Postcards from The Big One

I don’t know what they were expecting, but there were dozens of armed police at Westminster tube station on Friday morning; sub machine guns casually displayed like a militia that had just staged a coup. Perhaps its a sign of harsher days to come, if the government gets away with its restrictions on protests, closing down dissent and nibbling away at the right to vote, and the state becomes fully rhinocerised to cope with the fall out from economic stagnation and environmental collapse.

It seemed an unlikely response to a protest that has been flagged up as completely peaceful for months, with not even any non violent direct action that might cause someone to be arrested; and those of us heading for it looked at them with bemusement. But, if they were there for a tip off about something else, there was nothing in their demeanor to indicate that they expected trouble. They were quite relaxed, as though standing around a tube station entrance with a machine gun was as normal as leaving your copy of the Metro on the seat on the tube. Perhaps they are just getting us used to it.

It certainly didn’t seem to be a response to the shrill panic in headlines from the Sun and Daily Mail this week – when will someone get a grip on the eco fanatics?– presumably by putting us all under martial law and locking us up, so their readers can watch the snooker without being disturbed by any thought that the world is beginning to burn around them. Displacement anxiety on their part, in a way.

Sometimes there is a protest in central London that overwhelms and redefines it for a while. On the first day of The Big One, it was almost like that. You could hear the drums in the underpass. “Oh God! Those drums! We’ll all be murdered in our beds”, as they used to say on colonial verandas (and possibly still do in Daily Mail editorial meetings). Out of the tunnel and into the reassuring grey of the sort of London Spring characteristic of the epoch we are losing, and the streets are seeded with business like protest organisers in high viz jackets with XR stickers, in an odd balance with lots of tourists, doing the things that tourists do, moving in herds led by guides holding up umbrellas so they don’t get lost, taking photos of each other leaning on the doors of the iconic Gilbert Scott red phone boxes no one uses anymore (with the Houses of Parliament as a backdrop for the perfect evidence of having been here and seen that) school trips in chatty crocodiles up and down the paving stones, in and out of the Abbey.

As the day goes on, the number of protestors increases, so they begin to define the streets much more. The drums have dominated the soundscape from the off, but now there are contingents of people from here or there wandering like pilgrims between ministries, sometimes with drummers, sometimes not. And in the distance those strange silent processions of priestesses proceeding silently in bright scarlet or eery green robes, saying nothing, moving slowly, bearing witness.

By mid day, the cafe in St James Park is mostly occupied by what the Mail calls the “Eco mob”; for the most part middle aged, thoughtful, quite middle class people, more women than men, politely drinking coffee or holding the door open for each other in the long queue for the loo. The mound outside is occupied by the Bristol Climate Choir; about a hundred of them. Polite, peaceful, determined, not singing yet. A couple of curious coots cautiously duck their heads at them, trying to work them out – and probably closer to understanding them than the Daily Mail is.

At the Department For Education to make a speech for the XR Educators picket (see separate Blog). It is drizzling steadily. The road remained open; so anyone speaking, delivering a model lesson to show what the curriculum could be like, or performing -they had dancing later -had to pause from time to time as a vehicle went past. On one occasion – symbolically enough – a Clapham Omnibus, possibly occupied by average people who we will need to convince; though 70% of them already want more action on climate, so they are more on board than the government is. The rain is dismal but the mood determined.

Photo Graham Petersen This is opposite the DFE. The building behind houses the Adam Smith Institute. The last time there was an XR picket of the DFE, the Adam Smith Institute, an offshored annex of Tufton Street, played loud music through the windows to try to drown it out. This was a mix tape of tracks extolling the joys of driving cars or taking trips in aircraft. “I like driving in my car”, “Buy me a ticket for an aeroplane” and so on. Like the Institute itself, an ideological support for the short lived fever dream of the Truss government, their music choices were out of date and out of time. This time, they were silent; which is just as well; and entirely appropriate.

The pickets at other Ministries a little down the road and round the corner, were bigger. And they had drums. Impossible to walk along and not want to dance to them. The crowd outside the Department of Energy was spilling over the pavement. Outside the Home Office there was a “die in” of climate refugees. Alongside the Ministry of Transport a big crowd arrived from South Yorkshire shouting “We’re from South Yorkshire and we want better buses!” Pretty plain and direct. No need for rhymes. They also had a song about how miserable it is to wait for a bus that doesn’t turn up. Especially when its raining. The tragedy of this, for anyone who can remember back forty years or so, is that in the early 80s Sheffield was an inspirational public transport success story. The fares were low. The timetable regular. The buses reliable. People came from all over the world to study it. The GLC based its Fairs Fare campaign to boost public transport in London on it. Then the Thatcher government forcibly deregulated the system, with the usual nonsense about how the private sector will be more efficient; and it all went to shit.

The crowd outside DEFRA blocked the side street completely. A quiet picket, largely made up of Quakers, strings all the way along the pavement outside the Foreign Office, bearing witness to all its accumulated sins; perhaps symbolised by the statue of Sir Robert Clive at the end of the road; founder of the Indian Empire and a man who reduced Bengal, the most prosperous province in the Mughal Empire, to famine within a decade of conquering it. Clive, who gave a strong impression of being able to brass out what he’d done and revelled in the staggering wealth he accumulated, nevertheless committed suicide at the age of 49 by stabbing himself in the throat with a penknife. So, perhaps it got to him after all. Our current masters have better insulated consciences.

Some of the Ministries are quite strange. Digital Culture, Media and Sport, which had a small picket outside; with a few Equity banners. The seeming polar opposites of Digital Culture and Sport glued awkwardly together by Media. And why just digital culture? What about the rest of it? Perhaps it could be renamed the Ministry of Propaganda and Commercially Lucrative Distractions. Time was that Equity was run by a right wing faction headed by Sir Laurence Olivier, challenged by a WRP bloc led by Vanessa and Corrin Redgrave. Meetings must have been really performative.

The statue of Field Marshall Viscount Allenbrooke turns its back on the Nurses not Nukes banner and its nose up at the teach in going on outside the Ministry of Defence (even though he was such a keen bird watcher).

The Ministry of Defence is playing host to an open air seminar being chaired by CND. One of the most dangerous aspects of our current crisis is the deployment of investment that could be going into green transition into building up the military instead. The United States is spending 14 times as much on its military as it is allocating to investment in transition under the Inflation Reduction Act. According to the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, in the UK, there is 30 times as much Research and Development on weapons systems as there is on renewable energy. That could be why the patents for the turbines in wind turbines are held by Danish and German/Spanish firms. And this goes on. In the last budget, £5 billion extra for the Ministry of Defence. For insulation? Nothing.

There is an unacknowledged militarism that runs through the UK, which is by some way the most bellicose nation over the Ukraine war in NATO; and in central London there is a war memorial or statue of a Field Marshal or Admiral every few yards if you have eyes to see them. A few years ago, I was showing two teachers from Limpopo Province in South Africa around Trafalgar Square. One of them looked from Nelson on his column to the busts of Beattie, Jellicoe and Cunningham ranged along the Northern wall and muttered “Hmm. Nation of warriors”. I’d not seen it like that before, somehow just taking it for granted as normative; but after he’d said it, it was impossible to miss how the military side of all that imperial history is celebrated and sanctified in bronze.

The speakers are pointing out that the US and its allies – essentially the core of the Global North – are increasing military spending at a dizzying rate; with the US itself hitting a record level, and sharp increases in France Germany and Japan. Japan is doubling its military spending and working together with Italy and the UK to develop a next generation fighter aircraft. One of the speakers uses a strange formula to describe this. That Japan’s increase is “in response to the rising tensions in the world”. Given that, even before these increases, the US and its direct allies are already responsible for two thirds of global military spending, it would be more accurate to describe them as the source of it. And the trajectory is quite clear. As Meehan Crist wrote in March last year, “One of the worst outcomes of the war in Ukraine would be an increasingly militarised response to climate breakdown, in which Western armies, their budgets ballooning in the name of “national security” seek to control not only the outcome of conflicts but the flow of energy, water, food, key minerals and other natural resources. One does not have to work particularly hard to imagine how barbarous that future would be”.

Not hard to imagine, because that’s the world we’ve already got, but a bit more so.

The Saturday was bigger, younger and sunnier in all respects. Stunts get publicity. Mass events build movements.

My speech to the trade union hub can be read – and partly seen – here.

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