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An end to radical direct action?

Mike McCartney

10th March 2023

A recent newspaper article follows up on XR's claim that they are switching tactics

Jack Shenker in the Guardian analyses the significance of the announcement by Extinction Rebellion at the end of last year that they were moving away from extreme forms of public disruption to more traditional forms of protest.

Before we look at the different environmental groups on the UK, let's have a brief reminder as to what direct action is.


Direct action can take several forms, but at its purest it is when a group seeks to address the issue at hand directly rather than seek to influence policy makers by more traditional forms of protest such as lobbying.

An American research institute has identified a total of 198 methods of non-violent action. Wyn Grant’s typology consists of a more manageable six main forms: protest marches; boycotts; stunts; blockades, occupations and other disruption; destruction of property; violence against individuals.

Why direct action?

The story of political participation in the twentieth century is one where political parties dominated the first half, and pressure groups the second. And during the 1990s the dominant narrative was that of the sudden explosion of ‘Do It Yourself’ (DIY) style protests. Of course, direct action is nothing new; one thinks here of the Diggers in the mid-seventeenth century. However, what was novel was the range and popularity of non-violent direct activity (NVDA), from the cuddly images of elderly ladies forming protest lines against live veal exports at Shoreham and Brightlingsea, to the more hard-edged actions of activists who sought to stop expansion of Manchester Airport, or when what were originally intended to be peaceful protests by Extinction Rebellion have turned violent.

The growth of direct action is the consequence of perceived failings by more established groups such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace in the environmental sphere. Their critics would argue that they have become too institutionalised in a bid to win favour with the government. NVDA therefore fills the vacuum left by groups that have altered their tactics. The shift towards DIY politics can also be viewed in terms of a search for empowerment on the behalf of protestors. In an era of globalisation, people feel increasingly marginalised and mainstream politics doesn’t satisfy their needs. Getting out and doing something helps people express their political identity in a way that letter writing doesn’t, or possibly couldn’t.

Often we see that direct action may not effect significant policy change, but it is often the preserve of groups who are unable, or sometimes unwilling, to campaign by traditional means.

Recent news

The shift in tactics by XR raises questions about the effectiveness of the radical forms of public protests that the group has adopted over recent years, and particularly whether such tactics backfire and serve to reduce, rather than generate, pubic support for their cause - and by extension therefore diminish the changes of such groups achieving their long term aims.

By contrast, other radical groups such as Just Stop Oil and Insulate Britain have not followed XR and will continue with their plans to achieve their aims through actions that cause a large extent of pubic disruption.

There are lots of videos on this for further research that students can be directed to as part of lesson discussion (the so called flipped classroom) on this topic. Links to a couple of good ones can be found below...

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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