Can anything surprise us anymore?  As we all hunker down and attempt to deal with the realities of the omicron surge, another threat to national society is not far from the horizon.  Specifically, as I write, the Lords are debating the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill – often dubbed simply the ‘Policing’ Bill.  Last minute amendments by Priti Patel have made the Bill all the more controversial with critics likening it to a power grab worthy of Putin’s Russia or Egypt.

Salient among the justifications are the touted necessity of robust response to the activities of the likes of Insulate Britain and XR, famed for their acts of disruption.  Protestor tactics have changed in recent years, the thinking goes, and the police need the powers to respond effectively.  While there is no doubt that obstructing stretches of motorway, blocking trains into the capital and shutting down various printing presses are far from popular, the case made for the kind of legislation we’re currently looking at tends to gloss over issues as to what constitutes ‘legitimate’ protest, how much power is to be handed over to the Home Secretary and the police and what she and they might – or are perhaps even likely – to do with it.

As Monbiot has pointed out, proposed police powers would include being able to ban anyone from protesting who has previously committed “protest-related offences” or who has even “contributed” to a protest “likely to cause serious disruption”.  If you thought “serious disruption” counted only as sitting on a tube train roof or gluing your face to the M25, consider the breadth of the remit.  If a protest is simply noisy enough to cause “serious unease” it could be banned.  But it is entirely up to officers’ discretion as to how many decibels this might entail and ignores the fact that creating some noise is often half the modus operandi of many given demonstrations.

Other, just as worrying, and imbedded ambiguities remain.  Associating with particular individuals or using the internet to encourage a “protest-related offence” for instance.  And police could effectively impose any restrictions they like on a protest and ban static demonstrations altogether.  Other sweeping statements include mandates against causing “serious disruption to the life of a community” and “serious disruption to the activities of an organisation”.  Stop and search powers could be used without given reason and the legislation as a whole would put many more protestors at risk of arrest.

The problems with this go beyond simply an attack on our rights, as disturbing as this may be.  The Bill would undermine the relationship between police and the public and frequently place impossible choices in the hands of those officers trying to do the right thing.  Relaxing of conditions for stop and search would undoubtably impact even more heavily on ethnic groups and curtailment of protests would hinder the ‘pressure valve’ they have always historically afforded.  Pushing dissent underground and radicalising its expression even further serves no one except, perhaps, those charged with drafting even more stringent legislation in response.

Protest, not unlike the British ‘constitution’ itself has long been subject to certain, generally unclarified, understandings.  Like those of the constitution, these understandings have always been vague, have relied to a large extent on a degree of goodwill or at least the acknowledgement of their likely popularity at large.  But equally, protests have traditionally very often entailed policing costs and a degree of disruption.  To argue otherwise is to endorse their restriction to a saccharine enfeeblement that many charged with managing them would undoubtedly welcome.  There’s always been an element of metaphorical push and shove. 

Given that protestors are often driven by the scale and immediacy of planetary crisis, it’s understandable some of them resort to disruption in the face of apparent media indifference.  But while it is true that (as Digital Rebellion have stated), activism can fill gaps in public awareness left by the press, strategies as to how to bring that public awareness on board are ignored at collective peril.  Though the need for greater traction and swifter change at large is sorely needed, no one should underestimate the extent to which people in general grasp the scale and import of the climate crisis.  The question is not whether we should act but how we should go forward.  And we stand to achieve far more with greater unity.

Activism can only ever be at its most instrumental when coupled with – in service to – wider civic society.  That our ecological situation is urgent, desperate is not in doubt.  It is right that people should find and utilise channels to continue to highlight this, to push for faster and greater change.  We can all lay a hand to that and there is as great a need as ever for those in a position to do so to dedicate themselves.  And mass demonstrations to urge on and hold politicians to account are needed today like never before.

Attempts by our government to clamp down on protest would negate all this.  The PCSC Bill is drafted in a way that would at best cause confusion in its implementation and in all likelihood represents a power grab that must be considered along with other proposed legislation including the Nationality and Borders Bill and ‘amendments’ to the Human Rights Act.  When concern about these laws includes even that of a former prime minister, and in quite forceful terms, the alarm bells for us all should now be ringing. 

Acclaimed film producer and long-standing peer, Lord Puttman, has studied the German descent into fascism in the ‘thirties in some detail and his leaving speech from last October, where he says that we’re in a “very bad place” and need to “wake up” is well worth the read.  With government placemen increasingly embedded in the hearts of our institutions, with broadcasters cautious and cowed and dissent barely more than a whisper, if it were judged alone by bulletins and headlines, it’s more important than ever we stand firm.  For all the fear of diatribes, understandable caution over an undue alarm, the biggest threat we face remains that insulant complacency that clings to the assumption it could never happen here.

Please consider emailing your MP about the Bill and signing this petition.

The Long Way Home

As soon as I saw it I knew: an email in my spam folder I retrieved through an unlikely chance.  The link took me to a site about a pilgrimage – five hundred miles from London to Glasgow, to arrive in time for the COP26 climate conference.  Walking in general and pilgrimage in particular have always been abiding passions, as has environmental work and these twin two strands stood prominent as I applied.  This, I could already tell, would be a big one.

Nonetheless, it was not without some trepidation that I accepted my place.  Not only would it be a bloody long way but the pilgrimage group would conceive of and deliver a performance en route in preparation for a finale at the conference itself.  The play would be inspired by the places we passed through and the people we met along the way.  Even just accompanying as a musician would take me right out of my comfort zone.  Would my feet hold out for such a long way?  How would I hack travelling en masse?  And could I possibly succeed in packing my bag to anything like a sensible weight?

But eventually, after what felt like a minor marathon of preparation, I was sat early one Saturday morning, alone on a bench in Trinity Square Gardens.  Faces half familiar from preparatory sessions on Zoom appeared; one or two at first and then a steady stream.  Before long we had our bags loaded in a Luton and were listening to speeches on the green before an all-day hike across town – during which we were tailed by police as a demonstration was also occurring.  The muted distinction would be a familiar theme, but we were chiefly walking without an agenda, whatever private feelings we might have had; seeking to garner our messages from an attitude of openness and observation.

Our crew were disparate and intimate at once.  For what seemed like weeks we walked in blazing heat – sweated miles out along the Ridgeway before turning north towards a hinterland of meadows and footpaths.  We were walking the Elen and Belinus leylines – or ‘The Spine of Albion’ to give the route its grander title.  This meant a team of organisers had been grafting for months to find places to stay – from orchards and organic farms to church and village halls and grounds of country houses.  The route was broadly determined by the lines – which meant bridleways, long distance paths and other relatively easy-going thoroughfares were generally not in use.  Though for perhaps a week we navigated the Black Country and surrounds along towpaths that were both welcome and seemingly endless.

It was good going, punctuated by occasional towns and cities which always felt strange but somehow part of a wider momentum.  We gorged on blackberries, elderberries, grew accomplished at grazing at speed.  Days off were far and few between and spare time was often taken up with logistics meetings so that it sometimes seemed that any performance would be a distant thing.

After Manchester, things changed.  Hills, proper hills now, grew around us.  The weather turned suddenly foul.  One of the organisers – Anna Lehmann of No Planet B, who’d been walking with us for a while, departed by showing us the forecast for the next two weeks on a screen – a moving blur of purple cloud: promise of effective saturation.  But other things changed too; our ability to navigate the hills and their sometimes indistinct paths, the coherence of the group; moving at varying speeds and our capacity and schemes to help facilitate this.  And, somewhere in Lancashire in a brightly decorated tent we took our first steps as a group towards fooling; improvised performances where the worst thing you could do was have a plan.  It all seemed a tall order to some of us still; to act without script or prompts and still deliver something worth the effort and the audience’s time.

The weather somehow gradually improved or we just grew inured to the rain and the slugs and occasional ice on our tents.  And, by some miracle, it seemed we were almost constantly accompanied by rainbows; hardly a wet day went by without a break in the clouds and ensuing display to encourage us forward on the road. 

We were spanning broad swathes of Northumberland now – nothing could phase us after the day crossing Shap Fell in a weather warning where half the party had tried wading swollen streams.  But we attempted to inoculate ourselves against complacency; treated the Fells with respect and sought local advice where we could when the hills loomed.  Tensions came up, dissipated like the wind.  We kept on talking; endless circles of things to be done, what wasn’t working, what was; the gripes, the seemingly endless litany of little and practical things.  It was almost as hard as the walking itself.

But somehow, whether it was the ‘scratch-performances’, the tribulations, collective will to carry on despite the still-looming distance, the negotiations and the differences overcome, something quite precious unfolded.  We were a diverse bunch of people all told; bar managers, lecturers, hillfarmers, actors.  It was one of the wonders of the trip that nobody really fell out.  And for a while we achieved a kind of synthesis; boundaries blurred as we got to the Uplands, we were more of a masse who knew each other inside out, whether we chimed or we grated, we were all now together, all of us one as our steps echoed, unlikely and loud.

The Scottish cities then could only ever have been surreal to arrive in.  We rehearsed, navigated the newly familiar streets, attempted to catch up with ourselves.  And the performances?  We talked at length outside the first venue, a frenetic exchange of views as to what we should do more than a meeting of minds.  But somehow, if only from the nerve shredding intensity of it all, we were all of us on fire. 

Our performances, sometimes rough and ready but always heartfelt, spoke of the distance we’d all had to go; its trials and triumphs, the surreal existence of fell after fell when every item of our day to day existence seemed enough to go on with, just as much as they were enough to endure.  We were animated by these miles, the elemental nature of it all.  Some of this at least fed through to the plays we delivered; like a kind of osmosis where every cloud and every patch of sunlight in each given day spoke to us on our arrival in a way it was impossible to fully understand.  But the rainbows were still with us and, on a morning in temporary lodgings, I woke to see a nearby towerblock lit up bold white in the face of the clouds as I readied myself to make my way in to the ultimate march.  A rainbow; one of those familiar manifestations of something we couldn’t quite guess, accompanied me as I made my way in.  Perhaps that spoke as much as I could ever do for all of this: to walk as if blind; hope, expectation somehow both distant and present at once, the scale of our challenge met with the knowledge of what we must do in the face of the mountain to climb.