LOOKING at the recent actions and demands of Extinction Rebellion (XR), it is easy to believe that they are the extreme wing of some fringe political movement. Distinct from the suited, booted denizens of Westminster, the XR rabble occupying the streets of SW1 and beyond are the very picture of a post-apocalyptic fancy-dress party. Men with full beards dressed as Girl Guides, middle-aged women dressed head-to-toe in fluorescent gear, someone on stilts – all of them seem to believe that this is how they will convince the man in the street, whose path to work they are obstructing, that the End is Nigh, and that Something Must Be Done. But a closer look at the phenomenon reveals a much darker reality. XR and their radical ideology are completely within Britain’s political mainstream.
Despite the circus, the aim of XR is not to appeal to the masses. And despite appearances of law-makers versus law-breakers, XR are very much the product and the epitome of Westminster. They are its fantasy, made real. They make demands that virtually all of Westminster would gladly inflict on us tomorrow. They are openly hostile to the democratic principles that recent governments have sought to dismantle. And they demand zealous obedience to the fictions which have dominated politics: stories of ever-increasing risks that threaten the very survival of civilisation and the human race.
The misapprehension that XR are some kind of invasion of forces from outside Westminster is also easy to understand. On this site, Paul Homewood observed that BBC staff were not just embedded within XR for the purpose of documentary filmmaking, but uncritically attached to its ideology and aims. In the Times, Dominic Lawson noted, rightly, that XR were more Year Zero than Net Zero, and urged politicians to stop indulging the protesters. The Policy Exchange think tank produced a report by Tom Wilson and Richard Walton which demonstrated the extreme ideological objectives of XR. According to Wilson and Walton, ‘Celebrities, politicians and members of the public have been seduced into believing that Extinction Rebellion’s methods and tactics are honourable and justified’ and recommended that ‘politicians and public figures should avoid endorsing, legitimising, or meeting with Extinction Rebellion’. Wilson, Walton and Lawson are surely right in many of their observations about what XR are, but they seem almost naïve about how they came to be.
The facts that make the case that XR are of Westminster’s creation are simple enough. First, consider XR’s demand that Net Zero is achieved by 2025, rather than by 2050, as current legislation has it. Now that the theoretical maximum has been set as the goal, the only parameter left to adjust is the date. Back when the Climate Change Act was a Bill, the then Labour government proposed a 60 per cent 2050 target. The Conservatives argued that it should be 80 per cent. And then the Liberal Democrats argued it should be 100 per cent. Each party wanted to be the one seen to be championing the cause, and so all that each party had to do to outdo the others was to out-bid them. In 2008, the 80 per cent target was chosen. Since Theresa May announced the 2050 target earlier this year, green organisations from the CPRE through to XR have demanded that the 2050 deadline be brought forward. XR are simply playing the game of politics-by-numbers that has long been the norm in Westminster.
Second, the notions that climate protesters are at odds with Westminster, or that somehow politicians have been misled by XR, are not consistent with the facts. In 2008, then Environment Secretary Ed Miliband (remember him?) bemoaned the lack of public support for the Climate Change Act, which had been given Royal Assent two weeks earlier. ‘When you think about all the big historic movements, from the suffragettes, to anti-apartheid, to sexual equality in the 1960s,’ he told the Telegraph, ‘all the big political movements had popular mobilisation . . . Maybe it’s an odd thing for someone in government to say, but I just think there’s a real opportunity and a need here.’
An odd thing indeed. This must have been a historic first: a Secretary of State calling for the popular mobilisation of a radical movement to support a policy that had already been made legislation. To aid in the construction of this movement, Miliband took part in a series of videos with campaigning filmmaker and Age of Stupid director Franny Armstrong. She would hector and berate the minister for what she believed was insufficient progress towards a global agreement. Here is an example:
Miliband, of course, misunderstood a fundamental dynamic of politics. Popular mobilisation precedes legislation. The idea that movements emerge after the fact of legislation, to support and service the desires and needs of government is as dark as it is bizarre. Yet it reveals the truth of the matter: that NGOs and other fake charities styled as ‘protest’ movements have long been courted by governments who struggle to connect with the public, to serve as outsourced PR and propaganda units. The political blueprint for this cosy compact between ‘civil society’ organisations and governments was formulated in 1987 by then Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland in her report for the UN World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future. In her vision of this ‘sustainable’ future, it is environmental organisations, not the public, which make demands of government and hold them to account. The voter plays no part.
Miliband and his successors in his and the Conservative and Lib Dem parties knew exactly who the ‘radicals’ are, what their objectives are, and what the ideological character of their ‘movements’ is. In almost all cases, they exist by virtue of the generosity of governments, the EU, UN or philanthropic foundations. Even XR itself is funded much more by billionaires than by its own members. It is not simply the case that politicians have indulged the likes of XR; XR is the creation of politicians that have needed them. Wittingly or not, they have summoned up a movement in their own image.
XR’s absolutism, their sense of entitlement, their sheer anti-democratic narcissism, is all born out of the logic, the culture, the design and the ideology of the political compact that has been decades in the making. They are socially, politically, culturally inured to the eco-centric perspective that dominates in Westminster, and they take its every ideological presupposition for granted as scientific fact. It is their day job (if they have jobs). It fills the pages of the social media accounts. They live, breathe, eat, sleep, hope and dream in alignment with the green blob’s narrative. They have such contempt for the rest of society because the political establishment, too, has over recent decades eschewed democracy to style its politicians and institutions as planet savers, not as parties which require consent to govern.
In other words, XR are the children of a degenerate political consensus. In this post-democratic political culture, it is no longer the most compelling arguments about how society should be managed and to what end that prevail, but the darkest stories about the looming apocalypse that dominate by default. From the UN, to the local governments now falling over themselves to declare ‘climate emergency’ and to establish ‘citizens’ assemblies’ on XR’s command, gloomy prognostications are favoured over democratic contest – as they would be whether XR existed or not.
And that’s surely the point. XR are extreme, but not extreme in contrast to mainstream politics. It is mainstream politics that has become detached from mainstream society. There is nothing we can say about XR – their contempt for the wider public and democracy, their intransigence and hostility towards debate, their uncompromising ambitions to reorganise society – that cannot be said about that which they seemingly stand in opposition to. There is no law-makers vs law-breakers conflict going on here; they are the same damn thing. There is little point asking it not to indulge itself.
Read any demands from any organisation or politician, and you will find the same thing. Whether it is the UK Climate Change Committee’s Net Zero report, or the incoming President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen’s appeal for MEPs’ votes, the claims are always the same. ‘It means change – all of us will have to contribute . . . in the way each of us travels and lives. Emissions must have a price that changes our behaviour,’ said von der Leyen, appealing for green votes. In other words: ‘My dark prophecy means lives and society must be reorganised to suit me.’ No climate warrior will accept debate, democracy, argument or reason. The democratic deficit has become too big to fail.
XR, then, are simply the superficial lesion belying a much deeper abscess in the body politic. We should not kid ourselves that it is distinct or apart from the political mainstream – a fringe, an anomaly or an exception. It is this, the political mainstream, not simply the unwashed lunatics of XR, that stinks.
But there is a simple remedy to the gangrenous infection. The justification for policies that will cost us £trillions cannot be sustained indefinitely by establishment environmentalists’ and renegade zealots’ apocalypticism. Democracy will assert itself as soon as the costs mount and the pain felt, to raise the question, is climate change policy more dangerous than climate change? Between now and then though, the question is how much damage will they cause before that happens? Democracy, not climate change, is what these fanatics fear most.