IN A democracy, the right to protest does not trump the rights of others to go about their daily business. You would hope that a member of our shadow cabinet, a Privy Counsellor no less, would understand that; but perhaps not.
The Guardian reports that shadow chancellor John McDonnell sent a statement to a court where Extinction Rebellion protesters were on trial. They were charged with committing various offences during their climate protests but Mr McDonnell saw fit to support them. (Despite that, they were subsequently convicted.)
The charges were not especially serious: breaches of the Public Order Act 1986, obstructing a highway and obstructing police. Nonetheless, a desire to make political points does not justify these offences. All MPs are law-makers; they should all understand that.
Mr McDonnell, though, chose to defend people who think physically blocking the free movement of others is fine. The Guardian quotes his message as saying ‘The activists successfully raised the profile of the climate threat and focused the minds of us all on the radical action that is needed.’ So that’s OK. Illegality’s all right when it focuses the minds of MPs. Do we really need focusing? Perhaps Mr McDonnell doesn’t follow the media and had not been aware of the climate change debate up to that point.
Mr McDonnell is widely believed to aspire to lead his party, hoping one day to be our Prime Minister. So it’s not unreasonable to expect him to know that citizens with political grievances have many legitimate ways to express them. None requires breaking laws that are there to make life tolerable for everybody.
We all have the same rights and opportunities to take part in the democratic process. Because we have those rights, we are not entitled to interfere with the freedoms of others. When we do, the results, even if unintended, can be horrible. Like the man prevented from getting to see his dying father until it was too late because an Extinction Rebellion protest had caused chaos on the motorways near Bristol.
You can imagine his pain. I wonder what other miseries the rebels have been responsible for. How many job interviews, hospital treatments, family reunions, holiday flight check-ins have been missed?
So far Extinction Rebellion have probably created more noise than damage, but they have barely started. They are determined to intensify their campaign with the goal of revolutionary change and the upending of our economy.
We are still under the threat from them of drone attacks on our airports. Although it was widely reported earlier this summer that these plans had been put on hold, they were never completely ruled out and some activists still consider them justifiable and desirable. There is probably nothing they would love more than the chance to take down a major part of the country’s infrastructure, whatever the damage it caused.
Wrecking the platform our prosperity rests on would doubtless be seen as a bonus, given that anti-capitalism is central to their beliefs –though they are savvy enough to play this down, realising how off-putting it would be to many.
According to a report from the think tank Policy Exchange: Extinction Rebellion is at heart ‘an anti-capitalist movement that envisages no possible accommodation with a free market economy’.
As its leading figures have a background of ‘involvement in the Occupy Movement, it seems likely they reject capitalism foremost out of ideological principle’, though disingenuously ‘opposition to capitalism is framed in purely pragmatic environmentalist terms . . . According to the internal logic of the movement’s worldview, capitalism must inevitably end’.
The Policy Exchange report describes how Extinction Rebellion believe in ‘negative growth’. In other words, our standard of living should be reduced. Instead of increasing the material well-being that generations have struggled so hard to achieve, the movement calls for ‘non-monetary forms of the sharing economy, whereby communities self-organise to share resources’. Forgive a little hyperbole here if I can’t help being reminded of the moneyless communal lifestyle inflicted with so much suffering on Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge.
Forgive me too if I suspect that ‘self-organised community’ is a ghastly euphemism for a localised tyranny of the enlightened few, there to explain the correct doctrine to the politically backward. As well as deciding on who deserves to get what from the communal kitchens and stores. Cambodia again.
Their website calls for innocent-sounding ‘Citizens’ Assemblies to debate and lead the way forward on climate action’. The assemblies would be composed of a ‘real cross-section of society’.
But what if assembly members came to incorrect decisions? Don’t worry, the website assures us they will ‘learn critical thinking’ before hearing ‘balanced information from experts and stakeholders’ with their proceedings ‘facilitated’ under ‘independent oversight’. Obviously no need to question who trains the members to think critically, who provides the balance, who facilitates or provides the ‘independent oversight’. Anyone familiar with the history of revolutions will have heard all this before. From Robespierre to Lenin, there is never a happy ending.
Extinction Rebellion’s craziness doesn’t stop at changing our economy. They seem keen to change our very reality. One of their co-founders, Gail Bradbrook, has called for ‘a mass ingestion of psychedelic substances in protest against the criminalisation of drugs’.
Rather worryingly, Ms Bradbrook describes psychedelic drugs as ‘medicine’. The New Scientist reports that Ms Bradbrook, while making it clear that Extinction Rebellion does not promote drugs, says they have played a role in her personal journey towards founding the movement. I can’t say I find that especially surprising.
In some ways, it seems odd that Mr McDonnell would speak up to defend members of Extinction Rebellion. Their movement is more than tinged with anarchism, a philosophy often violently opposed to the old-fashioned statist socialism that Labour’s hard Left represent. But it’s far from novel to point out how Left-wing parties can be very pragmatic when choosing their allies. From Islamist fascists to Green eco-warriors or authoritarian semi-gangster regimes like Russia’s.
If you hate democratic, free capitalist societies, you are seen as being on the right side.
Of course Mr McDonnell has form for defending demonstrators in trouble with the law. He’s on record for thinking a jail sentence of 32 months for a man who nearly killed a police officer on a student demo was excessive.
Given the chance, I would have quadrupled the sentence, not reduced it.
Mr McDonnell’s tolerance of Extinction Rebellion’s law-breaking and his failure to condemn their grim plans aren’t perhaps the worst accusations you can make against him. There are other good reasons to keep him away from power, but they are still serious charges in their own right. Mr McDonnell needs to learn that the law is an essential feature of democracy and that capitalism, despite its many, sometimes serious, faults is the mechanism that has lifted us out of poverty and squalor. It is the most progressive force we have devised and whatever great issues we face as a planet, it will surely help us find (and pay for) the solutions.