St. Mary's, Putney – location of the Putney Debates
Published in 'The Ecologist', 21st July 2014, under the title, "Fracking Britain: without debate, the Government imposes its 'right to rule'"
I'm sitting in the café at St. Mary's Church, Putney. When travelling to London there are a few non-corporate cafés I frequent. Normally Friends House, or few places on the edge of central London. On my recent travels through London I've been trying to get here as it's a nice place to sit and ponder – with its own unique and prophetic story to tell.
I've had almost a year of gigs and lectures, hours travelling on trains, and a wonderfully weird bus trip. I've been writing, researching, travelling and talking for longer than I can mentally piece together, and I'm so tired; but today I've finished that journey with my last appointment. Now – imbibing the atmosphere of this place – I can focus on what comes next.
For the past three days I've been at the Frack Free South Wales gathering, at the beautiful Green Valley Arts site on the south side of the Black Mountain – camping in a ravine next to some waterfalls on Afon Llynfell at Cwm-twrch Uchaf (go on, try to pronounce that!). I got home last night about 8pm, quickly checked my email, and after a few hours sleep got an early train to London. OK, this is a tiring job, but I can't complain about its fringe benefits!
In Wales I met a lot of people who, just a few months ago, didn't know about "fracking" and the Government's project to carve-up the country for hydrocarbons exploration. Despite an uncooperative and often indifferent mainstream media, we've got the message across at the grassroots. Many more people now know there's a problem with unconventional energy sources; and that there will be no public debate on its implementation or its impacts upon health and the climate.
Now I'm trying to get people, especially the "fractivists" carrying the movement, to focus on 'what comes next' – to be proactive instead of reactive.
The Government's strongly anti-environmental/pro-fossil fuels agenda has been coming for some time. As I've been talking about for a year or so, we just have to trace the influences on policy to see where it's come from and where it's heading.
It started with David Cameron's recruitment of the Australian lobbyist Lynton Crosby – the architect of Cameron's new policy to "get rid of the green crap". That grew into a set of policies which made the environment expendable in order to maintain, forlornly, the great mantra of "growth". To learn more, there are many parallels with the dismantling of the 'green agenda' in Australia, and also Canada. [update – the day after writing this happened]
What I've tried to get people to understand is that we've been here before; where social movements sought to oppose a seemingly insurmountable political agenda. If we want to understand "what happens next" there are two relatively recent examples we can learn from.
Firstly, the campaign against genetically modified (GM) crops, the response of the agribusiness lobby, and how that influenced Government policy.
In 1996 I got a list of the sites across Britain where genetically modified crops were being tested from the Health and Safety Executive – and put it on my web site. A short while later, spontaneously, people started to pull up the crops. One of the groups I subsequently became involved with was genetiX snowball, which drew many influences from the peace movement.
genetiX snowball was a great campaign... Then came the civil injunctions from the High Court.
The problem with mass civil resistance is that the authorities can't police it effectively. Criminal law requires clear proof and due process. That creates a problem for the Government when trying to enforce the law against people who want to challenge it – the dismissal of many legal cases brought against the protectors at Balcombe and Barton Moss being a good example. Heavy-handed police tactics have also helped our cause.
What we haven't seen yet – and what had a great impact upon the anti-GM crops protests – is the application of the civil law (seriously, read this link!).
Come 2015, when the companies involved will start spending the money they've amassed as part of their recent consolidations, I think we'll start to see that happen. A breach of an interim injunction gives the police and bailiffs draconian powers to act – as was the case during the roads protests, or when the CAA sought "the mother of all injunctions" to prevent protests at Heathrow.
I've been watching some of the leading corporate law firms lately. As the protests grow I think they see shale gas as a nice little earner. The oil and gas companies will not risk their millions without some form of legal protection; interim injunctions deliver that. They can seek an injunction covering an identified area in advance of starting exploration works, and, before it gets properly examined in court, the company may have already completed their exploratory drilling.
Injunctions are not the end of the world. Over my three decades as a campaigner I've collected a few, and whilst they make life difficult it doesn't necessary block progress. Nearly twenty years later, and we still don't have the widespread cultivation of GM crops in Britain – although the UK Government is part of an EU-lobby to return regulatory powers to member states which might change that.
What's worse is when the state itself seeks to subvert groups directly. Given the political reputations staked on this policy, we can't rule-out such possibilities.
On that point, the other past example I want to draw your attention to is how the police and Government deliberately brought down the animal rights movement in Britain – specifically the Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) campaign, or the SPEAK protests outside Oxford University.
SHAC began in the late 1990s in response to growing evidence about the mistreatment of animals at the Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS) laboratory – a site which undertook commercial animal testing, and which had been caught mistreating animals. SPEAK began as a response to proposals at Cambridge, and then Oxford University to carry out tests on primates.
Irrespective of the whys and wherefores of these campaigns, animal rights protests made the police tighten-up their act when policing protest – ushering-in the system we're subject to today.
During the early 2000s campaigners started to widen their campaign, successfully, to the laboratory's suppliers and contractors. At the time the pro-science Labour Government saw this as a threat to the industry, and one which represented a problematic shift from the site-specific protests of the 1990s. In response the police targeted not only those taking action, but also their supporters holding street stalls/collections. Leading activists were later imprisoned, and that process continues right up to the present.
The results of these campaigns are mixed. The numbers of animal tests carried out in Britain on rats, rabbits, dogs, cats, and birds have fallen over the last 15 years – and primate tests have halved. Overall though the total number of tests has increased, mainly through the use of more (often genetically modified) mice, fish, reptiles and horses/donkeys.
It was from around the time of anti-GM/animal rights protests that we saw the law being used to stifle dissent directly. First the extension of anti-trades union powers to protests (used recently at Balcombe and Barton Moss); then specialist corporate lawyers extended new legislation on harassment to protests; and finally, under the new label of "domestic extremism", anti-terror legislation was extended to SHAC and others.
The promotion of that catch-all "domestic extremist" label was possibly the most insidious. It led to the police running disinformation campaigns in the media (which they were later forced to withdraw). Even so, the label began to be applied to any protest or dissent – even people peacefully praying against the removal of their sacred bull. This whole process was exemplified in the handbook for police officers, produced by the (now disbanded) National Extremism Tactical Co-ordination Unit (NETCU).
Ultimately though, we have to look upon these connected issues as an exemplar of a state which has 'fallen out of love' with its people. And where, in lieu of an open democratic debate, coercive force legitimated by the power of the state is the becoming easiest option to push through unpopular policies.
Today the scandal of Mark Kennedy, the "secret policeman", and his spying on Climate Camp occasionally surfaces in the news. In fact those tactics had been perfected during the previous decade as part of the police and Government response to the anti-GM and animal rights movement.
I've been "watching them watching me" for a while now. Back in 2009 I wrote a lengthy tome on their work, Britain's Secretive Police Force. And, despite the subsequent public scandals, reorganisations, spying, surveillance, blacklisting and close co-operation between police and corporate security, that agenda continues.
For example, I work with Britain's leading ethical Internet provider, GreenNet, who recently co-sponsored a legal case against the Government and GCHQ to overturn the surveillance of the Internet. Within days the Government rushed through "emergency" legislation to try to render their unlawful actions legal.
OK then, why am I here in this church partaking of their excellent coffee and pasta salad?
This little-known church is at one end of a historic path which leads to my home – and it's a path which illustrates our greater problems today. I like to come here occasionally to remind me that, when we look at our oft-overlooked social history, nothing is as impossible as it may seem.
In October and November 1647, in the pause between the Civil Wars, this church was the site of the Putney Debates between Parliament and the radical 'Leveller' wing of the army. It is reputedly the first time in Britain that 'common' people negotiated with their 'betters' over the principles for how they were to be governed.
The Levellers sought to usher in such revolutionary concepts as 'one man one vote', equally sized constituencies, and – though still not achieved today – the idea that Parliament should serve the people and not have mastery over them. Though the language is archaic, their words were prophetic; the most famous of which is the statement by Colonel Thomas Rainsborough, celebrated on the walls of St. Mary's church (above the Levellers exhibition) –
For really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore truly, Sir, I think it clear that every Man that is to live under a Government ought first by his own Consent to put himself under that Government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that Government that he hath not had a voice to put Himself under.
However, such free speech could not last. In April 1649, following the failure of Cromwell and 'the grandees' to negotiate a political settlement, Leveller-led army units refused orders to go to Ireland and mutinied. From across Britain Levellers converged on my home town, Banbury, where they declared the illegitimacy of Parliament – only to be attacked by Cromwell's loyalists days later, and their leaders killed or executed at Wellingborough and Burford while trying to escape.
The issue we face today has little to do with the specifics of "hydraulic fracturing". It's that same 365-year old problem embodied in these walls. Irrespective of the evidence on the impacts of unconventional fossil fuels, the Government believes that it has the power to do something because it has the 'right to rule'; in response a growing number of people believe the opposite is true.
There are already splits within the Conservative Party over fracking. How this contention turns out nationally will depend on whether the movement is willing to bear the burden of that struggle. It's going to be a trial of attrition; of court injunctions, of media spin, negative campaigns, and the indifference of a Government which – as outlined in David Cameron's speech to the CBI in November 2012 – is deliberately seeking to curtail our civil rights. It's exactly what we see in Canada or Australia today, except they're a year or so ahead in this process.
In the end, as exemplified by the history of St. Mary's, the power of the state can't win in the long-run if the people continue to make a stand. Irrespective of the threats to the contrary, we must hang on to the objective truth that the Government is peddling an ideological agenda, based upon belief not evidence. As long as we can halt the progress of the industry for long enough, that reality will inevitably break today's political impasse, and fracking's bogus promises.