‘Lord Walney’ shows how easily illiberalism can become an obsession

Better known as John Woodcock, the independent adviser on political violence exhibits a disturbing lack of perspective in his new report on protest

May 25, 2024
Time for him to recover a sense of proportion, argues Rusbridger. Credit: Alamy
Time for him to recover a sense of proportion, argues Rusbridger. Credit: Alamy

I was placed next door to a senior intelligence cheese over supper not too long ago and asked what they considered the greatest threat to national security was. The Russians, Islamism, Chinese spying? Instead, they paused and said: “Climate change.”

Hold that thought while I introduce you to Lord Walney.

Like you, I had not heard of his lordship until he popped up in the news this week. Google him and you will find that, in real life, he is someone called John Woodcock, a 45-year-old former Labour MP.

His transition from Labour MP to a lifetime role legislating in the Upper House was a circuitous one. He became an MP in 2010, briefly occupying shadow roles in transport and education. He was suspended from—and then resigned from—Labour following sexual harassment allegations, which he denied. He sat as an independent MP before Boris Johnson nominated him for a peerage. He urged the public to vote Conservative in 2019. Quite the journey.

The following year, Johnson’s government appointed Woodcock—by then “Lord Walney”—as an independent adviser on political violence and disruption.

This was a somewhat surprising appointment, since Woodcock, as we shall call him, appeared to have a scant background in anything to do with the subject he was now tasked with advising on.

His day job involves working for a couple of lobbying companies, including Rud Pedersen, which boasts that it “bridges the gap between business and politics.” Its clients include Glencore, a somewhat charmless giant mining company based in Switzerland—big in oil, gas and coal—as well as Enwell Energy, which bills itself as “a highly focused oil and gas business.”

Such companies do not welcome protest.

Woodcock also chaired Labour Friends of Israel for nearly two years and was part of the mysterious consortium, led by former Conservative spin doctor Sir Robbie Gibb, which bought the Jewish Chronicle on behalf of a person or persons unknown.

So much for John Woodcock. Now the issue: political violence and disruption. Ignoring any possible conflicts of interest, it is not immediately obvious why Woodcock was Johnson’s nominee to pronounce on this issue. MI5, whose job it is to think about such things, employs 5,000 people. The Home Office has some 40,000 staff. The Met Police has 1,500 officers in counter-terrorism, along with a further 11 regional counter-terrorism and intelligence units.

But never mind them, for John Woodcock was ready and willing to give up three years of his life on an unpaid basis to tell us what he thinks. And this week his conclusions arrived in the form of a giant 291-page tome, with no fewer than 41 recommendations on how these assorted professionals might sharpen up their acts.

The long and short of it is that Woodcock hasn’t got much time for protest. He spills a small amount of ink nodding at the values of free speech and dissent—well, you have to, don’t you? But, by and large, he thinks we’d be better off if the Just Stop Oil virtue signallers and the Gaza mob packed up their paint cans and tents and went home.

But how to make that happen? Woodcock suggests that we should broadly start treating what he regards as the more “extreme” causes as equivalent to terror groups. He singles out the five movements (or, in his term, “Far Left subcultures”) about which we should be most concerned: environmental campaigns; anti-racism; anti-government protest; anti-Israel activism and anti-fascism.

Woodcock wants to go after their money. If they hold large demos which require policing, the demonstrators should pay for the police. If their demos cause you inconvenience, you should be able to sue them. Governments and MPs should refuse to engage with them. Ways should be found to discourage juries from acquitting them.

He endorses a new idea of “cumulative disruption”: the more you protest, the tougher the cops can get in banning marches or demonstrations. Blocking a road is, in Woodcock’s view, “an unacceptable use of force”, as is storming a council chamber.

How many council chambers are, in fact, stormed, I wondered? Google turns up one in Swindon in 2003 (anti-war); and another in Birmingham in 2005 (housing). In 2015 in Barnet they were cross about library cuts; in Sheffield in 2018 it involved 20 protestors cross about trees; councillors in Oldham were heckled in 2022 by a group concerned about sexual abuse.

Doubtless there have been more and it seems likely such events are both regrettable and, if you took the trouble to speak to the protestors, understandable. Yet somehow we have, as a nation, bravely struggled on.

In Woodcock’s former constituency of Barrow and Furness, suffragettes went rather further, burning down a mansion in Sowerby Woods. They poured chemicals in pillar boxes and cut telephone lines. In 1913, a royal visit to Lancashire was met with bombs in Blackburn, Newton Heath, Southport, Liverpool and the historic Brock Aqueduct. The Woodcocks of the time were outraged. Today the protestors are venerated in books and films and statues are erected in their honour.

Woodcock’s report coincided with the solicitor general announcing the government would appeal against the decision of a judge not to prosecute Trudi Warner, 69, a retired social worker, for holding a placard advising jurors of their rights. There is a backlog of more than 66,000 cases in the criminal courts at the moment, yet here we are. How easily illiberalism can become an obsession.

Woodcock cannot have imagined that within 24 hours of his report being published (and warmly greeted by the home secretary, James Cleverly) we would be plunged into a general election. It feels destined to gather dust.

It seems unlikely that a Labour government will summon Woodcock for advice on anything in the near future, and it’s to be hoped Keir Starmer resists Woodcock’s suggestion that his role is made permanent.

I wonder what my intelligence big cheese—with their grim warning over climate change—would think? I suspect they secretly hope people never stop campaigning over the environment. Or, for that matter, against racism or fascism.

If people want to protest against Israel or the UK government of the day, let it be. A sense of proportion is all. May Woodcock recover his soon.