activism politics

Extinction Rebellion and the right to protest

Over the last couple of weeks I have been back and forth to Extinction Rebellion (XR) in London. A lot of that time, including at the weekend with my kids, has been spent at the main protest site at Trafalgar Square. I have taken part in civil disobedience, including moving into a road in order to block it yesterday, but generally I am not one of XR’s ‘arrestable’ activists.

Later today I will be going into Trafalgar Square again. This time that entirely non-disruptive action will be an arrestable offence – not because I have been radicalised, but because the authorities have banned all XR protests within London.

I don’t recognise this ban. We don’t need special permission to protest. It’s a legal right in Britain, and the right to peaceful assembly is in the Declaration of Human Rights. There’s no doubt that XR is a massive inconvenience to London and to the police, but the attempt to remove its rights and bully it off the streets is, in my view, illegal. It will be challenged, and I expect the courts will rule in XR’s favour. But in the meantime, thousands of peaceful climate change protestors, myself included, are being criminalised.

As governments the world over should have learned by now, a crackdown like this is more likely to energise a movement than subdue it. Plenty of people may have been on the fence about joining the protests today, and the response of the authorities will make up their mind for them – they’ll come down to Trafalgar Square.

As I’ve said before, I have some hesitations about Extinction Rebellion. I had my doubts when I first heard the name and the rhetoric. I don’t oppose their three main aims, but they’re not the ones I would have chosen. That doesn’t ultimately matter. I’m prepared to compromise, especially since the most important thing is to open up dialogue and force climate change back onto the agenda.

When you vote for a political party, it’s unlikely that you agree with every single policy in their manifesto. You may not approve of every one of their candidates. We are used to weighing up the pros and the cons, and choosing a general direction of travel. I feel the same way about XR. There are elements of it that make me cringe, but overall mass civil disobedience is a proven way to bring about the kind of large scale change we need to avert a climate catastrophe. It would be ridiculous of me not to throw whatever weight I may have behind it.

Besides, it’s working. Between 2009 and 2019 there were no significant new government actions on the climate. The few positives were overtaken by the big steps backwards on zero carbon homes, community energy, solar power, and many others. Yes, Britain’s carbon emissions fell, but for very clear reasons that have little to do with government action.

That changed this year. Theresa May’s parting gift was the target to reach net zero emissions by 2050. Today, after a decade of static transport emissions, the government is announcing a ‘Transport Decarbonisation Plan’. This week they’ve raised their ambitions and brought forward targets for household efficiency. There is movement. Not radical movement, but something. I’m not giving XR the sole credit for that of course, but there’s no question that it has played a role.

Now I’m off to catch my train. Wish me luck.


  1. An extract from your article to which your comment that ‘Britain’s carbon emissions fell’ is linked:

    ‘The main driving force behind the decline is the phasing out of coal…. the government’s target to end coal power by 2025 is on track.’

    Doesn’t sound like ‘little to do with government action’ to me.

    PS: something else to make you cringe: Enjoy!

    1. Robin, we’ve been over this before. There are a number of reasons for the collapse in coal use, but the government announced its 2025 phase out goal in 2018, when it was already a fait accompli.

  2. Robin, that’s an interesting point about government action – it looks to me like the government decided in 2010 that the biggest things they had to do were close our coal power stations, and work to get the Paris Agreement – so they’d do both of those and dismantle every other part of climate policy. It doesn’t makes sense to me, but that’s pretty much what they’ve done till recently, except occasionally when the Lib Dems won a battle over the feed-in tariff, and when Greg Clark got to BEIS and decided to back the UK’s offshore wind industry.

    In the last year things have moved a bit, with a couple of big steps – agreeing to accept the CCC’s advice and set a net zero target by 2050, and getting to host COP26, plus some good announcements in specific areas, like bringing back a low carbon target for new homes (but not till 2025 I think) and spending more of the aid budget on off-grid renewables. I think that’s mostly the public mood shift from David Attenborough, school strikes, and XR. It might be a bit of mood shift in the business world too.

    1. Interesting points Ben. As a matter of interest, can you name any other major economy that doing better than the UK?

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