A COUPLE of weeks ago I went to a Happening. Maybe it was a Protest March. Or was it a Demo?
The capitalisation is deliberate because the whole affair reminded me of the 60s when the way to express one’s displeasure at roads, bombs aeroplanes, meat . . . well, anything . . . was to have a Demo with a capital D, and as there was not much in the way of free entertainment those blossomings of flower power were Really Important. The idea was to dress up in your finest flares and tie-dyed t-shirt, loop a bandana round your luxuriant locks and prepare a banner.
Marches were originally the means of making a protest against problems that were overwhelming, problems that were beyond the power of the normal, helpless workers to control. In the 1930s the Jarrow miners, the hungry, the oppressed and those without influence marched out of desperation, not for fun like the sixties hippies, not to virtue-signal as we call it today. If you were hungry, oppressed and poor, what else was there to do?
One would expect them to have become things of the past with our democratic freedoms, our dedicated councils and governments listening to the people and trying to meet their needs, but somehow that is not the case. Take the constituencies of West Suffolk and South East Cambridgeshire. Her Majesty’s Government has sent down an order: ‘There shall be solar! The Sunnica solar farm is a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project and we will do everything in our power to ensure it is built.’ There seemed no way to change the minds of those intent on destroying the area with a million solar panels, with battery storage areas liable to catch fire, with two years of lorries rumbling through the villages six days a week. The valiant ‘Say No to Sunnica’ team worked to discover objections that would hold up in court but the big guns were all on the other side. And so in desperation they marched, the helpless, the put-upon, the weak, showing their frustration and anger in the only way they could.
Their MPs came too.
MPs? That’s right: the MPs for the two constituencies affected by the blight that is the Sunnica solar ‘farm’ joined those without voices to protest. The weak, poor and powerless Matthew Hancock, MP for West Suffolk who served as Secretary of State for Health and Social Care from July 2018 to June 2021 in Johnson’s Cabinet, and Lucy Fraser, South East Cambridgeshire, who is currently the Financial Secretary to the Treasury with responsibility for the Office for National Statistics and the Royal Mint. Call me an old cynic, but I thought that the whole point of being an MP is to raise the needs of your constituents in Parliament, to speak out in front of the most important and powerful people in the land. Shambling along a country lane with a couple of hundred villagers whose homes and savings are on the line was a deeply inadequate gesture.
By chance my own opposition to the Sizewell C nuclear reactor proposal has shown me how these things work: I kept meeting one councillor at the protest meetings who, as a senior member of the local ruling party, I would have expected to be obediently toeing the party line. Not so, he was gung ho for the oppressed and helpless villagers who can see their lives being disrupted for decades by the mega nuclear project. Here’s how it works. If a major infrastructure project or a change in some law or other threatens the majority of an elected member then they can trot along to those above them on the greasy ladder and point out this fact. They are then given permission to revolt. It’s a Con con.
The speeches were made as we clustered together on a village cricket pitch, waving our Say No To Sunnica banners. The local papers and even the Beeb reported the march, the latter showing the MPs doing their best to look important as they squared the circle by declaring that while they were for solar – it is after all government policy – they were against this specific solar. So that’s all right then. The crowd was understandably a little dubious. But one speech really hit home: Dr Edmund Fordham, a local resident with a PhD in renewable energy, has used his expertise to good effect by calculating the dangers inherent in the plan. Scattered throughout the four and a half square miles of solar panels there are to be BESS, battery energy storage sites. They sound innocuous, just a few batteries humming away, building up the kilowatt hours ready to be released when the wind doesn’t blow. Not a few batteries. Millions. Not a few kilowatt hours. Gigawatt hours, lots of them. Energy comes in various forms but a common measure for really huge amounts is the kiloton of TNT equivalent: it’s used for nuclear bombs and enormous chemical explosions. For example, in August 2020 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded in Beirut. The blast, equivalent to 1.1kilotons of TNT, physically shook the whole country of Lebanon. It was felt in Turkey, Syria, Palestine and Israel as well as parts of Europe, and was heard in Cyprus, more than 150 miles away.
When Dr Fordham compared the energy Sunnica could store in their batteries to the Beirut explosion – those millions of batteries will actually hold more energy than that – the crowd winced, literally winced. That single speech made the whole day worthwhile.
An MP peered over the expert’s shoulder, trying to get in the picture. Well, that’s politics.
Perhaps the MPs should not just wimble along on a protest march, not just be making pre-approved rebellious speeches in Parliament, they should be threatening to resign and fight by-elections if their residents are not listened to. Or maybe they could organise a Happening if they want to admit that they are helpless too. I’d give a tenner to march on that one.