplaces. Who can argue with that?

But that is not enough. The campaigners are plainly passionate about their cause, to the point where some seem indifferent to the problems of the people in the cars, vans and lorries ahead of them. They seem to me to be very brave people – how many of us would want to go out in the cold and sit down on a busy road, glue ourselves to it, endure the hate and abuse that then pours down and get pushed and pulled about. Not to mention the possibility of getting run over or otherwise hurt in a volatile situation. They seem also to be articulate and reasonable, and convinced of the nobility of their cause. The people lugging them to the pavement, as you’d expect, are also decent people, and more like a cross-section of the general population – and there we see the essence of the problem.

The Insulate Britain spokespeople make the case that they have no choice. The usual campaigning methods have failed the planet – leafleting, petitioning, voting and making speeches. Party politics are indeed ill-suited to dealing with issues such as the climate crisis for obvious reasons – green issues tend not to figure much in elections, and green political parties in the west, with some notable exceptions such as Germany, tend not to make much progress (there is one Green Party MP in the Commons, as there has been since 1997). So now, like the suffragettes and the civil rights protesters before them, the climate activists are taking to the streets through direct peaceful action to secure change.

Yet the historical parallels with past protest movements are imperfect. These were not revolutionary movements, but ones that sought to pressurise elected representatives, seizing the agenda and winning the argument. They did work through democratic means, and through winning people to their cause, or at least to listen. The ironic thing is that the climate argument has been won – the deniers have been vanquished, the calls for fracking marginalised, and no one doubts the value of double glazing and roof insulation.

The challenge is to get what is actually a wide consensus of opinion converted into policy, legislation and action. However, that generally takes a long time, and time is something that is not on humanity’s side. When the climate protesters assess the prospects of anything useful coming out of Cop26 (with the required sense of urgency), they are rightly pessimistic. It is all words; declarations are far-away targets, with so little here-and-now.

Insulate Britain, Extinction Rebellion, Greta Thunberg and Sir David Attenborough are all correct in saying time is running out rapidly. Hence the need to “protest and survive”, to borrow a slogan from the CND movement. But the uncomfortable truth is that, on the evidence of the last quarter-century of increasing awareness of the issues, democracy will not save life on Earth. Where do we go from there?

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