‘Thin gruel’ from Policy Exchange

by Caspar Henderson

Note: when first posted, this piece omitted to mention that Alex Evans, who is quoted, has been involved with Extinction Rebellion. That was an oversight, and it has been corrected.  Policy Exchange should be no less transparent, and reveal its funders.

The think tank Policy Exchange grabbed some headlines this week with a ‘Extremism Rebellion‘ a report associating the campaign group Extinction Rebellion with extremism and terrorism (see ‘Treat Extinction Rebellion as an extremist anarchist group, former anti-terror chief tells police‘).  What exactly are the claims and how much substance is there to them? In the conclusion to their 76 page report, co-authors Richard Walton and Tom Wilson write:

…the Extinction Rebellion campaign…is deeply rooted in a much wider extreme political agenda… It is unlikely that [its] leaders would settle for any accommodation that proposed to address environmental damage while keeping the present economic and political system in place.

…At this early stage it is difficult to judge in which direction the movement may yet go. Referring to the internal dispute over the possibility of using drones at Heathrow, a piece in the New Statesman about Extinction Rebellion’s Farhana Yamin went so far as to refer to these internal disagreements over tactics as “internecine disputes”…

It is conceivable that figureheads could eventually be sidelined by more moderate figures who will seek to move into the mainstream. Under such a scenario, a more radical fringe might breakaway so as to have a free hand to undertake actions, such as those involving drones or hunger strikes. For the moment, the momentum of significant numbers of people joining the campaign’s demonstrations and the vocal support from politicians and celebrities may be incentive enough for the activists to rein in any more extreme elements. At the very least, those leading the campaign remain clear that they must avoid any violence during their protests if the strategy they have placed their hopes in is to succeed.

Walton, who is a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange and a former Head of the Metropolitan Police Counter Terrorism Command, and Wilson, who is Senior Research Fellow in its Security and Extremism Unit, recommend:

The Government should…should focus on preventing the campaigners from causing massive disruption and economic damage—including incitement and conspiracy offences—as well as by opposing and challenging the campaigners’ message…

Legislation relating to public protest needs to be urgently reformed in order to strengthen the ability of police to place restrictions on planned protest and deal more effectively with mass law-breaking tactics (including incitement and conspiracy offences) such as road and bridge blocking, aggravated trespass and criminal damage. The Police and Crown Prosecution Service must also recognise that there is a public interest in not simply arresting those involved, but also in prosecuting and sentencing those who break the law during these protests.

They observe, finally, that:

Simply acting against the protestors, however, will not be enough to undermine Extinction Rebellion… Justified public concerns about climate, ecological damage and biodiversity loss are now increasingly widespread. The Government must demonstrate that it is taking extensive and effective action on these fronts…

I asked another think-tanker what he made of the report. Alex Evans, the co-founder of The Collective Psychology Project, is a former adviser to two UK Cabinet ministers, a policy expert in the UN Secretary-General’s office, and a research fellow for the Brookings Institution, the US National Intelligence Council and other organisations.  Evans has also been involved in a recent Extinction Rebellion action. He replied:

This [does not] read like… a serious piece of research. In particular, the report rests on the idea that there’s something inherently sinister about a movement based on civil disobedience – implying the authors would also have said Gandhi, Bertrand Russell and Martin Luther King were likewise dangerous anarchists for being willing to use nonviolent direction action and laying themselves open to arrest.

Similarly, the authors suggest that the idea of a citizens’ assembly is inherently at odds with democracy – implying that, for example, Ireland’s use of one to build consensus ahead of its abortion referendum was in some way a total capitulation of democratic norms.

Lastly, the authors dispute Extinction Rebellion’s commitment to nonviolence by pointing to the idea of drones being flown near Heathrow, arguing this would endanger life, whereas from what I can see, Extinction Rebellion has said that (a) drones would explicitly not be flown on flight paths and (b) authorities and public would be given two months’ notice of dates and times of any future action. 

So it really is thin gruel, and I am genuinely surprised that Policy Exchange would let something this weak out of the door. See some of the likes and replies to my tweet, too: I’m far from the only think-tanker to think so.

I think the fact that Rupert Reid, their director of strategy and research, isn’t saying who funded the work – despite being asked multiple times in the course of a twitter exchange that he’s already engaged in – speaks volumes.

What are some of the things one can take from this? Here are four brief points.

First, Policy Exchange is right to say that many people involved with Extinction Rebellion are opposed to the capitalist system as a whole. (See their response.)  This is an extreme position with regard to the current order.  But whatever else is the case, the UK economy and the global economy would need radical restructuring if carbon emissions were to be reduced in line with the Paris Agreement, let alone the even more demanding targets that may prove to be necessary to avoid dangerous climate change.  This would require huge restructuring of the energy sector (though not only there), and it would all but wipe out the coal, oil and gas industries in quite a short period of time.  But there would be many winners too, in the new, innovative economy.  Tax reform and other measures, including a ‘Green New Deal’, could stimulate massive private and public investment in renewables, energy services and other areas.

Second, Activists could cause significant inconvenience and cost at, for example, Heathrow if they threatened to fly drones there (something that I think they would be ill-advised to do), but so long as they provided advance warning, as they have said they would, the actual risk to human life would be minimal.  And if, at some stage, activists choose to follow the suffragettes and put their own lives on the line through, for example, hunger strikes, how is that a threat to others? Accusations that Extinction Rebellion threatens public safety are without foundation, but once an accusation is out there it can acquire momentum, however baseless it is.

Third, the report is likely indicative of a changing approach with regard to policing. The Metropolitan Police are already calling for tougher sentences  to deter protests.  Their frustration is clear. As Laurence Taylor, the deputy assistant commissioner in charge of protest policing for the Met, put it,  “these protesters are quite unique because [they] are by and large peaceful. It is almost easier to deal with people who are being violent towards you, because you can use a level of force commensurate with that.”

Fourth,  all of us engaged in public debate about matters of vital shared concern should be honest about our financial interest. Policy Exchange claims to be “the UK’s leading Think Tank”, but it is among the least transparent about who funds its work, and it refuses to reveal who paid for this report.  This must change.  

Caspar Henderson is an associate at Perspectiva

Photo via Chard and Ilminster News

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