Category Archives: Protest/activism

We Need To Talk About The Politics Of Climate Experts

We Need To Talk About The Politics Of Climate Experts
By Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
16 May 2022

It is widely understood the very powerful forces of climate change denial have delayed action to address the climate crisis, and thus are responsible for a huge amount of suffering and deaths attributable to climate breakdown.

Less appreciated is the unintended impact these dark corporate interests have had on the popular perception of climate experts. For example, having only recently started to move beyond framing the debate as being between denialists and those who accept the scientific consensus, the media largely present climate experts as one big monolithic block. Rarely do they explore the different politics that exist amongst the climate community.

This is deeply unhelpful because the politics of individual climate specialists and research institutions have huge ramifications in terms of discussing the climate crisis, about who or what is to blame, and therefore what action needs to be taken, and when.

To explore this, it is worth comparing opposing voices on key climate issues: Professor Kevin Anderson, Chair of Energy and Climate Change at the University of Manchester, and two key figures at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment (GRI) at the London School of Economics – Co-Director Lord Nicholas Stern and Policy and Communications Director Bob Ward, both of whom regularly appear in the media.

First, how do they engage with Naomi Klein’s argument in her 2014 book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate that stopping the worst effects of climate change will involve “challenging the fundamental logic of deregulated capitalism”, and that systematic and radical change is required as soon as possible?

Stern, second permanent secretary at the Treasury under Prime Minister Gordon Brown and author of an influential 2006 report on the economics of climate change, does not generally frame the climate crisis like Klein. Instead, in 2015 he noted that “economic growth and climate responsibility can come together and, indeed” are “complementarity”. Indeed, in 2019 Julia Steinberger, Professor of Societal Challenges of Climate Change at the University of Lausanne, tweeted about “Lord Stern’s admonition to researchers in sustainable prosperity at the British Academy to maintain growth-at-all-costs back in 2014”. Six years later Stern was backing “green growth” as “essential for our future on this planet” (one of the five founding research programmes of the GRI, widely seen to be dominated by economists, was “green growth”).

In contrast, Anderson argued in 2013 “the remaining 2°C budget demands revolutionary change to the political and economic hegemony.” In addition, he noted “continuing with economic growth over the coming two decades is incompatible with meeting our international obligations on climate change”, and therefore wealthy nations needed “temporarily, to adopt a de-growth strategy.” Anderson is dismissive of the concept of “green growth”, tweeting in 2019 a link to an interview with Johan Rockström, in which the internationally recognized scientist says “Green growth is wishful thinking”.

To be clear, in recent years Stern seems to have become increasingly aware of the scale of the change required, noting in October 2021 that achieving Net Zero emissions “will require the biggest economic transformation ever seen in peacetime” (though he still seems wedded to the ideology of economic growth).

When it comes to fracking, in 2014 Anderson told the New Scientist “The advent of shale gas is definitely incompatible with the UK’s stated pledge to help restrict global warming to 2 °C”. However, the article noted “Others say it could help reduce emissions overall, provided the shale gas replaces coal currently used to generate energy”, quoting Ward as saying “In principle, if it helps with displacement of coal it could be helpful”.

In May 2019 Theresa May’s Tory government announced the UK would aim for Net Zero emissions by 2050. Stern stated at the time “This is a historic move by the UK Government and an act of true international leadership for which the Prime Minister deserves great credit.” Since then Stern has led on the LSE itself also adopting a Net Zero target of 2050.

Anderson was less enamoured by the 2050 target, noting on his blog that “to meet its Paris [Agreement] obligations the UK must achieve zero-carbon energy by around 2035; that’s ‘real-zero’ not ‘net-zero’. This requires an immediate programme of deep cuts in energy emissions rising rapidly to over 10% p.a. [per annum]”

In October 2021 the UK government published its strategy for reaching Net Zero emissions by 2050. Anderson’s response recorded by the Science Media Centre? “The UK’s Net Zero strategy falls far short of both its Paris [Agreement] and G7 temperature and equity commitments. Scour the associated spread sheets and the numbers reveal a story of subterfuge, delusion, offsetting and piecemeal policies.” In contrast both Stern and Ward were broadly supportive, with the former telling the Science Media Centre “I welcome the publication of the strategy, which identifies the major steps we have to take to reach net zero.”

Finally, there is a consensus amongst many prominent activists and experts that strong grassroots social movements will be required to force the radical changes needed to address the climate crisis. Anderson seems to understand this. I’m aware he lent his expertise to anti-airport expansion group Plane Stupid in the 2000s and, more recently, he has explained he advised youth strike figurehead Greta Thunberg. In 2020 he gave a talk to an Extinction Rebellion group in Waltham Forest.

In contrast, Stern and Ward’s leading role in setting a 2050 Net Zero emissions target at LSE was undertaken in the face of grassroots opposition from LSE students and staff, with a petition signed by hundreds of people calling for LSE to adopt an earlier Net Zero target of 2030. As far as I am aware Stern and Ward refused to seriously engage with this grassroots activism (in 2019 a small group of staff met with Ward and argued there need to be more radical action on reducing emissions at LSE, including the declaration of a Climate Emergency, receiving a very frosty reception, to put it mildly). It seems telling that Channel 4 News decided to put Ward up against Extinction Rebellion’s Farhana Yamin during a 2019 studio discussion about the UK’s 2050 Net Zero target, while The Mail quoted Ward in a 2021 article to criticise a statement Thunberg made about the UK government’s response to the climate crisis.

From this very brief summary, it seems clear Stern and Ward are, broadly, conservative actors amongst climate experts when it comes to the climate crisis.

“The voice of experts on climate science is an important one, because citizens trust it. And some climate scientists have been using their voice powerfully and well, especially in recent years”, academic and environmental campaigner Professor Rupert Read tells me. “But it’s important to remember the limits of the expertise of most climate scientists: to their own discipline or even sub-discipline. Few are experts in systems theory, in risk analysis, in philosophy, or in political economy. For expertise in those areas, funnily enough, you are best off going to experts… in those areas.”

Read notes “economists – whose opinions are often over-valued in an economistic society such as ours – who weigh into debates originating in climate tend to lean towards technocracy, and tend to be biased in favour of growthism, which is even now, incredibly, an endemic assumption in Economics.”

“Thus degrowth, post-growth, deep green ecological economics – let alone approaches based in civil disobedience or coming from (say) indigenous or eco-spiritual perspectives – tend to get short shrift from climate economists. That is a problem. A big problem.”

All this shouldn’t be surprising when you consider Stern’s and Ward’s successful professional careers are tied up with elite networks, establishment politics and billionaire investor Jeremy Grantham.

Of course, a variety of voices is welcome but, to echo Read, it’s surely a serious problem worthy of serious discussion when the climate crisis demands radical action, and Stern and Ward have so much power within the climate community and cachet with journalists, and therefore an oversized impact on the national debate and research agenda. Indeed, their commanding positions likely have a chilling effect on the kind of robust debate scientific and political progress thrives upon. If you were a young climate researcher, would you risk access to funding, contacts and therefore your future career by criticising two of the most powerful people in your field, or the leading institution they run?

For the wellbeing of everyone and everything that lives on the planet today and in the future, we need to start talking about the politics of climate experts and climate-focussed research institutions.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.


Book review: Burnt: Fighting for Climate Justice by Chris Saltmarsh

Book review: Burnt: Fighting for Climate Justice by Chris Saltmarsh
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
April-May 2022

Though he doesn’t mention it in this book, I imagine activist Chris Saltmarsh is a big fan of the Chico Mendes quote that often appears on Twitter: ‘Environmentalism Without Class Struggle is Just Gardening.’

For Saltmarsh, ‘the root cause of climate change is our system of organising the economy and our relationship to nature: capitalism.’ With the ruling class profiting most from the crisis, he notes the resistance of capital is ‘perhaps the biggest barrier to climate justice.’

Part of Pluto Press’s Outspoken series, Burnt is a challenging read, with lots of constructive criticism of various facets of the climate movement.

Too often the ‘environmental NGO industry’, like the United Nations COP climate talks, has played a depoliticising, limiting role in the struggle, Saltmarsh argues, working ‘to uphold capitalism and the interests of fossil fuel capital by deflecting blame away from them and lowering our collective ambitions.’

There is an interesting analysis of Extinction Rebellion, the youth strikes and direct action more broadly – Saltmarsh was active in Reclaim The Power (which used direct action to oppose the UK’s ‘dash for gas’). He describes the victories of similar campaigns such as Climate Camp in the UK, Ende Gelände in Germany and the Keystone XL pipeline protests in the US as generally limited (‘downscaling or delaying construction’) and precarious – and insufficient to force long-term change.

With top climate scientist James Hansen recently noting ‘the 1.5°C target certainly will be exceeded, and the world will almost certainly blow through the 2°C ceiling’, Saltmarsh maintains: ‘There is only one political form presently capable of dismantling the fossil fuel industry on the timescale that the climate crisis commands: the state.’

As a co-founder of Labour For a Green New Deal – which he passionately fleshes out in one chapter – Saltmarsh believes that addressing the climate crisis ‘will require a centrally managed plan of targets, budgets, resource allocation, and key initiatives spanning years.’ Therefore the task is to capture the state through democratic means – by mobilising and radicalising the Labour Party and trade unions (the Green Party is never mentioned as a viable option).

While Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership showed that a more humane Labour Party is possible, I’m not as hopeful as Saltmarsh is that there will be another opportunity to elect a radical Labour leader in the near future.

A thought-provoking primer about the most important and urgent issue facing humanity, Burnt is an inspiring call to action, directed in part at those who don’t identify as activists. ‘Because without you, we can’t win,’ he notes.

Foreign policy conducted on the sly: Britain and the repressive Gulf monarchies

Foreign policy conducted on the sly: Britain and the repressive Gulf monarchies
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
29 March 2022

In 1917, after listening to an account of fighting on the Western Front, Prime Minister Lloyd George is reported to have said “If people really knew [the truth], the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don’t know and can’t know.”

80 years later and a similar quote from a “senior official” was included in a book published by the establishment think-tank Chatham House: “Much of our foreign policy is conducted on the sly for fear that it would raise hackles at home if people knew what we were pushing for.”

The government camouflages the reality of British foreign policy in a variety of ways, including blunt censorship by the British military in war zones, ‘requests’ to edit reporting by issuing D-notices, the favouring of particular journalists and, likely most important, the normalisation of policy discussion and decision making that excludes the general public – an arrangement largely taken for granted by the media.

As Hew Strachan, Professor of International Relations at the University of St Andrews, and Ruth Harris, a researcher at RAND Europe, noted in a 2020 report prepared for the Ministry of Defence, “The government’s preference is to see both strategy and defence policy as areas to be settled between it and the armed forces, and so far as possible within the corridors of power.” This means “the making of [‘defence’] strategy in today’s Britain is an elite activity, hammered out by ministers, civil servants and chiefs of staff.”

Nowhere is this defacto concealment of British actions abroad more important than the UK’s relations with the repressive monarchies in the Gulf – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Check out, for example, the 1972 Thames Television documentary about the war in the Dhofar region of Oman, available on Youtube. “The war in Oman is an unknown war and Britain’s involvement in it something of a mystery,” presenter Vanya Kewley notes about the British role supporting the dictatorial Sultan Qaboos in the war against leftist rebels. Why? “Both the British government and the government of Oman are anxious to play down the British presence in such a sensitive area of the Arab World where British soldiers are fighting and dying for the Sultan of Oman,” she notes.

Mark Curtis explains the inconvenient truth in his 2003 book Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World: “British policy in the Middle East is based on propping up repressive elites that support the West’s business and military interests.”

“Torture, discrimination against women, the complete suppression of dissent, free speech and association and the banning of political alternatives are all the norm” in these nations, he notes.

Little has changed since then. In the UAE, “scores of activists, academics, and lawyers are serving lengthy sentences… in many cases following unfair trials on vague and broad charges,” Human Rights Watch report. Saudi Arabia recently executed 81 men on one single day. And though it seems to have been forgotten, in 2006 the head of the Saudi national security council “threatened to make it easier for terrorists to attack London” unless a UK Serious Fraud Office investigation into a UK-Saudi arms deal was halted, according to the Guardian. (Days later Prime Minister Tony Blair wrote to the Attorney General and the inquiry was, indeed, dropped).

In Kuwait – generally consider the most open society in the Gulf – criticism of the head of state is outlawed, sex between men is criminalised and nearly 5,000 books were banned in the seven years up to 2020, according to the Guardian. “Kuwaiti authorities continue to use provisions in the constitution, the national security law, and the country’s cybercrime law to restrict free speech and prosecute dissidents,” Human Rights Watch note.

How did the UK respond to the challenge the Arab Spring represented to the Gulf’s rulers? “With a major strategic vote of confidence in the conservative regional order,” David Wearing explains in his 2018 book AngloArabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters to Britain. Speaking about the UK’s support for Bahrain following its violent crackdown against protestors in 2011, Middle East specialist Professor Rosemary Hollis noted “the British do not want to be seen – in front of the British public, Human Rights Watch and all those other NGOs that are monitoring this – to be aiding and abetting oppression of the civilian population.”

As with the quotes from Lloyd George and the unnamed “senior official” above, the underlying assumption is the British public is a threat to the UK’s support for the Gulf’s repressive elites – that people would be distressed by the truth. Indeed, occasionally it becomes clear just how much the public cares given enough information. According to John Pilger, when his 1994 documentary Death of a Nation,  about the 1975 invasion of East Timor and the genocide that followed, was first shown on TV it triggered more than 4,000 calls a minute to a helpline telephone number in the hours that followed. More recently, around one million people marched in London on 15 February 2003 in opposition to the impending invasion of Iraq – the largest demonstration in British history. And earlier this month more than 100,000 British people offered homes to Ukrainian refugees in the first 24 hours of the government scheme that allows families and individuals to bring them to the UK.

However, when it comes to revealing and explaining what the UK and the local elites are up to in the Gulf, institutions that should inform the public have not done their job.

Media coverage of UK foreign policy tends to broadly follow the priorities and interests of policymakers, with minimal space allowed for critical, independent journalism. “Key British foreign policies, particularly in the Middle East, are being routinely under- or un-reported in the UK national press”, Curtis noted in 2020. For example, on 13 March investigative journalist John McEvoy tweeted “The Guardian has published more stories about Ukraine just today than it has published about Yemen in all of 2022.”

Academic research on the Gulf is often compromised by the fact many academics and research centres focussing on the region are themselves funded by Gulf monarchies. As well as steering research away from sensitive topics, in his book After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies academic Christopher Davidson argues this funding means “it is almost inconceivable… to imagine an academic with no alternative source of income researching and writing a serious critique of a regime that has… paid for his or her salary”.

The funders of two premier think-tanks focussed on UK foreign policy, Chatham House and the Royal United Services Institute, include the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, US State Department, BP, Chevron, BAE System and the Qatar Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Earlier this month Declassified UK’s Matt Kennard tweeted that the Westminster Foundation for Democracy – a UK government-funded organisation “working to strengthen democracy across the world” – “hasn’t a single ‘pro-democracy’ project in any of the 6 UK-backed Gulf dictatorships.”

Perhaps understandably, the anti-war movement and the broader left tends to focus on active wars, such as Ukraine now, and Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya in the last two decades. However, this means the UK’s relationship with the Gulf states has largely been ignored.

What all this means is that for decades UK governments have been able to continue their support for the despotic governing monarchies in the Gulf with relatively little public scrutiny and opposition.

The job of concerned citizens should be clear: to bring the UK’s dirty dealings in the Gulf into the public sphere. As US Supreme Court judge Louis Brandeis once famously claimed, sunlight is the best disinfectant.

An idea: how about solidarity campaigns and organisations are set up for individual Gulf states, like there is already for Palestine, Venezuela and Western Sahara? These would draw attention to UK’s support for authoritarian rulers in the Gulf, educate the British public, act as a centre of knowledge and expertise and give support to pro-democracy activists and movements in the Gulf – all of which would apply pressure on the British government.

The Saudi Arabia Solidarity Campaign. It has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Book review. Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs to Know by Erica Chenoweth

Book review. Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs to Know by Erica Chenoweth
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
February-March 2022


Nonviolent resistance campaigns have been twice as successful as violent campaigns in achieving their objectives. That was the conclusion of Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan’s Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, making it a seminal book in the study and practice of nonviolent struggle (see PN 2547 – 2548).

With Civil Resistance, Chenoweth, currently professor in Human Rights and International Affairs at Harvard university, has arguably written an even more important book.

As part of Oxford University Press’s ‘What Everyone Needs To Know’ series, the text is made up of nearly 100 questions and answers.

Chenoweth starts with the definition of civil resistance as ‘a form of collective action that seeks to affect the political, social, or economic status quo without using violence or the threat of violence against people to do so’.

She goes on to address common myths – that it’s passive, doesn’t work against dictators, only works by morally converting the opponent, and so on.

Chenoweth also highlights four key factors behind successful nonviolent campaigns: large-scale participation, loyalty shifts amongst regime supporters, tactical innovation, and resilience in the face of repression.

Along with celebrated movements like the US civil rights struggle and Otpor’s work to remove Serbian president Slobodan Milošević in 2000, plenty of lesser-known, inspiring nonviolent activism is also referenced. This includes the 1929 Igbo Women’s War in Nigeria, a mass nonviolent campaign by women opposing the attempt to levy taxes by British authorities. Another case mentioned is the use of female nudity by the Green Belt Movement to shame and repel the police in 1990s Kenya.

Having received criticism for ignoring the role of unarmed violence in successful campaigns, Chenoweth engages with the debate by devoting a whole chapter to the topic.

The data is clear, she argues. From 1900 to 2019, 65 percent of nonviolent campaigns without fringe violence succeeded in overthrowing regimes or winning self-determination, compared to only 35 percent of nonviolent campaigns that included some fringe violence. Why? ‘Fringe violence tends to drive supporters away… tends to repel potential allies, increase government repression, and discourage those supporting the regime from defecting.’

An accessible, one-stop bible of nonviolent struggle, Civil Resistance includes an academic-quality bibliography along with a helpful list of essential books, documentary films, websites and training guides. There is also a huge 30-page list of nonviolent and violent revolutionary campaigns between 1900 and 2019.

Civil Resistance is an absolutely essential book for peace activists and anybody interested in history or in creating a better world. So pretty much everyone, then.

“The climate crisis is a crisis of capitalism”: Chris Saltmarsh interview

“The climate crisis is a crisis of capitalism”: Chris Saltmarsh interview
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
11 March 2022

Published at the end of last year, Burnt: Fighting for Climate Justice is the first book from Chris Saltmarsh, socialist climate campaigner and the co-founder of Labour for a Green New Deal.

With top climate scientist James Hansen recently noting ‘the 1.5°C target certainly will be exceeded, and the world will almost certainly blow through the 2°C ceiling” Ian Sinclair asked Saltmarsh about capitalism and the climate crisis, and the role played by established NGOS and new grassroots campaigns such as Extinction Rebellion and the youth strikes.

Ian Sinclair: Your analysis in the book is unashamedly anti-capitalist. Why? 

Chris Saltmarsh: It’s really clear to me that the climate crisis is a crisis of capitalism. We have an economic system that puts profit before all else. Fossil fuel companies have known since the 1970s or 1980s that their business model is driving global heating. Yet they continue to extract and burn oil, gas and coal because frankly there aren’t many other resources that generate such high returns. Most of these companies have invested millions in acquiring reserves and developing technologies. Even if there is money to be made in generating renewable energy, within capitalism it doesn’t make business sense for these companies to not extract every last drop of fossil fuels.

The book is anti-capitalist because, while there’s a lot of moralising that goes on in the climate movement, its not really any individuals’ fault. Not my fault, your grandma’s or even really fossil fuel company CEOs. We all play by the rules of the system and if Shell’s CEO suddenly became enlightened and wanted to put a stop to it he’d be replaced very quickly. Fundamentally, if we don’t have an anti-capitalist analysis of the climate crisis then we’ll remain stuck in partial solutions that won’t get to the heart of the problem.

IS: You are critical of what you call the “environmental NGO industry”. Surely green NGOs like World Wide Fund for Nature, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace do valuable work?  

I’m critical of these NGOs because although they are seen (by themselves and others) as the leadership of the climate movement, they operate within really significant constraints. Politically, there is a really strong ideology of liberalism which runs through these organisations. This means they’re generally unprepared to take an anti-capitalist – let alone socialist – analysis of climate change. It means they never support necessary measures like expanding public ownership and democracy in the economy. Organisationally, they are generally structured like corporations. They have an unaccountable and overpaid CEO or director, a bloated middle-management, and under-paid underlings who do most of the work with no say. These organisations aren’t democracies internally, and they certainly aren’t building a democratic mass climate movement.

We should understand this, though, as being a broadly structural problem. As charities they’re legally limited in what they can do by government. That they’re funded either by relatively conservative supporters or the philanthropic arm of capital (grants from trust and foundations) is a major source of political moderation. Sure, some of the work they do is useful, although a lot is actively harmful to our movement such as focusing on individual behaviour change. There is definitely a role for some of these organisations to play, but they need to understand their own limitations and contribute to the wider movement with more humility.

IS: 2019 saw an explosion of climate activism in the UK, and around the world, with Extinction Rebellion and the youth strikes. What is your assessment of the impact of these two movements in the UK? 

CS: My view is that these two movements, along with campaigns for a Green New Deal, emerged as responses to the same moment. In the summer of 2018, we saw really stark extreme weather like wildfires; an IPCC [United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report warning we only had 12 years left to save the planet; and another report warning of a ‘hothouse earth’. They effectively channelled a latent anxiety and strong desire for proper climate action among the public.

I think both were effective at mobilising previously inactivated constituencies of people. The youth strikes obviously did this with school children. I thought this was particularly powerful as one of my criticisms of the wider climate movement is that it doesn’t really understand what its base is. Is it workers? Is it urban climate-conscious liberals? Too often we try to mobilise everyone and end up with nobody. Others should learn from the youth strikes organising a defined group. XR [Extinction Rebellion] did similar with older people, I think. Overall, their major impact was to push climate further up the political agenda and keep it there. This is valuable, of course, but also limited. It was essentially enhanced awareness raising. The lack of politics and demands, particularly from XR, allowed for elite co-option and unfortunately a dissipation of what became relatively short-lived energy.

IS: You argue the state is the only political form presently capable of transforming the economy and society in the short timescale the climate crisis requires, devoting a chapter of the book to the concept of a Green New Deal, which the 2019 Labour Party conference endorsed. What would a Green New Deal entail? 

CS: A Green New Deal is broadly a state-programme of investment, regulation and economic transformation with the dual aims of rapid decarbonisation and achieving economic justice. There are different interpretations from different political positions. In the book, I make the case for a socialist Green New Deal which has expanding public ownership of the economy at the heart. Crucially, a Green New Deal must also be serious about a proper just transition to clean energy. This means guaranteeing jobs for all workers in polluting industries, repealing all anti-trade union laws, and spreading industrial economy across sectors.

In terms of what a Green New Deal would mean for everyday life, for me it’s about making the greenest option the cheapest and easiest in every corner of life. Transport, for example, would mean a shift from polluting private cars to low-carbon public transport that’s cheap or free, accessible and quick. Housing would mean warm homes for all alongside a massive expansion of council housing. Ultimately, its about a green transition that improves our lives at the same time. Perhaps most importantly, a socialist Green New Deal doesn’t just seek these transformations within the borders of one country, but internationally too.

IS: Where do you think the UK climate movement, and the broader left, should go from here?  

CS: I think the climate movement and the Left need to have a realistic assessment of where we are. The Tories are still in power and emissions are rising. We also need a realistic strategy for achieving a Green New Deal. There are a few pre-conditions for it. First, electing a socialist government and capturing state power more widely. Second, having a radical and militant trade union movement taking industrial action for climate and economic justice. Third, a radical mass democratic climate movement mobilising millions of people on the streets and to take direct-action.

On all counts, we’re not where we need to be. The climate-left needs to divide our energies between working to re-capture the Labour Party as the most viable vehicle for a socialist government in the UK and agitating for it to have ambitious Green New Deal policies. We also need to work to re-empower our trade unions by organising our workplaces and building confidence and militancy. We can connect fights over pay and conditions to climate where relevant, and otherwise work internally to create common-sense support for a Green New Deal and a just transition among union members. We also need dozens of offshoots of youth strikes and XR, mobilising new constituencies and cohering around demands for a socialist Green New Deal.

Burnt is published by Pluto Press, priced £9.99. Follow Chris on Twitter @Chris_Saltmarsh.

How do we stop the UK enabling the bloodbath in Yemen?

How do we stop the UK enabling the bloodbath in Yemen?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
16 February 2022

As we approach the seventh anniversary of the beginning of Saudi Arabia’s ongoing military intervention and blockade in Yemen, the horror continues.

By the end of 2021 the United Nations Development Programme estimated 377,000 people had been killed in Yemen, either directly through violence or indirectly through hunger and disease. This follows 2018 analysis from Save the Children that estimated “85,000 children under five may have died from extreme hunger since the war in Yemen escalated” in March 2015 with the Saudi involvement. More broadly, in September 2021 the United Nations World Food Programme warned that 16 million Yemenis – over half the population – were “marching toward starvation”. And in 2018 Mark Lowcock, the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said Yemen was dealing with “what most people think is the biggest epidemic of cholera outbreak the world has seen.”

Unsurprisingly, the United Nations calls Yemen “the largest humanitarian crisis in the world”.

According to Saudi Arabia, their intervention started in support of Yemen President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who had been overthrown by Houthi rebels. Working with a coalition of Middle East states (including Egypt, UAE and Kuwait), and backed by the US and UK, Saudi Arabia has been bombing and blockading Yemen, long known as the poorest country in the Middle East.

Speaking to the Guardian’s Owen Jones, Sam Perlo-Freeman from the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) noted “The Saudis are maintaining [the blockade] without suffering any consequences or diplomatic efforts. The attention given by the world’s powers to end the war or at the least the humanitarian crisis in Yemen is woefully inadequate to nonexistent.”

This is especially pertinent to the UK’s role in the conflict, as the UK is the “penholder” on Yemen at the UN Security Council. “That means that the UK has the power to draft and table Security Council products on Yemen – including press statements, resolutions, and presidential statements, and more,” Save the Children explains. “It means they have the power to lead the way in efforts to forge a political, not military, solution to the conflict.”

But the UK’s role in Yemen goes far beyond refusing to act to end the fighting – the UK has actively worked to shield Saudi Arabia from criticism. For example, in 2018 the Guardian noted the UN Security Council “failed to agree to a statement calling on forces led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to implement a ceasefire, with the US and UK both voicing opposition to the text introduced by Sweden.”

This is unsurprising when you consider the then UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond stated in March 2015 that “We’ll support the Saudis in every practical way short of engaging in combat… political support, of course, logistical and technical support.”

With the UK one of the leading arms suppliers to Saudi Arabia, in January CAAT reported “the published value of UK arms licensed for export to the Saudi-led coalition since the bombing began in March 2015 is £6.9 billion”. However, CAAT themselves estimate the real value of UK arms to Saudi Arabia to be over £20 billion.

And as Hammond explains, UK support goes beyond arms sales, providing personnel and technical expertise to keep the Saudi assault going. Writing in the Guardian in 2019, Arron Merat notes “around 6,300 British contractors are stationed at forward operating bases in Saudi Arabia”, where they train pilots and carry out essential maintenance on the planes. In 2016 the Telegraph reported British (and US) military officials were working in the command and control centre for Saudi airstrikes on Yemen, which included access to lists of targets. After conducting a survey of Saudi-led airstrikes in Yemen, in 2016 the Yemen Data Project, a group of academics, human rights organisers and activists, noted more than one-third of air raids on Yemen had hit civilian sites, such as hospitals, schools, mosques, markets and economic infrastructure.

“The Saudi bosses absolutely depend on [UK arms company] BAE Systems. They couldn’t do it without us,” John Deverell, the ex-defence attache to Saudi Arabia, told Merat. Appearing in a 2019 Channel 4 Dispatches documentary a BAE employee explained “If we weren’t there, in seven to 14 days there wouldn’t be a jet in the sky.”

Moreover, it seems British troops have actually been fighting on the ground in Yemen, with the Mail on Sunday reporting in 2019 “at least five British Special Forces commandos have been wounded in gun battles as part of a top-secret UK military campaign”. According to the article “the SBS [Special Boat Service] mentoring teams inside Yemen include medics, translators and Forward Air Controllers (FACs), whose job is to request air support from the Saudis.”

Despite this deep involvement, frustratingly YouGov polls in 2017 and 2018 found a large section of the UK public was not even aware the war was happening. That luxury is not available to Yemenis.

“The 70% of Yemenis living in Houthi rebel-controlled areas are well aware it is nations such as the UK that enable bombing raids on their weddings, hospitals and schoolchildren,” Bethan McKernan reported in the Guardian last year. “Technical information and serial numbers from missile parts are easily traced to western arms manufacturers, and many families hang on to such evidence in the hope that one day, justice for their loved ones will be served.”

So far the British left, anti-war and peace movement have been unable to stop the UK’s complicity in the slaughter in Yemen. It came close in 2019, when the government was forced to temporarily suspend new arms sales to Saudi Arabia, after a legal challenge from CAAT led to the court of appeal ruling British arms sales to Saudi Arabia were unlawful. And there have been other impressive acts of resistance, including British soldier Ahmed al-Babati courageously protesting in Whitehall against Britain’s involvement in the war, and peace activist Sam Walton’s attempted citizen’s arrest of Saudi general in London in 2017.

So what is to be done? How can the anti-war movement increase the public’s awareness – and anger – about Britain’s role helping to escalate the conflict, and therefore exacerbate the catastrophe?

It would be unwise to expect help from Keir Starmer’s Labour Party, which obviously doesn’t see the destruction of Yemen as a priority. In February 2021 Declassified UK’s Matt Kennard noted the Labour leader had “tweeted the word ‘Yemen’ once in history.”

Ditto the corporate media, including much of the liberal commentariat, which has all too often mirrored the British elite’s indifference to Yemen – a point Florian Zollmann, a Senior Lecturer in Journalism at Newcastle University, made to me in 2018.

“Whilst reports and critical discussions about Saudi Arabia’s military conduct and the way civilian areas have been systematically targeted in Yemen have been published by the press, there has been no sustained campaign in the news media aimed at seriously constraining the Saudi military’s ability to use force,” he noted. “Comparing this with reporting on Syria, where the Western news media have been constantly featuring reports that include discussions about military and other forms of intervention, the double standards could not be more obvious.”

The editor of Interventions Watch blog recently noted the journalist Paul Mason had sent just three tweets including the word “Yemen” since the start of the Saudi intervention in March 2015. Similarly, a search in early February showed senior Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland has tweeted about Yemen five times in the same period – less than once every year of the conflict. In comparison, Mason had sent 18 tweets including the word “Russia” since the start of 2022 alone.

As is often the case, any shift in UK policy on Yemen will likely come down to the size and effectiveness of grassroots activism and pressure. The British left needs to make Yemen a campaigning priority. Perhaps the war should be a central focus for Jeremy Corbyn’s Peace and Justice Project, which feels it has a huge amount of unrealised potential.

Could 2022 be the year the UK is forced to end its crucial role in enabling the world’s largest humanitarian crisis?

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Book review. Veteranhood: Rage and Hope in British Ex-Military Life by Joe Glenton

Book review. Veteranhood: Rage and Hope in British Ex-Military Life by Joe Glenton
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
31 December 2021

A wide-ranging memoir-polemic, Joe Glenton sees his new book is an attempt “to address the commonly held idea that we vets are all irredeemably right-wing.”

Glenton, who served in Afghanistan with the British Army’s Royal Logistical Corps before going AWOL in 2007 and refusing to fight in the war, proves to be an excellent guide to this complex and often controversial topic, deploying lashings of black humour and military lingo (explained for the uninitiated).

Rather than “a reactionary blob”, he argues the military has always been a contested space, with a rich, though largely unknown, history of progressive dissent and resistance in the ranks. This applies to veterans too, with Glenton and others working in grassroots organisations such as Veterans For Peace UK and Forces Watch. 

His brief historical overview of political and social struggles within the military is exceptional, with inspiring pen portraits of the New Model Army in the English Civil War, the radicalising Cairo Parliaments at the end of World War Two, Ahmed al-Batati’s 2020 Whitehall protest against the Yemen War, and other rebellions. Another impressive chapter focusses on the post-9/11 Militarisation Offensive in the UK – the extensive campaign by the government, military, MPs and the media “to stymie criticism of British foreign policy on the home front by popularising the military.” This, he notes, was not planned and run by the Tories, as you might expect, “but by the most violent force in British politics in my lifetime: New Labour.” 

Glenton is similarly sharp in his criticism of high-profile military veterans (“either openly reactionary or political mediocre”) and those ex-military figures who end up in parliament, such as former Minister for Veterans Johnny Mercer MP (“the sullen personification of a failed officer corps”) and “NATO-backing” Clive Lewis.

He quotes testimony from other veterans throughout the book, with one comparing large parts of military training and culture to domestic abuse, noting the commonality of “controlling, coercive and threatening behaviour”. As another veteran argues, “It is not just battlefield trauma that causes mental health issues but the conditioning associated with training have a massive part to play.”

Glenton isn’t a pacifist though: he describes his politics as mostly anarchist and libertarian socialist, and explains he would seriously consider supporting UK military action in defence of Palestinians or Kurdish Rojava. And while the book is a radical critique of the institution of the military and how the armed forces are used by the ruling class as an “instrument for imperial violence”, “the Mob” continues to exhibit a pull on him. He clearly has affection for some aspects of military culture, and respect for the men and women who have worn the uniform. “These are not simple lives, and they defy simple interpretations”, he notes.

While some non-fiction books can be a chore to read, Veteranhood, like his award-winning 2013 biography Soldier Box, is full of brilliant writing, with a certain swagger and righteous anger to the prose. 

Quite simply, Glenton is one of the most important voices writing about UK military matters today.

Shell’s U-turn on Cambo oil field: the importance of protest and public opinion

Shell’s U-turn on Cambo oil field: the importance of protest and public opinion
by Ian Sinclair
6 December 2021

After a number of high profile actions by the campaign to stop Cambo oil field against Shell, the Scottish government, at city financiers and at COP26, and no doubt a ton of other activism by a broad range of organisations, on 2 December 2021 Shell announced it was pulling out of the controversial oil field project off the Shetland Islands in Scotland.

The reporting of this decision by the BBC and Channel 4 News highlights the impact of protest and public opinion on that decision:

“The Cambo field is one of the largest unexploited oil fields left in the region. It was being touted by Shell as a 25 year investment but the oil giant now says the economics don’t justify going ahead… the project has certainly become very controversial. Greenpeace has vowed to take legal action to stop drilling and last month Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, came out against the project. So no doubt Shell will have also been worried about the rising reputational cost of Cambo.”  – Justin Rowlatt, BBC Climate Editor, 08:00 News, BBC Today Programme, BBC Radio 4, 3 December 2021

“So why walk away from a 30 percent share in an oil field that reportedly holds 170 million barrels of oil? Shell say the economic case for investing in this project just isn’t strong enough. [Directly to camera] There is more at play here than just economics and making money. Investors now care much more about how that money is made. Senior city financiers have told us the blowback they would get from shareholders, from pension funders, from the press, from the public, mean that pumping yet more money into firms with so-called dirty investments often just isn’t worth the hassle now. With Cambo oilfield there is a reputational liability for Shell, and ultimately it is one they’ve decided to walk away from.” – Paul McNamara, Channel 4 News, 3 December 2021.

Why the UK Left is wrong to be so dismissive of non-violent struggle

Why the UK Left is wrong to be so dismissive of non-violent struggle
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
20 November 2021

Non-violence is under attack.

Many influential figures on the Left in the UK dismiss, misrepresent or ignore the concept of non-violent struggle, also known as civil resistance. Indeed, two books have recently been published that explicitly criticise non-violence – Andreas Malm’s ‘How To Blow Up A Pipeline’ and ‘In Defense of Looting’ by Vicky Osterweil. In a June 2020 editorial, the revolutionary Leftist magazine Salvage proclaimed: “Salvage glorifies the burning down of the Minneapolis third police precinct [in response to the murder of African-American man George Floyd]”.

Below I respond to some of the myths often repeated on the Left about non-violent struggle.

Myth One: violence is more effective than non-violence in making change

“Columnists did not cut it. Activists could not have done it. Peaceful protest did not do it. Sports boycotts, books, badges and car boot sales did not do it,” wrote Afua Hirsch in The Guardian in April 2018 about the end of apartheid in South Africa. “It took revolutionaries, pure and simple. People willing to break the law, to kill and be killed.”

Yet while there is disagreement about the relative importance of violence and non-violence in the struggle, it is clear that at the very least, non-violent struggle played an important contributory role in the end of apartheid.

Summarising the key events – which included labour strikes, boycotts, demonstrations and civil disobedience, activities involving hundreds of thousands of people – in a 2010 article for the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, Lester Kurtz, a professor at George Mason University, wrote: “In the end, a concerted grassroots non-violent civil resistance movement in coalition with international support and sanctions forced the white government to negotiate.” Of course, many highlight the importance of the armed resistance but I’m confident no serious historian or observer would be dismissive of the incredibly brave non-violent resistance to apartheid.

More broadly, to quote the non-violent action guru George Lakey, “the underlying assumption” of a view such as Hirsch’s “is that violence is the most powerful force in the world”. As Lakey noted in 2001: “This is conventional wisdom, shared by most right-wingers, left-wingers, and people in the middle. It’s as popular as the old consensus that the earth is flat. And it is just as incorrect.”

The 2011 book ‘Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict’ by Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan provides academic evidence in support of the efficacy of non-violent struggle. The 2012 winner of the American Political Science Association’s Woodrow Wilson Foundation Award, given annually for the best book on government, politics, or international relations, the study was a key inspiration for the founders of Extinction Rebellion, arguably one of the most successful protest movements in recent British history (though writing in Peace News Gabriel Carlyle notes their analysis of the book isn’t quite right).

Analysing 323 examples of resistance campaigns and rebellion from 1900 to 2006, the authors concluded that non-violent campaigns have been twice as successful as violent campaigns in achieving their objectives. They argued this difference is down to non-violent campaigns being more likely to attract mass support. This greater level of participation tends to lead to more tactical innovation, more loyalty shifts among the regime’s supporters, and raises the political, economic and social costs to the regime – all of which increase the chances of success.

Their findings are broadly supported by the research of Kathleen Gallagher Cunningham, assistant professor of political science at the University of Maryland. Using a different data set of violent and non-violent strategies of groups seeking self-determination between 1960 and 2005, she concluded that non-violent resistance “is more effective than violence in obtaining concessions over self-determination”.

2020 journal article in the American Political Science Review by Omar Wasow of Princeton University provides further evidence. Evaluating Black-led protests in the US between 1960 and 1972, he found that “non-violent activism, particularly when met with state or vigilante repression, drove media coverage, framing, congressional speech, and public opinion on civil rights. Counties proximate to non-violent protests saw presidential Democratic vote share increase 1.6-2.5%.”

In contrast, “Protester-initiated violence… helped move news agendas, frames, elite discourse, and public concern toward ‘social control’.” He concluded that violent protests likely caused a 1.5-7.9% shift among whites toward Republicans in the 1968 presidential election, tipping the close-run election for Richard Nixon.

Myth Two: non-violent struggle is passive

Hirsch’s framing above implies that ‘peaceful’ activists don’t break the law, aren’t willing to get killed, and aren’t revolutionaries. This ahistorical muddle feeds into another popular myth about non-violent struggle – that it is passive and avoids conflict.

Chenoweth sets out the reality in her new book ‘Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs To Know’: “Civil resistance is a method of conflict – an active, confrontational technique that people or movements use to assert political, social, economic or moral claims… In a very real sense, civil resistance constructively promotes conflict.”

Having created a list of 198 methods of non-violent action, Gene Sharp – sometimes called “the Clausewitz of non-violent warfare” – described them as “non-violent weapons… the direct equivalent of military weapons”. Sharp saw non-violent struggle as a form of warfare, arguing that a non-violent campaign should have the same level of strategic vision, tactical smarts and coordination as a successful military campaign – one reason he sought out the influential military historian and strategist Sir Basil Liddell Hart to discuss the topic in the late 1950s.

The often strategically brilliant US civil rights movement provides a good case study. Writing about the representation of Martin Luther King in the 2014 film ‘Selma’, Jessica Leber noted that the non-violent campaign he led in 1965 for African-American voting rights “was incredibly aggressive, brave, and strategic – in many cases aiming to force the state into violent opposition”.

Myth Three: non-violent struggle isn’t a realistic option when confronting dictatorships

Writing last year in support of Palestinian armed resistance to the Israeli occupation, Louis Allday approvingly quoted the former resistance fighter and South African president, Nelson Mandela: “Non-violent passive resistance is effective as long as your opposition adheres to the same rules as you do, but if peaceful protest is met with violence, its efficacy is at an end.”

Like Allday, Kehinde Andrews, professor of Black studies at Birmingham City University, also believes non-violent struggle is not a realistic tactic in the face of violence. Speaking to Giles Fraser on the latter’s Confessions podcast, Andrews argued: “You have to be realistic. If you create a politics which can overturn Western capitalism, you are going to have to use violence. You are not going to have a choice because there will be violence meted out against you.”

In contrast, Chenoweth and Stephan noted: “The notion that non-violent action can be successful only if the adversary does not use violent repression is neither theoretically nor historically substantiated.” They argued that their findings are “true even under conditions in which most people would expect non-violent resistance to be futile, including situations in which dissent is typically met with harsh regime pressure”. Writing in 2003 about the misconceptions around non-violent resistance, the political scientist Kurt Schock argued that the evidence actually points to the opposite conclusion: “In fact non-violent action has been effective in brutally repressive contexts, and it has been ineffective in open democratic polities.”

There are many historical examples showing how largely non-violent movements played a central role in overthrowing repressive governments. The Shah of Iran in 1979, President Marcos’s oppressive 20-year reign in the Philippines in 1986 and President Bashir in Sudan in 2019 are just a few.

One reason non-violent struggle can overthrow brutal dictatorships is because, as Chenoweth and Stephan note, government repression is more likely to backfire against a non-violent campaign than it is against a violent campaign. This backfiring often leads to even greater mobilisation against the government, shifts among loyalists to the regime and sanctions against the violent offender.

What’s more, using a data set of 308 resistance campaigns between 1950 and 2013, Chenoweth and Evan Perkoski, from the University of Connecticut, highlight a “counterintuitive paradox” – that those campaigns which remain non-violent and unarmed with no significant foreign support are safest from mass killings. They concluded: “Non-violent uprisings are almost three times less likely than violent rebellions to encounter mass killings, all else being equal.”

Myth Four: non-violence isn’t realistic in the Global South

Speaking on a Novara Media livestream last year, host Michael Walker explained that he supports a strategy of non-violence in countries like the US and UK, countries which “are liberal democracies where public opinion matters”. However, he went on to note “the limits of non-violence in Global South countries” such as Indonesia and Chile, where reformist, largely non-violent social democratic movements and governments were violently overthrown by the military and CIA.

Last year, Guardian columnist Nesrine Malik wrote that in 2010, as she was travelling to Sudan, the country of her birth, at the beginning of what became the Arab Spring, “it was simply unfathomable that peaceful protests would overthrow an Arab dictator. It had never happened before.”

In reality, movements that have primarily relied on non-violent struggle have a long history in the Global South, including some successes in the Arab world.

Sudan itself provides two examples, with dictatorships toppled in 1964 and 1985 “through massive civil resistance campaigns”, according to Stephen Zunes, professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco, an assessment confirmed by Dr Willow Berridge in his 2015 book ‘Civil Uprisings in Modern Sudan: the “Khartoum Springs” of 1964 and 1985’.

It is also worth noting that in the Novara Media livestream, Walker was referring to President Suharto’s murderous seizure of power in Indonesia in 1967, and Augusto Pinochet’s destruction of Allende’s democratically elected government in Chile in 1973. But he failed to mention that non-violent campaigns played a central role in ousting Suharto in 1999 and Pinochet in 1988.

Though pretty much unknown in the West, there are many other examples of non-violent campaigns playing a central role in regime change in the Global South. In 1944 peaceful demonstrations overthrew the Guatemalan dictator General Ubico. The same year, President Maximiliano Hernández Martínez in El Salvador was removed by mass civil resistance. Influenced by Gandhi, Kwame Nkrumah led a popular, largely non-violent uprising to win independence for Ghana in 1957. Many more examples of the power of non-violent struggle are listed in Chenoweth’s book ‘Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs To Know’ – from the campaign for Zambia’s independence in 1964 to Brazil’s transition from military dictatorship to popular democracy in the 1980s, and Malawians bringing down 30-year dictator Hastings Kamuzu Banda in the early 1990s.

Is the data on non-violence reliable?

As a seminal text with a bold conclusion, Chenoweth and Stephan’s ‘Why Civil Resistance Works’ has unsurprisingly received some criticism, including a number of academic responses.

All of the three critiques I have read argue the NAVCO database that Chenoweth and Stephan base their conclusions on is flawed.

In 2018 Mohammad Ali Kadivar and Neil Ketchley noted: “The coding of violence used in NAVCO derives primarily from the Correlates of War data set, which requires that all combatants be armed and for there to be at least one thousand battle deaths during the course of a campaign.” This definition, they added, “excises incidents of unarmed collective violence, which are otherwise coded as episodes of nonviolent protest.” Therefore, in addition to non-violent and violent campaigns, Kadivar and Ketchley presented a third category: “unarmed collective violence”, described as episodes which “inflict physical damage on persons and/or objects… without the use of firearms or explosives”.

With this expanded terminology, they concluded: “An event history analysis finds that riots are positively associated with political liberalisation in 103 non-democracies from 1990 to 2004,” and that, “In contrast to the assertions by non-violent resistance literature… acts of [unarmed collective] violence have not been detrimental to the cause of democratisation but may have even enhanced the chances of a democratising outcome.”

In a 2020 journal article in Critical Sociology, Alexei Anisin highlighted a number of campaigns that are missing from the NAVCO dataset. When these are included, he noted that from 1900-2006 non-violent campaigns were successful 48% of the time, unarmed violent campaigns 56% of the time, and violent campaigns 29% of the time.

Similarly, writing in the Comparative Politics journal in 2016, Fabrice Lehoucq noted that Chenoweth and Stephan omitted several campaigns that took place in Central America after 1900. Adding in these omitted examples he finds the success rate of non-violent and violent campaigns to be pretty much the same – 42% and 41%, respectively.

Chenoweth replied directly to Lehoucq’s criticism, noting the NAVCO database had been expanded and refined since 2011, and that “the aggregate statistics are virtually identical to those cited in ‘Why Civil Resistance Works’, with non-violent campaigns having a much higher success rate than violent campaigns.” Moreover, even if one were to agree that Lehoucq’s and Anisin’s analyses are accurate, then non-violent campaigns have close to the same success rate as “unarmed violence campaigns”, and close to or better success rates than “violent campaigns” – results which are very far away from the dismissive assertions of the UK Left.

It is also worth highlighting two key takeaways from ‘Why Civil Resistance Works’ that I am not aware of being seriously challenged. First, non-violent campaigns are associated with far less death and destruction than violent campaigns – compare the orgy of violence in Syria and Libya after 2011 with what happened in Tunisia and Egypt, for example. Second, non-violent campaigns are more likely to lead to more democratic forms of governance than violent campaigns, a finding which is echoed by a 2005 Freedom House study.

As Chenoweth noted in her reply to Lehoucq: “‘Why Civil Resistance Works’ was not intended to be the final word on the matter, but it has helped to provoke systematic academic inquiry on a topic that has long been neglected or even derided in scholarly circles.”

Future research will refine and challenge our existing assumptions about non-violence and violence. Having read a little around the subject, I’m struck by how complicated and often contradictory campaigns and movements are in the real world – history rarely provides definite answers. In addition to actively reading about the topic, supporters of non-violent action should welcome sincere, evidence-based research and criticism. This is, after all, how one gains a greater understanding of how the world works and how to make it better – not by reflexively rejecting and misrepresenting a concept that has a long history of creating positive change.

Book review. Roads, Runways and Resistance: From The Newbury Bypass to Extinction Rebellion by Steve Melia

Book review. Roads, Runways and Resistance: From The Newbury Bypass to Extinction Rebellion by Steve Melia
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
October-November 2021

Steve Melia has taken a topic that could be dully technical and written a book that is both interesting and infused with a sense of urgency in terms of the climate crisis.

Underpinned with 50 original interviews with activists, policymakers and lobbyists, he surveys the key campaigns against government transport policy over the past 30 years, from the anti-roads protests of the 90s to the fight against airport expansion, and the Extinction Rebellion (XR) mass actions in 2019. His review includes the fuel protests of 2000, which nearly brought the country to a standstill.

As a Senior Lecturer in Transport and Planning at the University of the West of England, Melia’s writing leans toward the academic, though he has a journalist’s eye for detail and a good story. He relates how one of the first targets of the 1994 Criminal Justice Act, with its new offence of ‘aggravated trespass’, was ‘a pantomime cow called Buttercup’ at the Newbury Bypass protests: ‘The front half pleaded guilty to aggravated trespass while the rear half argued that his vision was obscured when they pranced across a security cordon’.

His analysis of the impact of protest will be of particular interest to activists – all the movements in the book ‘did have at least some influence on policy and practice’, he argues. For example, the anti-roads movement triggered a significant shift in public opinion and government policy, with most of the Tories’ planned road schemes dropped by the mid-90s. ‘Swampy had a lasting impact,’ notes a government advisor in the mid-2000s. ‘To build a road now is a lot of aggro.’

However, Melia notes government transport policy tends to change for three interconnected reasons: the strength of argument and evidence, the economic context, and public opinion – often driven by direct action. On the last point, he maintains ‘the main message of this book for XR or any other protest groups is that your actions will only work if you bring public opinion with you.’ This reference to XR – Melia was arrested during the April 2019 Rebellion – is, in part, about the controversial action to occupy a tube train at Canning Town in October 2019.

‘The need for disruptive protest action has never been greater’, he concludes. With the government attempting to push ahead with the expansion of Heathrow airport and a huge road building programme (sound familiar?), Roads, Runways and Resistance couldn’t be more timely.

Roads, Runways and Resistance: From The Newbury Bypass to Extinction Rebellion is published by Pluto Press, priced £16.99.