UNTIL this week, the anti-climate change activist group Extinction Rebellion had hardly been a household name.
Its various activities, like pouring fake blood onto Downing Street and stripping semi-naked during a session of the House of Commons, had been received with the sort of good humour that the British people always reserve for righteous causes pursued by very obsessive people.
But a more sinister turn than bared buttocks has revealed itself this week. Extinction Rebellion has spent several days blockading key London locations such as Marble Arch, Waterloo Bridge, Oxford Circus and Parliament Square, preventing traffic – including public transport – from passing through.
Commerce, industry, and commuters have all suffered as a consequence. Estimates from just the first two days of protest have suggested that up to 500,000 people were affected by the diversion of 55 bus routes.
The New West End Company, a partnership which represents vast swathes of some of the most iconic retail and hospitality space in the world, has suggested that these two days saw a loss of £12m in trade in the West End.
With Extinction Rebellion threatening to continue “shutting down London” until 29 April, Londoners are surely now entitled to wonder when their roads might be taken back for them all to enjoy and use as required for their daily business.
They may be waiting for some time. For the response from our authorities has been strangely muted.
Politicians have shuffled away from the issue, mouthing platitudes about the importance of climate change before slipping into their limousines.
And the police, despite arresting a large number of protesters for criminal damage and public order offences, have as often as not been seen to be facilitating the protester sit-ins by providing a protective cordon around them.
All of this appears to have emboldened Extinction Rebellion. Drunk on the unexpected power it has been given to dictate the state of London’s roads, the group has now begun extending its protests to other forms of transport like parts of the Tube network.
Various reasons have been posited for why the chaos on our streets has been allowed to unfold.
We have been told that the UK has a long and noble tradition of protest and that climate change is such a vitally important issue that normal rules might not apply.
London mayor Sadiq Khan – to whom the Metropolitan Police reports and who therefore can set the tone for their response to protests – has tried to have it both ways. He has supported the protesters in general, while criticising some of their methods.
Not for the first time, the authorities have wildly missed the real point about what is happening on London’s streets. Extinction Rebellion may have started off as a campaign group arguing for a popular cause. But its tactics threaten to expose the soft underbelly of liberal democracy to assault from less well-meaning protagonists.
By failing to impose the rule of law on those illegally occupying public thoroughfares, we are making a rod for our own back in the future.
We do not have far to look for where this might lead. Just over the Channel, France has been rocked for months by the “gilets jaunes” movement, which started as a benign crusade for economic justice that evoked sympathy from many French politicians. But it did not take long for peaceful – but illegal and disruptive – protests to be infiltrated by those set on more nefarious intent.
The result has been a running battle between authorities and violent protestors on a weekly basis, with deaths occurring and thousands having been injured.
Nor is Britain immune from the dangers of violent protest. Only eight years ago, parts of London and other UK cities were paralysed for several days by a wave of violence in a series of riots.
The police were caught unawares by the pace and spontaneity shown by the assailants, and by the time they had re-established control, some £200m of property damage had been caused.
Extinction Rebellion has eschewed violent means, and there is no suggestion that it might adopt them. But the weakness of the official response to its illegal activity does not inspire confidence that Londoners can be kept safe from more violent threats.
Most worryingly, the suggestion has been made the police simply lack the cell capacity to cope with the scale of protests. If this is true, there is an urgent need to develop solutions to such eventualities, particularly given the politically charged nature of the current times.
History has proven that even the most well-established democratic systems have only a thin veneer of civilisation painted onto them. They often only find that out to their cost, when the opportunity of disobedience presents itself and authorities do not respond.
Regardless of the nobility of the cause, there is no place for illegal direct action in a liberal democracy like the UK.
Extinction Rebellion states that it would like to see its activists arrested. For once, we should give a protest group exactly what it wants.