As the climate crisis worsens, and as the international efforts to mitigate its effects continue to fall short, activists like Cameron Ford have become more daring. Over the past year and a half, the 32-year-old British carpenter has blocked highways by gluing himself to roads and chained himself to an oil tanker.
Like most environmental campaigners, Ford never wanted to do anything that could land him in jail. “I was hoping to emigrate to Canada one day,” he says from his home in Cambridge. But Ford changed his mind about the need for bolder activism after attending a talk hosted by the climate group Insulate Britain last summer. “It made sense to make that stand earlier, whilst there was still a chance that we could actually mitigate the worst of it, rather than once it’s too late,” he says.
Ford is hardly alone in that view. Other British protesters like him have gone so far as to tunnel under major infrastructure projects, throw soup at famous works of art, and scale a 190-food bridge—all in a desperate bid to draw the public’s attention to the looming climate catastrophe.
But their democratic right to protest is now at risk as the British government declares war on tactics that it regards as disruptive and, ideally, illegal. Draft legislation that the House of Commons approved in October would pose unprecedented restrictions on the right to protest in England and Wales (Westminster does not have jurisdiction over policing in Scotland and Northern Ireland). If the House of Lords, the consultative upper chamber of Britain’s parliament, green-lights the Public Order Bill in its current form, there will be new criminal offenses for engaging in popular protest tactics. (The final wording of the legislation is currently being debated by both Houses of Parliament, a process known as “parliamentary ping pong.”) The bill also enhances police powers to stop and search suspected protesters, and allows for certain individuals to be banned from protesting altogether.
“It’s the kind of legislation you would expect in Russia or Iran or Egypt or China,” says George Monbiot, a British writer and environmental activist. “It’s not the kind of legislation you would expect to see in a nominal democracy.”
The legislation, which is expected to pass next year, could be approved with little input or debate from ordinary Britons. The proposal for such a bill was absent from the 2019 election manifesto that gave the Conservative government its mandate; the lack of robust public debate on the subject suggests that many voters may not even be aware that such legislation is being considered at all.
“Most people do not realize how extreme a piece of legislation this is,” says Rupert Read, a British environmental campaigner and co-director of the Moderate Flank Incubator, a climate advocacy group. “The bill, and the extreme authoritarianism of it, has not cut through.”
A slate of “draconian” measures
This isn’t the first time the British government has tried to clamp down on what it sees as disruptive protests. Just this year, lawmakers passed the Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts (PCSC) Act, which gave police the power to impose time and noise conditions on demonstrations, even those involving just one person. The legislation also enshrined tougher penalties for disruptive tactics such as obstructing highways, which can now result in up to 51 weeks in prison, an unlimited fine, or both. Some of the act’s most contentious measures—which included a slate of new criminal offenses designed to curb demonstrations by environmental groups such as Extinction Rebellion, Insulate Britain, and Just Stop Oil—were deemed so extraordinary that they were rejected by the House of Lords.
Jenny Jones, a Green Party peer in the House of Lords who voted against the last-minute amendments to PCSC that introduced the measures, says that they were designed to minimize opposition. “Ironically, it was the government’s attempt to bypass parliamentary scrutiny by MPs that enabled the Lords to defeat these 18 pages of new amendments.”
The ink had barely dried on the PCSC Act when the government introduced the Public Order Bill in May, giving many of its previously-blocked measures new life. Among those that have caused the greatest concern among lawmakers, civil rights groups, and environmental campaigners, include the expansion of police stop and search powers as well as the criminalization of longstanding civil resistance tactics. The latter includes “locking on” (in which a protester attaches themselves to an object, infrastructure, or other people to make them difficult to remove) and “tunneling” (to block construction works). Perhaps most concerning of all is the bill’s introduction of “serious disruption prevention orders,” which can be used to ban individuals from engaging in protests at all, and even force them to submit to electronic monitoring.
“This is obviously a deeply draconian measure,” says Jodie Beck of the civil-liberties organization Liberty, noting that the law has the potential to legislate out of existence some of the very same tactics employed by civil resistance movements across British history. “The diversity of protest tactics throughout history demonstrates how interconnected all of these struggles are,” adds Beck. “If we are to clamp down on a particular tactic now, that has deep implications for our rights protests as a whole, no matter what our cause is.”
Voices from within parliament have raised similar alarms. The Joint Committee on Human Rights, the parliamentary grouping that scrutinizes government bills on its compatibility with Britain’s human rights obligations, warned in a September report that the proposed legislation would “pose an unacceptable threat to the fundamental right to engage in peaceful protest” and would risk putting the British government at odds with the European Convention on Human Rights. Conservative MP Charles Walker, who unsuccessfully tabled an amendment to remove serious disruption prevention orders from the legislation, told the House of Commons that “the idea that in this country we are going to ankle-tag someone who has not been convicted in a court of law” would have those in far more repressive countries such as China “watching this very closely.” Former Conservative cabinet minister David Davis echoed Walker’s concerns when he warned that the Public Order Bill risked undermining Britain’s ability “to take the moral high ground,” especially when confronting repressive regimes in places such as Russia or Iran.
A spokesperson for the Home Office, the government department sponsoring the legislation, tells TIME in an email statement that although the right to protest remains a “fundamental principle” of British democracy, “the kind of activity we’ve seen recently is a criminal operation, and the selfish minority who delay our emergency services from their saving duties and drain police resources must face proper penalties.”
Quite aside from the contents of the bill, “It’s really badly drafted,” says Jones from the House of Lords, where the legislation is currently under scrutiny. While Jones and her Peers may be able to compel the government to limit the scope of the more concerning measures—what constitutes a “serious disruption,” for example, is unclear—it is widely expected that some iteration of the proposed legislation will be enacted into law by spring.
Rising climate-related arrests in Britain
It’s not that British authorities lack the power to break up disruptive protests. According to Insulate Britain, which advocates for improving the insulation of all British homes by 2030, 174 of its supporters have been arrested nearly 900 times since September 2021, many on charges of causing a public nuisance and obstructing the highway. A spokesperson for the group says that of the 51 court trials scheduled to take place over the next year, the first was deferred last month after the judge asked prosecutors to consider whether proceeding with the trial was in the public interest; the second, which concluded last week, ended in a unanimous acquittal for the movement’s three supporters standing trail.
“The police have the power to remove us from the road, and they did,” says Ford, who has been arrested six times on charges of obstruction of the highway and public nuisance over his participation in climate demonstrations. As he sees it, the aim of the Public Order Bill isn’t to equip the police with powers they already have to clamp down on protesters, but rather to “turn us into criminals in the public’s eye.”
And that tactic may be working. According to a November poll by YouGov, Britons oppose Just Stop Oil’s methods by a margin of 62% to 21%. This negative perception is fueled in part by unfavorable coverage in the right-wing British press—parts of which have maligned the environmental protesters as “eco zealots” over their disruptive tactics. But it also comes down to the fact that while many Britons are supportive of climate activists’ overall message about the importance of insulating homes and reducing their reliance on fossil fuels, they don’t necessarily agree with how its delivered.
“There is probably a feeling in some quarters that what Insulate Britain and Just Stop Oil have done is so full on that there is less pushback against an authoritarian response to it than there might otherwise have been,” says Read. “We need to think very carefully, always, about what we [as activists] do because what we do has consequences and may be difficult to undo.”
Like the suffragettes before them, many climate activists seem to have made their peace with the fact that history will look on them more kindly. But unlike the suffragettes, who were more militant and willing to embrace violence, climate activism in Britain has remained peaceful. “The movement is so dedicated to hard work, non-violence, and peaceful protest,” says Clare Farrell, a co-founder of Extinction Rebellion. “It might be disruptive, but it is always committed to that work being accountable. We use our real names, we show up, we show our faces, we take the repercussions, we are willing to be arrested and do what it takes.”
It’s precisely for this reason that she and other activists say that even if the new measures are enacted into law, they won’t be deterred.
“When [climate collapse] is what we face, I believe the only thing that would curtail us is the death penalty,” says Ford, “because the alternative to us not standing up is death.”