A rebellion that the establishment loves

Why our usually illiberal establishment has been so chilled out about XR’s week of vandalism.

Ben Pile at Spiked Online

Extinction Rebellion (XR) protesters in Cambridge have launched a week-long campaign of obstruction and petty vandalism.

It began with the protesters issuing demands to Cambridge City Council to hold a citizens’ assembly on climate change, to Cambridgeshire County Council to organise a ‘just transition’ from fossil fuels, and to Cambridge University to cut its ties with the fossil-fuel industry. When the demands were not met, XR set about occupying the council chamber, blocking roads in the city centre, and digging trenches into the neatly manicured and near-ancient lawn outside Trinity College.

‘This is what democracy looks like’, chanted the protesters as they marched with spades and wheelbarrows to Trinity College lawn. Then they tore up the turf while chanting ‘digging for oil’. It was supposed to symbolise the environmental destruction caused by the oil industry, as well as highlight a more local concern: Trinity College’s plans to sell some of the land it owns in nearby Ipswich to property developers.

By any measure, the Trinity College stunt was a pathetic, infantile performance. Rather than speaking to the world, the feeble, moronic chanting made it sound like the protesters were trying to convince themselves that there was some justification for their actions. ‘We’ve come here today, because Trinity [College] does not value the land that is for our common good’, explained one protester. ‘So we’re going to show them that we don’t value their precious grass outside their college. It seems a fair comparison’, he added. Is it really?

Most people watching the protests, in person or on the news, could only see petty vandalism. For most people, the stunt did not raise burning questions about land use or the wrongs of colleges owning investments in energy companies. In fact, the question that most people wanted answered was, ‘Why have these people not been arrested?’.

It is an important question. You do not have to look hard to find cases in which the police and local authorities have demonstrated near-zero tolerance of things that barely meet the category of ‘public disorder’. In recent years, the ever-expanding regulation of public space has led to buskers, beggars and pamphleteers finding themselves on the wrong side of the law. Highly subjective interpretations of what may constitute ‘offensive’ behaviour have been used by police and local authorities to crack down on all sorts of innocent activity and speech. That is not to argue for the increased regulation of protests. But if blocking roads, criminal damage and the blocking of local democracy are not public-order offences, then what are?

Read the whole article at Spiked.


  1. Why would the powers that be clamp down on protests demanding more of the very thing the government is trying give the people? Imagine a government needing to put in place austerity… and there happens to be a bunch of protesters demanding so much more austerity that it makes what the government is doing seem entirely reasonable by comparison.

    However, that is a cynical view, and even I am not that cynical.

    Really, if the people of Cambridge aren’t happy about the protests, it’s up to them to pull their fingers out and do something. If they prefer to put up with XR, that’s their look out.


  2. Interestingly tonight there was a program about the collections in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Amongst them was a collection (flags, printing block,and documents) all related to the Extinction Rebellion symbol. Words fail.


  3. More than two years on Ben was being less polite yesterday about the latest offspring of XR. But I did find the punchline here amusing. Everyone a winner.


  4. Another good Spiked article about XR:

    “Extinction Rebellion: a movement against the people
    The great enemy of the green movement is not the government or the oil barons. It’s you.”


    …Why alienate people? Aren’t you doing damage to your cause? We really need to stop asking these questions. They know they are alienating people – and they clearly don’t care. On a deeper level, this all makes perfect sense. Indeed, the cause of environmentalism is one of making ordinary people’s lives worse, of ushering in policies that – while miserable and constraining for everyone – would disproportionately affect the poor and working class. Those on lower incomes spend a much higher proportion of their money on fuel and energy. They often rely on cars and vans to earn a wage. Roger Hallam doesn’t just want to ban flying and end car-use, he also wants an end to all ‘non-essential consumption’. He has called for a society ‘similar to a Covid lockdown scenario, but with local people being able to meet, socialise and be politically active’. Few beyond his tiny clique of bourgeois perma-students would ever aspire to such a small and meagre existence – particularly if their lives are not that comfortable to begin with.

    The rise of Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil reminds us how thoroughly protest has been colonised by the middle classes. Protest was once the means through which the ignored masses made their presence felt and feelings clear. Now, from those big Remoaner demos against Brexit to the JSO slow marches today, it is the means through which the well-connected and comfortably off give vent to their curious preoccupations and rail against the supposed idiocy of the rest of us. (This is one of the things that has made arguing against the Tories’ genuinely draconian clampdown on protest, as spiked has continually, a particularly steep uphill struggle.)..


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