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In the News

Another week, another example of direct action

Mike McCartney

14th September 2021

Insulate Britain protested by blocking the M25. Why?

I have blogged a lot this year on direct action activity. It is something of a student favourite, and it's always worth pausing to consider the emergence of a new group.

So what has happened?

According the BBC News website:

"Climate change protesters blocked five M25 junctions, causing long tailbacks and disruption for motorists.

There were protests at junctions 20 for Kings Langley, Herts, 14 for Heathrow terminal four, three for Swanley in Kent, six for Godstone, Surrey and 31 for Lakeside, Essex.

They have since been reopened but police said 42 people were arrested.

Protest group Insulate Britain tweeted it was "disrupting the M25" to "demand the government insulate Britain".

A government spokeswoman condemned the protests and said it was supporting people to install energy efficiency measures in their homes.

Supt Adam Willmot said: "Protesters ignored police requests to move location, so we took robust action to enable roads to be reopened and to remove the protesters causing obstructions.""

Full story is here:

What is direct action?

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 in central London, last September.

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.

What do the group want?

According to info on YouTube:

"Insulate Britain have a simple demand – for the government to get on with its promise to roll-out insulation for social housing in the UK. This would have tremendous benefits for people facing fuel poverty, it would create jobs, and it reduces carbon emissions. These demands appear to be popular, achievable, and they address several issues at once. With no response from the government to initial contacts, activists are planning a series of bold civil disobedience actions which began this morning with several roadblocks, bringing parts of the M25 to a standstill across the south east. Officers from five police forces made nearly 100 arrests and the protests made national news and trended across social media. Despite the arrests, according to those involved the civil disobedience will continue until the government makes some serious promises. Watch this space."

Source: see video clip below.

Not everyone, of course, was totally pleased with the disruption caused by the protestors. There are videos circulating on the internet, but the language gets a bit tasty, so I'm not linking here. (The video below, by the way, is fine.)

But as I've said before about groups like Extinction Rebellion, action does get news coverage and get the message out there, but you do wonder if some sorts of direct actin activity are counter-productive?

This seems to be a relatively unbiased source

Mike McCartney

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

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