1 June 2023

The cringe element: today’s protesters may be lame, but the Tories ignore them at their peril


I’m sorry, readers, but Just Stop Oil have gone too far this time.

I’ve previously been pretty sanguine about the eco-loonies. I don’t drive a car, a decent number of my friends are w*ke, and as I am trying to market myself as Britain’s first pro-climate change commentator – all that sparkling wine! – anything that raises the issue’s salience is a bonus. Coppers standing limply by glue-enthusiasts is fine by me. 

That was until this morning. But the decision of these pound-shop Rainbow Warriors to hold up the England team on their way to Lord’s is indefensible. If Just Stop Oil really claim to care about the future of the planet, they should surely want to protect the most beautiful thing on it: the glorious, sainted game of Test cricket? Arrest them all, throw away the key, and apologise profusely to Ben Stokes. 

What is even more surprising about this act of sporting vandalism is that one would usually expect cricket to be something of which Just Stop Oil and other protestors are quite fond. They are, after all, rather conservative. That is not just in a historic sense – nobody was more reactionary than the Luddites! – but because they are made up of exactly the sorts of people one would expect to vote Tory.

A University of Exeter study showed that supporters of Extinction Rebellion in 2019 were overwhelmingly middle-class, highly-educated women from the South of England. Some 85% had degrees, two-thirds identified as middle-class, a high proportion were self-employed, and three-quarters lived in southern England – a third from the West Country. Surely the Blue Wall personified?

Why have Deborah from Totnes and Agnes from Frome decided to start gluing themselves to motorways and mistaking Heinz for Dulux? Professor Clare Saunders, whose analysis I just quoted, said that because these people are ‘not natural protestors’ or ‘natural law-breakers’, it must show they were ‘already persuaded by the rightness of the climate cause’. Unsurprisingly, I disagree. 

Our over-proliferation of graduates in recent decades, combined with the increasing tendency of women to vote for left-wing parties, was naturally going to produce some form of radicalisation. But add in Brexit, the possibility of blocking some houses, and the opportunity to reclaim some form of lost youth, and suddenly giving it the gilet jaune seems like a nice day out. 

In that lies the unspoken truth about the English and protesting. Reader, we are crap at it. The French shut down Paris, lose lives, and burn down municipal buildings in protest at a raise in the pension age, all we can manage are posh girls mucking around with soup, blue-haired Oxford undergrads sticking themselves to a floor, or railwayman who now openly admit a year of strikes has been pointless. 

We shouldn’t find this surprising. Although the ghost of Christopher Hill might be rather put out, popular revolt has played a relatively minor part in English history. The Peasants’ Revolt was easily put down. The English Civil War was a squabble between politicians that got out of hand. Only 15 people died at Peterloo, compared to 108 from the storming of the Bastille – and it produced no revolution.

Even the Suffragettes – a cure for insomnia for which generations of English school children are ungrateful – were pointless. As Robert Tombs has highlighted, most MPs had backed women’s suffrage since at least the 1890s and passed several resolutions in favour. The petty acts of violence in which Pankhurst and co indulged only delayed the vote, until Gavrilo Princip intervened. 

One might point towards the trade union movement as an example of successful popular action. But as my colleague Andrew Gimson has highlighted, the unions were small c-conservatives, old-fashioned enthusiasts for outdated practices aiming to defend their industries from any form of change. Today, with shrinking memberships and diminished influence, they provide inconvenience, not discontent.  

So we should hardly be surprised if today’s protests can only reach the dizzying heights of throwing some paint on a few flowers. Nor should be stunned if the response of the average policeman is to stand around looking a bit confused, take a knee, or run away. We are not the French. We are not going to see eyes, hands, or lives lost because of heavy-handed coppering. It’s just not British. 

If a few eccentrics want to make tits of themselves, let them. I know that’s rather out of fashion in Tory circles these days. The flipside of the radicalisation of the Blue Wall has been the spreading out of the Conservatives into the Red. Hence our new enthusiasm for class war: if the choice is white van warriors or petrol-loathing protestor, a post-Brexit Conservative Party will always choose the former over the latter. 

Which is a shame, at least electorally speaking. The recent local elections showed what happens when the Tories neglect the shires. The Greens made a net gain of 241 seats, with 129 wards switching from blue to green. Mid Suffolk, East Hertfordshire, the Forest of Dean: the Green menace creeps imperceptibly across the Conservative map, with few comparable gains in the North or Midlands to compensate. 

So as much as my fellow Tories may want to mock these lame protestors, we should dwell upon what the eventual consequences for our party will be if the products of our public schools or the props of our parish councils are swapping conservatism for Just Stop Oil, Extinction Rebellion, or the next flavour of the middle-class revolutionary month. Today, a nuisance. Tomorrow, electoral suicide? 

As Evelyn Waugh wrote, the problem with the Conservative Party is that it has never put the clock back a single second. If the flower of the Great Nine, Oxbridge, and the WI see their future in w*ke protests and not Tory politics, it only shows our failure to repeal the Equalities Act, clear out the universities, and resist the broader tide of progressivism. We laugh at them today, but they’ll have the last laugh.

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William Atkinson is Assistant Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.