Such groups are difficult for liberals and libertarians. On the one hand, we are some of the strongest defenders of freedom of expression and the right to protest. On the other hand, we also recognise the importance of the rule of law and the need for law enforcement when these rights collide with the rights of others to peacefully go about their business. It is always then a nuanced case whether such bans are proportionate, and you will find a range of views across the spectrum of free market thought.
In this case, I favour the ban. Others will take a different view, within the law as it stands, or they believe the current laws governing protests are too harsh, but here is one case for the ban.
It is pretty clear cut that XR are an extremist group. Our friends and rivals Policy Exchange wrote a thoughtful paper on this subject in July, which notes the radical and anti-democratic roots of the movement, that their ‘civil resistance’ strategy is one of deliberate law breaking to cause economic damage. They worry that mainstream politicians and media have given the group legitimisation cover out of a misplaced sympathy with their presumed environmental aims, which in reality go far beyond the conclusions of the IPCC or moderate campaigners. They note that although the group espouses non-violent aims, the fringes have flirted with dangerous terrorist offences such as flying drones into airports. This is, in a sense, entirely unsurprising. If you genuinely believe that humanity faces literal extinction, and that only an enlightened elite, of which you see yourself as a part, can save it – how bothered would you be about mundane considerations, such as whether your actions are within the law, whether they are disruptive, or whether they cause damage to other people? I am not saying that every member of Extinction Rebellion advocates violence, or will at some point start advocating violence. I am saying that Extinction Rebellion’s apocalyptic mindset lends itself to justifying violence, and very easily so.
The Government’s Prevent Strategy is worthy of consideration in this matter. It is the programme by which the Government seeks to stop people being drawn into terrorist offences before they occur. There is a clear difference drawn in the strategy between ‘extremist’ groups, those with extreme aims, and ‘terrorist’ groups, those that commit acts of terror, but noting that one unchecked, or legitimised by naivety, fuels the other. XR very clearly meet the test for extremism in that they offer “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.” They do not, at the current time, meet the test for a terrorist group, and let us hope that remains the case.
It is then appropriate for the Police to allow their protests where they are lawful, but to act firmly when they are not. This month XR’s multiple acts of obstruction, trespass and criminal damage were tolerated, then addressed peacefully, then given an option to continue in Trafalgar Square under Section 14 of the Public Order Act, but to no avail. They continued to break the law and incite others to do the same. They have then been put under the broader sanction of exclusion in a manner that is entirely lawful and reasonable.
Some politicians have objected, on the grounds of the right to protest, which is fundamental in a free society, but these unlawful acts undermine that right. This is not peaceful protest, it’s an effort to cause harm to others through economic damage, and while they claim their targets (banks, fossil fuel companies etc.) can afford it, in reality they’re mostly hitting market traders, shopkeepers, taxi-drivers and delivery workers. Their claims to be a social justice movement in that regard are as hollow as their pretensions to be sole sources of wisdom on climate science. Major companies can easily deal with bodies glued to doors, restaurants in blockaded streets lose trade. Long then may this ban be in force while the group continues to engage with and encourage extremism.
Recommended further reading/listening:
- “Rebels without a cause?” – IEA podcast with Victoria Hewson, Darren Grimes and Dr Kristian Niemietz
- “The Thunberg phenomenon, Extinction Rebellion, and the denial of trade-offs” by Prof Philip Booth
- “Radical green activists are no better than climate science deniers” by Rowan Wright