The current focus for Britain’s Green movement is Balcombe, and Cuadrilla’s operations to undertake preliminary work to extract shale gas. The protests have been large and enthusiastic and undoubtedly impressive: may people in the Green movement and beyond are starting to claim that they have been game-changing, not least following the arrest of Caroline Lucas MP at a demonstration earlier this week.
The protests appear to have galvanised the Green movement in the UK – but there is perhaps another interpretation in which they can be seen as demonstrating some of the essential weaknesses of Green politics.
In this context it is instructive to turn one’s gaze south to Brighton, where Britain’s only Green local administration is clearly in the deepest of trouble. The failure of Green politics in Brighton and Hove has two root causes: the failure of the local party to articulate a clear, persuasive Green vision to its electorate once in office – and, faced with the realities of power, albeit in a minority, its inability to offer a political response to the political crisis of pay modernisation (about which I have blogged before). To put it another way, the crucial failure happened at precisely the moment that the Party was forced to engage with power structures in a an explicitly political way – and, ultimately, bottled it. Moreover it is now rumoured that the Brighton Green Party is mired in internal crisis which its loose constitutional structure is incapable of resolving, with the Green group of councillors in particular simply failing to function as a cohesive unit.
Balcombe, and the reaction to it, begs inevitable questions about whether these problems are endemic in Green politics. There seems little doubt that at Balcombe, Green politics has moved back into its comfort zone; but there’s a case for arguing that Cuadrilla is in its comfort zone too. The protests were inevitable and, unlike the road protests of the early 1990s whose impacts and in particular costs did have a real impact on roads policy, the costs and public relations efforts will have been factored into Cuadrilla’s business case, just one more risk to be priced and managed. Cuadrilla will lose no sleep over these protests, because they do not change the fundamental balance of power – and the politicians who support shale gas extraction will draw nothing but relief if the focus moves from local opposition in the heart of middle England to high-profile protesters from outside the neighbourhood. The villagers of Balcombe – like local protesters in any area where fracking is mooted – present a political problem for local MPs and for the government; campaigners from outside can very easily present an opportunity, especially if the leadership of protest is seen to pass to them from local campaigners. None of which is to deny the importance of protest; but the context matters.
And there is a wider problem of political engagement. The political context in Britain right now is that, with less than two years to go until a general election, the Government is engaged on engineering a property boom based on credit of precisely the sort that, on a grander scale, caused the 2008 economic crash, to provide an illusion of prosperity at a time when real wages and household incomes are in freefall, while prices of essentials continue to soar. There is a collective failure, it seems to me, to articulate the links – that the entire business model for shale gas extraction is based, not just on a collective disregard for the environment, but on a long-term strategy of keeping energy costs high. Again the Brighton experience is instructive; fracking emerged briefly as an issue in the recent local by-election in Hanover and Elm Grove, but not in a way that showed the links between fracking and the day-to-day problems of people facing soaring domestic fuel bills. There is a bigger context that is being missed – a story around the need to find non-fossil fuels, to deal with a pricing structure for a declining commodity that is based in the short-term on speculation and greed, and in the long-term on a disregard for the environment and the costs – in the widest sense – that this brings. I have no doubt that there are people in the Green movement who are fully engaged in these issues; but it seems to me that the protests are about something different and the context is lost.
It seemed to me that Green blogger Stephen Wood, writing about local politics in Brighton and Hove, stumbled upon a central truth about Green politics when he described some of the antics of Brighton Greens as resembling “Thatcherite individualism”. It’s a phrase that I have found particularly resonant as I have watched events at Balcombe unfold – a sense that the urge to protest has become subsumed into the politics of individualism, rather than the politics of solidarity. Since the demonstrations against the Iraq wae nearly ten years ago “not in my name” has become the slogan of choice. It’s impressive when it’s uttered by a march of a million people; uttered by individuals it brings to mind that hoary old question of why the flower children of the sixties and the inhabitants of swinging London went on to vote for Reagan and Thatcher in their millions – that curious dynamic of individual liberation and the dismissal of the collective.
Moreover one has to ask whether the determination of Greens and allies to offer a different style of politics is also, unwittingly, part of the problem. It is all very well to move away from structures and hierarchies, but these things can often be the way in which those whose voices usually get drowned out can be heard. Structure can – indeed should – be a tool for inclusion and structure-free politics, in which the sense of the collective is eroded, can mean that mean that structures of privilege inherent in society are simply reflected in the conduct of politics.
Protest is important: it’s an essential component of politics on the left. But it is obviously not the whole process; and without a wider political engagement it can easily become a form of self-induldgence. Most of the heavy lifting of radical politics happens elsewhere – in the collective activity of policy-making, in the creation of political structures which allow causes to engage with power, distasteful though that may sometimes be, creating parallel structures that allow the voiceless to be heard, and of developing narratives that can link issues to the daily experiences of people in what is clearly a period of deep crisis. Attendance at council meetings is every bit as important as climbing trees; but above all campaigners need to reach out and provide challenging, grounded narratives. All too often – and again the Brighton experience is instructive – Green politics can look like a group of privileged activists conducting a conversation among themselves. My fear, as someone who regards shale gas extraction as both an environmental and economic disaster, is that the protesters at Balcombe are failing to move beyond that; and that the failure is an indication of something endemic in the way in which green politics is conducted.