Tag Archives: Plane Stupid

Book review. Twyford Rising: Land and Resistance

Book review. Twyford Rising: Land and Resistance by Helen Beynon with Chris Gillham
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
23 February 2021

IN 1989 the Thatcher government announced the “biggest road-building programme since the Romans”. One of the new schemes was the M3 extension past Winchester across Twyford Down.

With local groups having fought the planned road for decades with little success, in the early 1990s there was a shift to direct action. Concerned about the proposed road’s impact on the land, the so-called Dongas Tribe – named after the ancient trackways in the area – set up camp on the Down.

Skilfully using original interviews, letters, memoirs, photos and poems, the authors paint a vivid picture of outdoor living, with many people recalling a deep, spiritual connection to the land.

The Dongas were soon joined by members of radical environment network Earth First!, while local residents, such as ex-Tory Councillor David Croker, continued to lobby against the road through more conventional methods (some also participated in actions too).

There were tensions between the different groups, of course, but from summer 1992 onwards they were able to carry out regular nonviolent direct action, often forcing a stop to work on the site. In 1993 the Department of Transport claimed the protests were adding £20,000 a day to the costs of the road.

The crunch came on 9 December 1992 – known as “Yellow Wednesday” – when the camp was violently evicted by a small army of private security guards. The authors painfully highlight just how traumatic the clearance was for those who experienced it. Activist Becca records “Female protesters were sexually assaulted and had their clothes ripped off.”

With the camp forced off the Down, people continued organising, with large rallies and mass trespasses taking place at the work site in 1993 and 1994, including one in which Kinder Scout trespasser Benny Rothman spoke at.

The road was eventually built but not before the resistance at Twyford Down had lit the touch paper for the wider anti-roads movement. There were protests against the M11 Link Road in east London, Fairmile in Devon, Jesmond Dene in Newcastle and, most famously, the Newbury Bypass. Like Twyford, these hard fought battles ended in defeat for the protesters, though arguably they won the war.

“When we began campaigning there were 600 proposed schemes in the Government’s roads programme”, John Stewart, then chair of the anti-roads group ALARM UK, noted in 1998. “Now there are 150 and we expect that number to be cut further… we have done our job.”

More broadly, Twyford “begat a hundred campaigns”, activist Shane Collins notes, including Reclaim The Streets and the anti-GM movement of the late 90s. Key figures also assisted Plane Stupid with their campaign against airport expansion, and there is a clear link between the anti-roads movement and the climate camps of the 2000s and Extinction Rebellion.

Hugely inspiring, Twyford Rising is an engrossing account of one of the most important protests in recent British history. As the authors conclude: “Twyford richly deserves to be part of the legends of these Islands, for it is a lost land now, which once was filled with beauty and hope.”

To order Twyford Rising visit https://twyfordrising.org/.

Don’t despair! Even protests that feel like a failure often have unexpected impacts

Don’t despair! Even protests that feel like a failure often have unexpected impacts
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
18 December 2018

A common response to those protesting is to dismiss it is a waste of time – “the government doesn’t listen”, “things never change” opine the naysayers. Frustratingly, this argument is sometimes even made by those doing the protesting themselves. On the 10th anniversary of the huge 15 February 2003 anti-Iraq War march author Tariq Ali – who spoke at the rally in Hyde Park that day – said “It was a huge show of anger but that’s about it. It left no lasting legacy”.

Leftists and activists working for progressive social change would be wise to steer clear of this kind of negativity, and instead remember that actions and protests often have unexpected, positive effects on other people and the wider world.

This rule very much applies to protests that seem like a failure at the time.

For example, in the early 1960s, Lisa Peattie, a young American widow, took two of her children to a vigil in front of the White House to protest nuclear testing.

“The vigil was small, a hundred women at most”, Paul Loeb, a friend of Peattie’s, writes in his bestselling 1999 book The Soul Of A Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times. “Rain poured down. Lisa’s children were restless. Frustrated and soaked, the women joked about how President Kennedy was no doubt sitting inside drinking hot chocolate, warm, comfortable, and not even looking at their signs.”

A few years later, Peattie attended another march in Washington D.C. about nuclear testing, this one significantly larger. One of the speakers that day was the famous paediatrician Benjamin Spock. “Spock described how he’d come to take a stand on the nuclear issue”, Loeb notes. “Because of his stature, his decision was immensely consequential, and would pave the way for his equally important opposition to the Vietnam War.” And here is the kicker: “Spock mentioned being in D.C. a few years earlier, and seeing a small group of women marching with their kids in the pouring rain.”

“I thought that if those women were out there,” Spock said, “their cause must be really important.”

According to the author Tom Wells, “few activists” in the anti-war movement Spock went on to play such an important part in “fully appreciated the considerable political power they possessed.” Despite this ignorance the movement “played a major role in constraining, de-escalating, and ending the war”, Wells concludes in his 1994 book The War Within: America’s Battle over Vietnam. This analysis was confirmed by Admiral Moorer, chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Nixon Administration, who told Wells, “The reaction of the noisy radical groups was considered all the time. And it served to inhibit and restrain the decision makers.”

The Vietnam War provides another case of the unexpected impact of activism. In the 1960s Daniel Ellsberg worked as a military analyst for the RAND Corporation where he helped to compile a top-secret study of the history of the war that had been commissioned by US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. “He was very hawkish”, Associated Press reporter Peter Arnett said about Ellsberg, having met him in Vietnam in 1966 when he was leading a patrol to locate an enemy sniper.

Growing increasingly disillusioned by the war, around 1969 Ellsberg began going along to anti-war movement events and protests, encouraged by his then girlfriend, and now wife. While attending a War Resister’s League conference and listening to draft resister Randy Kehler talk about his fellow activists going to prison, Ellsberg experienced a kind of epiphany. “It was as if an axe had split my head”, Ellsberg recounts in the 2009 documentary about his life, The Most Dangerous Man in America. “But what had really happened is that my life had split into two. It was my life after those words that I have lived ever since.” This life famously included deciding to leak, in 1971, the top secret history – now known as The Pentagon Papers – which exposed the lies the US government had been telling the American people for decades. “If I hadn’t met Randy Kehler it wouldn’t have occurred to me to copy those papers”, Ellsberg later said.

With the release of the Pentagon Papers failing to rouse the American public to rise up and stop the destruction of Vietnam, the documentary describes how Ellsberg felt he had failed. But while his actions may have failed to stop the war – an impossible feat for one individual, of course – he had a huge influence on another whistleblower more than four decades later: US intelligence analyst Edward Snowden.

“While I was weighing up whether to come forward or not – and this was an agonising process because it was certainly life-changing – I watched that documentary [The Most Dangerous Man in America]”, Snowden, who leaked National Security Agency documents in 2013, told the Guardian in January. “Dan’s example, hearing the arguments from someone who has lived through this, it helps prepare someone to make that jump themselves.”

This process of apparent defeat turning out to be the start of something hugely influential and powerful can be seen in UK protest too.

In the early 1990s a group of concerned young people set up camp at Twyford Down in 1992 to try to stop the building of the M3 motorway extension through beautiful chalk downland. This construction was part of “the biggest road-building programme since the Romans”, the Tory government had boasted in 1989. After living in tents in terrible conditions for several months, in December 1992 the protesters were violently evicted in what became known as Yellow Wednesday. Defeated and physically exhausted the group left the camp, and while there were many other protests, the road went ahead.

However, though the road was built, the Twyford Down protests lit the fuse for a growing movement against road building across the UK, with camps and nonviolent direct action sprouting up against the M11 Link Road in east London, at Solsbury Hill, Jesmond Dene in Newcastle, the Newbury Bypass and many other places, causing the government and road builders huge problems. With the Tories on their last legs and public opinion shifting, the road building programme was effectively scrapped. The 600 proposed new road schemes dropped to 150 by 1997, with Labour putting the whole programme on hold after that year’s general election. The activists at Twyford Down and the other anti-roads protests had lost nearly every individual battle, but in the end they won the war. Moreover, the anti-roads activists influenced the next ‘war’ by inspiring the founders of Plane Stupid direct action group, who played a key role in the halting of Heathrow expansion in the 2000s.

In a perfect world, every protest would produce clear, direct and quick results. In (messy) reality the exact impact of a protest or movement is often difficult to discern, with its full effects sometimes not felt for years, decades even. The 2003 anti-Iraq war march and movement that Tariq Ali disparages has had a whole host of long-term influences, from helping to shift public opinion against UK military interventions and shortening Tony Blair’s political career, to being a key factor in the historic 2013 parliamentary vote that stopped British military action in Syria. In 2016 Alistair Campbell, Blair’s spin doctor, argued “We cannot overlook the fact that widespread opposition to the [Iraq] war… played a big part in [Labour leader Jeremy] Corbyn’s rise.”

Indeed, as Snowden shows above, it’s possible the people who will be inspired by a protest are not even born when it takes place.

More broadly, it’s always good to keep a positive attitude about the possibility of making a difference. As Bertolt Brecht is said to have argued, “Those who struggle may fail. But those who do not struggle have already failed”.

Ian Sinclair is the author of The March That Shook Blair: An Oral history of the 15 February 2003, published by Peace News Press. Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

A rejuvenated green movement is needed now more than ever

A rejuvenated green movement is needed now more than ever
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
21 May 2018

Looking back from today, we can now see the mid to late 2000s marked a high point in activism, media interest and government action regarding climate change in the UK.

Increasingly large and prominent Climate Camps, drawing attention to climate endangering infrastructure, were organised every year between 2006 and 2010; the direct group Plane Stupid occupied runways and the roof of parliament to highlight the danger of airport expansion; and Climate Rush, inspired by the Suffragette’s campaign for the women’s vote, carried out media-friendly actions including a picnic at Heathrow departures and dumping a pile of horse manure on Jeremy Clarkson’s driveway.

With documentaries like 2006’s An Inconvenient Truth and 2009’s The Age of Stupid attracting huge audiences, David Cameron’s Tories sensed the shift in public opinion and rebranded themselves as an environmentally-friendly party. The slogan “vote blue, go green” was adopted and famously the old Etonian hugged a husky.

Ridiculous and shameless as this PR campaign was, the political arms race created by Cameron’s supposed green shift both proved the power of the green movement, and produced the political landscape it needed to win several important victories for the climate. Driven forward by a huge Friends of the Earth campaign, the 2008 Climate Change Act legally bound the UK to making 80 percent cuts in carbon emissions by 2050. The Coalition government scrapped the expansion of Heathrow after the 2010 general election, and, following actions and campaigning by a coalition of groups on coal, analysis by Imperial College London showed the dirtiest fossil fuel dropped from generating 40 percent of the UK’s electricity in 2012 to just 2 percent in the first half of 2017.

Zoom forward to today and the climate crisis that green activists devoted their lives to averting in the late noughties has only become more urgent.

For example, whilst senior climate scientists have repeatedly explained carbon admissions need to fall immediately and rapidly to avert climate catastrophe, the International Energy Agency reported that carbon emissions hit a record high last year, increasing by 1.4 percent. The New Yorker’s David Wallace-Wells provides some much need reality to the 2015 United Nations Paris climate agreement, which committed the 195 signatories to keeping the global temperature increase to below two degrees, and ideally under 1.5 degrees.  “Not a single major industrial nation was on track to fulfil the commitments it made in the Paris treaty”, Wallace-Wells notes, citing a November 2017 New York Times report based on data from Climate Action Tracker. “To keep the planet under two degrees of warming – a level that was, not all that long ago, defined as the threshold of climate catastrophe – all signatory nations have to match or better those commitments.”

Speaking to the Morning Star after the Paris Agreement, Professor Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, said it was “reasonable to say 3-4oC is where we are heading, and probably the upper end of that” – by 2100, if not before. The corporate world has already come to terms with this likely future, with an internal Shell planning document predicting a 4oC increase in the short term. Similarly in 2012 PricewaterhouseCoopers told businesses and governments that they “need to plan for a warming world – not just 2C, but 4C or even 6C.”

“What we are talking about here is an existential threat to our civilisation in the longer term”, Sir David King, former chief scientific adviser to the UK government, recently noted in an Environmental Justice Foundation report. “In the short term, it carries all sorts of risks as well and it requires a human response on a scale that has never been achieved before.” Speaking in 2011 about the risks climate change poses to Australia, Professor John Schellnhuber, Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, was even more direct: “the difference between two and four degrees is human civilization.”

As these warnings highlight, the importance of the looming climate chaos is hard to overestimate. “Every single day, climate change is the most important thing happening on the planet—there’s nothing even remotely close”, argues US climate activist Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, writing in the New Yorker magazine.

In contrast to this urgency, with a few important exceptions (e.g. the nationwide anti-fracking movement) the green movement in the UK seems to have been in a serious rut since 2009/10. The failure of the 2009 Copenhagen United Nations climate summit was a massive blow to the green movement’s morale, while the Coalition Government’s austerity programme led many activists to move from climate-specific work to campaigns such as UK Uncut and housing battles. In addition, since 2015 it is clear many activists on the Left who are concerned about climate change have put their time and energy into supporting Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, many joining Momentum.

Indeed, Corbyn’s environmental policies have broadly been positive. Friends of the Earth graded Labour’s 2017 election manifesto 34 points out of 48, behind the Green Party on 46 but above the Liberal Democrats (32) and Conservatives (11). That Morning Star columnist Alan Simpson is advising Corbyn on environmental issues is welcome, as is Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell’s recent announcement that Clive Lewis MP had joined his team to “drive the climate change issue into the heart of Treasury policy making, and therefore into the centre of government policy making”. However, there are still huge problems within the Labour Party when it comes to creating and pursuing effective policies on climate change. Many Labour MPs are still wedded to the ideal of a corporate-dominated neoliberal economy. The GMB union supports fracking. And, most importantly, Labour under Corbyn is still a pro-economic growth party – the word “growth” is mentioned 15 times in the election manifesto – despite this economic dogma being exactly the thing that is driving the planet over the climate cliff.

Rather than this old, 20th century thinking we desperately need new, radical ideas and action. We need, as Sir David King notes above, a wholesale transformation of our economies, which will only be possible with a profound shift in our politics and societal values. “Has an economic shift of this kind ever happened before in history?”, worries Canadian writer Naomi Klein in her essential book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. She cites the historical examples of the Civil Rights Movement, the campaign against Apartheid, the abolition of slavery and the New Deal to give an idea of the scale and influence of the mass movement that is now needed to defend the climate. Others have suggested the societal mobilisation that occurred during World War Two is closer to the level of change that we need to aim for.

This, then, is why a reinvigorated green movement is needed now more than ever – to pressure the current Tory government and Corbyn’s Labour Party to take proactive and effective steps to deal directly with the threat of climate change.

And we need to act now. As McKibben notes in his New Yorker article: though “it feels as if we have time to deal with global warming… In fact, climate change is the one problem that the planet has ever faced that comes with an absolute time limit; past a certain point, it won’t be a problem anymore, because it won’t have a solution.”

Follow Ian Sinclair on Twitter @IanJSinclair.