Sometimes, a report of bad news makes me realise that the world circumstances I’d been living in weren’t as bleak as I’d been assuming. The death of Ella Fitzgerald did this for me. I’d thought she was long dead. It made me realise that I’d missed years of enjoying the fact of her still being alive. Perhaps, along with the “in memoriam” segment at the Baftas, there should also be a “surprisingly still alive” video to encourage us to appreciate some elderly stars while they’re still faintly twinkling.
I used to get the same sensation of retrospective positivity from reported job losses in the British car industry. I was always pleasantly surprised that there were still that many jobs left to lose. That’ll be it now though, I always thought, but then, a year or so later, another gargantuan layoff was announced and I was once again impressed by how many people in the UK had apparently still been making cars all this time.
That’s assuming this isn’t some accountants’ trick whereby it is possible to have negative employees. I’m not talking about GPs’ receptionists – I mean mathematically. Perhaps it’s been discovered that making British workers redundant is such a reliably successful business strategy that some financial instrument has been invented whereby you can continue to do that even when there are no literal British workers left to lay off. Like a futures market in UK redundancies – or a “no futures” market if you happen to be British.
Come to think of it, that’s exactly the sort of thing that could cause the next global economic crisis – though we’d perhaps better let the current one finish first – when it is discovered that notional trillions of British workers must now somehow be made redundant in order to square the circle of global finance. A whole rainforest of P45 forms may need to be filled in on a daily basis.
I got that old familiar “I think the glass that just smashed might actually have been half full!” feeling again last week with reports of “M25 brought to standstill”. So it’s actually been moving then, has it, all this time? That’s nice! I’d been assuming it was now basically a car park. The M25 was a byword for interminable delays when I first moved to London around the time Ella Fitzgerald died. Decades of worsening traffic later, I reckoned it must have become unusable long ago, so the thought that something could noticeably slow it down was rather cheering.
I don’t suppose that was the reaction the Just Stop Oil protesters who caused the standstill were expecting. I think the response of the authorities is more what they had in mind: a great big high court injunction specifically prohibiting the thing they were specifically planning to do. That’s got to be gratifying if you’re doing a protest: to have the desperate gesture you’re about to make officially designated as aberrant behaviour. It’s like the high court was the protesters’ MC: “Ladies and gentlemen, this next protest is absolutely not allowed, so make sure you pay attention to that!”
It’s impressive that, in maximising the illegality of the protesters’ actions, the government is throwing itself squarely behind raising awareness of the climate emergency. It’s a deft move. Ministers know that, as discredited rightwing politicians, their words have little power to convince, but in these actions, they’re showing a real commitment to putting climate change high up the political agenda. It’s a far more powerful gesture than Rishi Sunak’s grudging attendance at Cop27.
So it’s all good really, unless of course the high court injunction was intended to stop the protesters. Anyone who thought that is a moron. I have a niggling fear that the transport secretary, Mark Harper, at least, may have held out some hope. “I instructed National Highways to apply for this further injunction… [to] make it easier to take action against this reckless minority of protesters,” he said, adding: “They could face imprisonment or an unlimited fine.”
Lots to unpack here. I’m not sure his assertion that the protesters constitute a minority is quite the zinger he hopes. When are protesters not? I don’t think there’s ever been a time, in all human history, when a majority of people have been protesting. Even during the French Revolution, I expect most people were keeping their heads down.
But the main idiocy is his implication that this small group of people who are consumed by the, I’m sorry to say, far from irrational terror that the planet is soon to become uninhabitable, is going to back down in fear of prison or a fine. Maybe it would disperse a crowd of thousands, but the hardcore few dozen dangling from motorway bridges have long since made their peace with it.
When Metropolitan police assistant commissioner Matt Twist said: “This action is grossly disproportionate to any legitimate aim that this group may have”, it made me wonder where he’s getting his news. An Opec-sponsored message board?
Disproportionate? They’re stopping traffic because they think the world is ending. And unlike various religious groups down the centuries, there’s a decent chance they may be right.
But the authorities are not merely showing stupidity in the face of these protests, there’s malevolence in the mix too. The new offence, under this year’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, of “conspiracy to intentionally or recklessly cause public nuisance” seems open to wildly illiberal interpretation. It was on suspicion of this crime that several potential protesters were arrested on Monday morning before they’d done any protesting.
What is the justification for new laws restricting protest? The mere fact that protests are on the rise? To address assistant commissioner Twist’s pet subject of proportionality, are they rising out of proportion to legitimate grievance? It doesn’t feel like it. It’s not that the people are getting more bolshie, it’s that the country’s getting worse. And the government’s response is to restrict the legal means by which we can say so.