the debrief: issue one

Insulate Britain: A bump in the road 

by Rachael Ward

image credit: JamieLowe68 (Wikimedia Commons)

A little like driving on the motorway, driving through a political agenda has its bumps and blockages. Insulate Britain has been a stumbling block for both motorists and the movers and shakers behind Downing Street’s doors. 

Being caught in traffic borders on bearable at the best of times. But being lodged in a line of lorries when the cause of commotion is an orchestrated campaign crosses the border of what one can bear. From September to December of 2021 the campaign group, Insulate Britain, took to the roads to rally for their cause. The hotspot on the highway was the M25, the UK’s busiest motorway, while roads in Birmingham, Manchester and around the Port of Dover also witnessed blockages. To make things a little stickier, protesters often glued themselves to the road or one another. In one rather memorable moment, a motorist was caught on camera pleading with protesters to let her continue her journey to the hospital. This instance and others of its nature turned tempers up a notch. 

Nothing grinds the gears of the general public like a bit of road rage. So, there was little resistance and even some sighs of relief when ten protesters were arrested and several sentenced to serve time behind bars. The British Government also had little concern that their court injunctions to stamp down on highway havoc would stir up a political storm or cause public disapproval. 

It would be uncontroversial to conclude that blocking motorways to pass the time is a nonsensical nuisance. But it would be foolish to infer that this is all that these protests are about. Insulate Britain have a point to make and seek the power to make it. Blocking motorways is not just a way to while away the hours.  So, let’s strip away the tactics and turn to the cause. 

Insulate Britain are calling on the UK government to insulate all homes by 2030 and to cover the costs of insulating social housing. The UK Committee on Climate Change confirmed in their report in June 2021, that the government have made minimal progress towards home insulation in recent years. As the pandemic has caused an increase in energy use in the nation’s homes, there’ is a growing onus on the government to speed up the transition to renewable ways of heating homes. 

Amid the heat of the climate crisis, the cause could not be more important. As the climate conference, COP26, took to the diplomatic stage in November, Insulate Britain protesters dialled down their disruptive tactics. The event saw the world’s biggest political titles gather to discuss one of the world’s most pressing topics. From France to Australia, over two hundred climate protests occurred during the talks at COP26. If Insulate Britain do not have the government mood on their side, they appear to be reading the global mood with a greater degree of proficiency. 

Insulate Britain’s tactics come directly from the Extinction Rebellion playbook. Extinction Rebellion is an international campaigning group focused on compelling the capitals of pollution to cut down on their carbon emissions. Since 2018 they have been drawing attention to the climate crisis through civil disobedience across 45 different countries. In 2019 they blocked Major roads  in Berlin and in London protesters staged a sit-in on Parliament Square. 

Although not officially associated, Extinction Rebellion has demonstrated support for their UK specific heir. Both groups are willing to risk low-level disruption to halt irreversible destruction and are prepared to shed a little popularity in the process.

The political reaction and public response to their tactics have been nothing short of hostile. Natural allies and obvious opponents have at times been caught on the same page of the protesting pamphlet.  In his reliably unique choice of language, Boris Johnson called both groups “irresponsible crusties”. While the UK Transport Secretary announced his intentions to toughen up the Police Sentencing and Crime Bill to clamp down on protests that interfere with major roads. Even the Green Party’s co-leader admitted that the course of action Insulate Britain has pursued has fallen short of constructive. 

The cost of climate protesting does not come cheap. Insulate Britain has mounted up millions in public money in their three-month stint of motorway sitting. During their protests, 6651 officers were called out and £4 million was spent on policing. In the summer of 2021, Extinction Rebellion protests also placed a heavy burden on the public purse, with £18.1 million spent by the Metropolitan police. 

Priti Patel, the UK’s Home Secretary, contrasted the protesters to ‘law-abiding citizens’ and promised to clamp down on eco-protests in the new year. But with global temperatures on the rise and younger people accounting for their main body of support, it might be a little short-sighted to dismiss them as a present inconvenience. 

So, Insulate Britain and Extinction Rebellion have isolated the insiders. But is their objective persuasion or publicity? 

Publicity at the cost of the public purse and the people’s patience is a little unpalatable. But it is publicity nonetheless. According to Tracey Mallaghan, a spokesperson for Insulate Britain, “the only way we can get airtime is by annoying enough ordinary people”. For campaigning groups like Insulate Britain, protest is the last port of call, not a preferable pick. After failing to gain the government’s attention on legal avenues they took to larger roads.  

Environmental groups have harnessed a lot of publicity and very little popularity. Yet, such campaign groups cannot simply be set aside as an inconvenience to the daily commute. The protests might settle down, but the problem will not go away. At the end of the day when the motorways are back moving at their normal pace, who has right on their side?

Could the suffragists have done it without the suffragettes? Could the tables of civil law have been turned without a bit of civil unrest? No one likes to be caught in a traffic jam, but isn’t it worse to be caught on the wrong side of history? 

Countries around the world are hellbent on reducing global temperatures to lessen the cost of global warming. History will be unforgiving if the world fails to cut carbon emissions in the coming years. So, is Insulate Britain the conscience of the future or a pest of the past? 

Insulate Britain caused a bump in the road for the daily agenda of the general public, but they also made the government’s environmental agenda a little bumpier. If ambitious targets on climate change are going to be met, the government might have to listen to what these ‘irresponsible crusties’ have got to say. 

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