5 December 2022

We don’t need more laws to stop the green zealots – we need to enforce the ones we already have


Protestors are a savvy lot these days. When Just Stop Oil activists block a road, they will have been briefed on the Zeigler ruling by our Supreme Court which, in its infinite wisdom, has ruled that sometimes physical obstruction of the highway does not amount to the highway being physically obstructed. This must be news to the Highways Act 1980 which lists it as a criminal offence punishable by up to 51 weeks in prison. 

The Highways Act says nothing about exceptions being made for middle class zealots paralysing major motorways, putting lives in danger and disrupting the lives of millions of people. It naturally provides for ‘lawful excuse’ which might, for example, cover a farmer stopping traffic to let his cows cross from one field or another. Or to protect emergency services and the injured in the event of an accident. But it’s a stretch to say it also covers preventing people getting to funerals or impeding an ambulance on a blue light run. 

The 1980s, when the Highways act appeared, was a simpler time, of course – before an era of judicial activism and unelected executive quangos took hold of rights, while quietly forgetting the duties and obligations we also owe each other. The truth is we have plenty of laws already on the statute books to deal with even well briefed protestors who cross the line with impunity. But the way these laws are enforced have changed to such an extent they now undermine public confidence and worse still, risk serious harm if infuriated citizens perceive the police are no longer capable of enforcing the King’s peace and step in for them. 

The insurgents at Just Stop Oil have caused such repeated havoc on Britain’s busiest motorway, the M25, and used a variety of tactics to outwit a faltering police response causing chaos to commuters. Even that patron saint of triangulators, Sir Keir Starmer, has concluded it’s safe to condemn them. 

Far from being on the side of people who are severely inconvenienced by these antics, the bureaucrats at the College of Policing, notionally concerned with effective law enforcement policy, have produced a five step plan for the removal of human road blocks which is so achingly long winded you’d be forgiven for thinking the tactic was to send protestors to sleep. Individual activists who know exactly what they are doing and whose sole purpose is built around non-cooperation must be put over the fences before hands can be laid on them. A simple appeal, a personal appeal, a reasoned appeal and a final appeal before someone can be physically lifted off the tarmac, that is, if they haven’t already glued themselves to it with boredom.

The protest organisers understand these rules of engagement and exploit them by multiple actions simultaneously where they ‘swarm’ key intersections and infrastructure. The tactics deployed beam pictures of hapless police officers standing around protestors in front of miles-long tailbacks, a sight that is corrosive to public confidence and only encourages further civil disobedience. In France, police have adapted an entirely different, robustly interventionist approach and penalties are far more severe for equivalent protests. In Germany, at least one state uses preventative detention to hold the most disruptive environmental activists for up to 30 days. 

I’m not suggesting that British police adopt the same tactics as the CRS – just ask Liverpool supporters treated disgracefully in Paris at this May’s Champions League final. Nor am I advocating what amounts to internment. But we must wean ourselves away from more laws as the default political response to dangerous perceptions of state powerlessness. We have enough on the statute book already. What we need is political pressure and organisational will to break away from performative policing, to start intervening in the criminal behaviour that causes real, not imaginary damage. 

Just Stop Oil is part of a coalition of activist groups that have lost patience with a democratic system that isn’t delivering for them. Other groups such as Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain form an axis of direct action that sits on the far left of politics, but makes common cause with conspiracy theorists across the ideological spectrum.

The demands of these groups are never confined to the climate crisis – the issue from which their sense of legitimacy derives. Instead, they elide the environment into a broader revolutionary fervour to bring down ‘the system’ – which is itself ironic, given that their propaganda is based on the premise of impending societal collapse and terrifying projections of death and destruction that will follow. At the fringes it would be entirely unsurprising if violent extremists weren’t attaching themselves to these causes. There is a messianic religiosity about some of the key figures that creates the space for bad actors to get access and start revving things up. I do hope the security services are paying attention.

If all this was about a few dozen crusties impeding the school run it would hardly be worth the effort of stopping them. But extremists pay attention to how and where the state seems least able to protect the basic rights of people to go about their working lives. More worryingly, impressionable young people fed an endless online diet of eschatological nightmares will join these groups and be ripe for manipulation into ever more extreme action.

If you scoff at the notion that some of these protestors aren’t radicalised by the thought of being injured for a higher purpose by motorists acting as vigilantes, you’re not paying attention to how such ‘end times’ movements evolve. And even with a sclerotic criminal justice system that takes months to deliver an outcome when these kids are charged, conviction can blight future prospects. 

The police cannot be everywhere, but the destruction of community policing over the last ten years suggests they are rarely anywhere, except in emergencies. And even then they are slower than ever to respond. 

Faced with such insipid, hand-wringing law enforcement, it would be no great surprise if these groups launched a wave of simultaneous mass protests aimed at overwhelming what few resources the police can muster.  Yet another summit has been called. Yet another Prime Minister promises to give police ‘whatever they need’ to stop these selfish and increasingly dangerous protests.

But we don’t need more laws or posturing muscularity to sort this challenge out. Dragging these people off the streets immediately and severely punishing repeat offenders, targeting the totalitarians who manipulate them are the obvious ways to protect everyone’s rights. 

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Professor Ian Acheson is Senior Advisor to the Counter Extremism Project.

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