Anti-fracking protesters in Sussex pic.twitter.com/gywj7k002L
— Mike Smithson (@MSmithsonPB) August 17, 2013
Is Cuadrilla’s climbdown in Sussex a victory for Luddite intimidation?
August is an excellent time to stage a media-friendly protest. With little other regular news about, domestically at least, journalists will be more than happy to report protesters marching, banner-waving and – in the more militant – causing a nuisance, breaching the peace and being arrested. That the weather’s usually a bit more pleasant than in February doesn’t go amiss either.
It is certainly a lot more interesting and colourful than discussing the government’s energy policy, which is more likely to send viewers to sleep. For most people, whatever the approval ratings are in principle for cutting carbon emissions and supporting renewable sources, their overriding priorities are that the lights stay on and that the bills stay down (or at least, don’t rise too high). Governments have fallen over the failure to achieve those aims.
Which brings us to the standoff in Sussex over Cuadrilla’s drilling operations, and the conflict of rights it highlights. On the one hand, any democracy worth the name has to permit peaceful protests from minority groups. On the other, people and firms have a right to go about their lawful business.
The fact that Cuadrilla have scaled back their operations is without question a victory for the protesters. What is bizarre is that it seems that they have stopped doing what they’re entitled to do on the advice of the police, who believe the activists are about to begin a campaign of civil disobedience i.e. breaking the law. In other words, both the police and, consequently, the company have been intimidated by threats.
That at least one activist has compared their campaign to the Suffragettes is both unsurprising in its unoriginality and in all probability, unintentionally more accurate than they intended: the suffragettes were an upper-/middle-class movement engaged in vandalism and violence, and may well have been counterproductive in their aim, delaying (some) women getting the vote by up to a decade (it’s probable that there was a majority in favour of female suffrage in principle in the 1906 Commons but not one that was going to be seen to be bombed into passing the measure).
- The risk now is that this won’t be a six-day protest but that the militant ecology lobby will drag it on, not only at the Balcombe site but anywhere else where drilling’s planned.
In effect, a re-run of the GM crops cat-and-mouse games of a few years ago (except that drilling operations are a lot more visible). Protests camps of this sort have a record of not closing down quickly.
That’s why the government needs to step in. Either fracking is sufficiently safe enough to be carried out or it’s not. If it’s not, licenses should be revoked; if it is, then companies engaged in it have to be allowed to carry out their business. The Sussex protests could rack up a sizable police bill quickly and the news crews will be around for a while yet. As the government’s certain to be drawn in anyway, best do decide on a firm line one way or the other early on, and stick to it.