I find myself facing a crisis of civic conscience. According to guidance issued by counter-terrorism police in the South-East last November as part of the Prevent counter-extremist strategy, I should be on the lookout for people who speak in “strong or emotive terms about environmental issues like climate change, ecology, species extinction, fracking, airport expansion or pollution”.
Since this accounts for the overwhelming majority of my friends and acquaintances aged under 35, and a substantial proportion of those who are older, I am not sure where to begin. Am I expected to shop them all to the rozzers? Alphabetically? (It’s a long list).
Or is my deeper moral responsibility to tip off all these newly categorised subversives and advise them to take to the hills before they are rounded up? You see the dilemma.
The 12-page document has now, reportedly, been withdrawn, following the disclosure in the Guardian that it lists Extinction Rebellion (XR) alongside neo-Nazi and jihadi groups as a potential threat to national security. It urges us to stay vigilant in case we spot eco-activists plotting school strikes, sit-ins, or — heaven forbid — “writing environmentally themed graffiti.”
This is so unbelievably silly that one barely knows where to begin. To address the climate emergency in “strong or emotive terms” is not antisocial, hostile to the common good or irresponsible, but precisely the opposite.
One need only read the news to see that this is so. Australia is burning with horrifying consequences. Indonesia is afflicted by floods. Ocean temperatures reached a record high in 2019. Last week, the President of the UN General Assembly, Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, declared “inaction will put at risk all life on Earth as we know it”. In such circumstances, it is perhaps those who do not address the scale of the peril in “strong or emotive terms” that we should be worrying about.
Worse, the inclusion of XR in a document of this sort betrays an epic level of historic illiteracy about the changing character of the anti-capitalist movement. In the late Sixties and Seventies, groups such as the Weather Underground Organization and the Baader–Meinhof Group certainly engaged in violent acts, and were pursued for their criminal actions.
After the unrest at the Seattle summit of the WTO in 1999, there was a fresh wave of anti-globalisation militancy —most evident in the so-called “Black Bloc” protesters who sought to sow anarchy at otherwise peaceful rallies. Yet the whole point about the XR phenomenon has been its conspicuous aversion to violence. The scuffle at Canning Town Tube station last October — when protesters were dragged off a Jubilee line train by exasperated commuters — was notable precisely because it was so unusual. XR has been quite open about its ambition to cause disruption, slow down economic activity in the city, and generally make both a nuisance and a spectacle of itself. But its methods owe more to Gandhi than to guerrilla warfare. To a large extent, it has succeeded in pricking the collective conscience by renouncing violent methods.
The Home Secretary’s performative toughness may deliver short-term gains but it makes nobody safer
As a rule of thumb, when counter-terrorist police raise concerns of this sort, they do so because of specific intelligence. It is entirely plausible that there are fringe groups opposed to globalisation that have discussed more aggressive actions; and it is right that such schemes are monitored closely by law enforcement agencies. But it is a huge, lazy leap from legitimate vigilance of this sort to the implication in an official document that the entire XR movement should be an object of suspicion. Worse, such nonsense brings the Prevent strategy into deepening disrepute.
Launched by the Labour government in 2003 as part of the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy and broadened by the Coalition in 2011, Prevent was, and is, a good idea that suffered from clumsy execution. It is true that extremist propaganda is often the gateway to full-blown commitment to terrorist activity, and as a consequence, it is essential to monitor militancy of all sorts — especially in educational establishments and prisons — so that, as far as possible, this gateway may be blocked. The difficulty is where to draw the line and how to pre-empt acts or threats of violence without shutting down legitimate debate and campaigning. To this dilemma there is no glib solution. What is abundantly clear is that XR does not belong in the same category as the jihadi and neo-Nazi groups that counter-terrorist and security agencies keep in their sights.
The Prevent strategy is now the subject of a systematic review — stalled by the departure in December of Lord Carlile as head of the inquiry. One hopes that his work is resumed as quickly as possible, lest the entire strategy collapse as trust and credibility seep from its rickety foundations. Its prospects would have been greatly assisted if Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, had conceded that a straightforward error had been made in this case. But not a bit of it.
Yes, she told LBC, XR might be a “protest organisation”, but the police were quite right to keep it under surveillance. Her tone and implicit message were robustly unrepentant, and consistent with the unyielding, populist-Right course that she is steering at the Home Office. This performative toughness may conceivably deliver short-term political gains. But it is lousy policy, and it makes nobody safer.
God knows, there are a host of deadly threats to our collective security out there. But Extinction Rebellion is not among them.