The Stupid Stansted Stupid Defence

by | Jan 8, 2009

The Stansted protesters have had their day in court.

Most of the 22 campaigners, who are members of the group Plane Stupid, were ordered to do between 50 and 90 hours community service after admitting aggravated trespass. The incident closed the airport in Essex for five hours.

Each of the protesters must pay compensation of £60 to cover £3,000 worth of damage to the perimeter fence, which they cut through in the early hours of 8 December, and orders made for court costs totalled £570.

According to the Guardian, the group also face being sued for £2 million. That’ll dent the trust funds.

None of this is as interesting as the account given by the defence lawyer. According to the same article,

Benjamin Newton, defending, said the group regretted what they saw as the necessity of taking part in the protest, but had done so as a “last, desperate act” having exhausted all traditional means of influencing the democratic process. “They felt government policy was directly contrary to meeting the country’s international obligations to mitigate climate change and that those policies were going to make us closer to the tipping point,” he said.

This is a nonsense defence.

The ‘democratic process’ had, just a week and a bit before the protest, produced the UK’s Climate Change Act, which commits the country to an 80% cut in CO2 emissions by 2050 – going further than ‘meeting the country’s international obligations to mitigate climate change’ by a third. But as we pointed out, the process wasn’t democratic. There was no real debate, and the ‘democratic institution’ – parliament – defers decisions to an unaccountable committee of ‘experts’, who have their own interests served by climate legislation.

Worst than this, however, is the idea that these protesters see themselves as above the ‘democratic process’. In their view, they’ve failed to influence the debate, yet don’t pause to reflect on that failure as the consequence of their own shortcomings.

Let’s not say that all disruptive action of this kind is a necessary wrong. It’s not, at least in our view. Feel free to disagree in the comments below. But these protesters don’t have any such grievance. They are not excluded, or persecuted in any way. As the Guardian point out, they’re actually from rather privileged backgrounds. Yet these well-heeled kids beleive they have been alienated by a process that they are entitled to rule over.

Their defence is that there’s something stupid about the democratic process. It’s failed to listen to them. But it is their failure to mount a convincing argument, and to build popular support. Consider the words of Ed Milliband MP, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, who said on the day of the protest

When you think about all the big historic movements, from the suffragettes, to anti-apartheid, to sexual equality in the 1960s, all the big political movements had popular mobilization. Maybe it’s an odd thing for someone in government to say, but I just think there’s a real opportunity and a need here.

The establishment welcomed the protestors – it needs them. It has embraced their environmental concern – it needs it too. The protestors and the sense of crisis generated by the environmental movement legitimise the Government’s environmental policies. These policies are retogressive, authoritarian, and serve the interests of the political establishment, that otherwise struggles to identify its purpose. The kids at the protest say that “We’re here because our parents’ generation has failed us and its now down to young people to stop climate change…”, but really, they’re doing the work of the very institutions that they imagine themselves to be pitched against.

So who’s stupid?


  1. Gordon

    The criminal penalty for this wanton act of vandalism is trivial but I hope that the airlines and others who lost millions of pounds because of their action pursue these Luddites pitilessly in the civil courts.

  2. Alex Cull

    It’s a promising sign that the jury saw sense in this instance. Let’s hope this sets a precedent.


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