In the News

Direct action: helpful or harmful?

Mike McCartney

1st November 2022

This is a good question for a class debate or a Politics Society discussion

A couple of related articles in this Sunday's paper prompted this post.

Mark Townsend in the Observer reports on a divide within the environmental campaign about the effectiveness of their methods:

"As the campaign group concludes its month of direct action on Monday , organisers can reflect on huge global media coverage at the same time as tensions are rising among environmentalists over how extreme their tactics should become in order to grab the public’s attention.

In one camp are those who argue that direct action cannot be radical enough, given the extent and pace of the unfolding climate emergency, exemplified last week with key UN reports warning urgent and collective action is desperately needed to avert catastrophe.

In the other are proponents of a more moderate approach to attract more people to the cause. As disquiet deepens among some activists over the merits of hardline tactics, some members of Extinction Rebellion (XR) have started to gravitate towards some splinter, more moderate outfits."

Full story here.

There have been loads of entries on direct action on the tutor2u Politics Blog, and you can search for the term on the website but here is a brief reminder of the concept...

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.

There is also a quite interesting debate between two activists in the Observer this weekend. This is the link.


Explain what is meant by direct action

Research the methods used by campaign groups and provide recent examples

Discuss, using the above material and your own research, whether direct action promotes democracy

Mike McCartney

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

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