Just Stop Oil are on the right side of history

They might be the most troublesome protestors since the suffragettes, but I back these radical activists

July 28, 2023
Campaigning against the imprisonment of Marcus Decker and Morgan Trowland this June. Image: ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo
Protesters marching against the imprisonment of Marcus Decker and Morgan Trowland this June. Image: ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

I’ve never met Marcus Decker, though I did speak to him once on the phone from his prison cell. On Wednesday I saw him again. I was in the ornate mock-gothic surroundings of the High Court in London, listening to m’learned friends picking over arcane points of law. Decker, bearded and wearing a colourful T-shirt, was scribbling notes on Zoom. Still in prison.

I should explain, since it’s a near certainty you won’t have heard of Marcus Decker. Last October—nearly 10 months ago—he and a man called Morgan Trowland shinned up the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge at the Dartford Crossing in London. They rigged up a banner drawing attention to climate change. And there they stayed, swaying gently in their hammocks, for around 36 hours. 

In April they were respectively sentenced to two years seven months, and three years in jail. Eco-zealots caged. Small news item, soon forgotten. 

And quite right too, many will say. For the past five weeks Just Stop Oil (JSO) and fellow activists have been relentlessly in the headlines, throwing orange dust or confetti all over the shop. You can’t have missed it. They have taken part in more than 500 “slow walks” and chucked the odd can of soup at blameless paintings. All this is intensely irritating to sports lovers, museum curators, Mr and Mrs George Osborne and many thousands of people stuck in traffic. 

Historically, it has to be said, it is quite tame stuff. Around 110 years ago women arguing for women’s suffrage bombed and burned their way into the headlines, with an estimated cost to the British economy of well over £100m. The aim was to intimidate and punish: you might even call them terrorists. In the space of 18 months, they blew up or torched nearly 340 buildings, including nearly 100 houses or hotels and 32 churches. They even tried to explode a bomb in St Paul’s Cathedral.

Today we honour the cause, and some of the leaders, with statues, and in reverential films and books.

On Tuesday evening this week I dropped in on a JSO gathering and met some of the people marching and throwing soup. They reminded me of the women who fought, and eventually won, their fight for suffrage just over a century ago: decent, committed, earnest, determined. Their modern-day acts of protest—and the raw hatred and abuse they sometimes attract—didn’t sound much fun. 

Their justification is that it works. The group now claims 90 per cent name recognition, thanks mainly to a media all too happy to work themselves into a froth about eco-zealots so long as the activists can come up with enough novel click-worthy stunts. Dr Tristram Wyatt, a senior Oxford zoologist at the gathering, told them: “One of the strange things is that JSO is listening to the science, and the government isn’t.” 

You might say the same about a good slice of the media, hooked as it is on a narrative of demonising protestors—or even BBC climate reporters—as hypocrites, loons, or both. It’s nowadays less common to find out-and-out climate deniers given platforms on mainstream media—though there are some (hello, Dan Wootton!). They’ve been replaced by a kind of collective shrug or yawn. Ignore it: it might go away. Keep calm: technology and the market economy will probably sort it out. In the world-weary words of an exquisitely mannered Times leader writer, stop ululating

Well, Just Stop Oil will carry on ululating, and I find myself strangely grateful to them. In 100 years’ time I suspect our descendants will be rather more impressed by the spirit of the activists than any number of condescending editorialists. 

Which takes us back to Court 9 on Wednesday morning, and the legal arguments about whether it’s right that Decker and Trowland should be locked up for so long.

The English have a rather proud record of not incarcerating non-violent protestors acting on a matter of conscience—ever since the Peterloo Massacre in 1819, and the subsequent court affirmation of “the undoubted right of Englishmen to assemble together for the purpose of deliberating upon public grievances.” 

Liberty, the human rights group, was founded (as the National Council for Civil Liberties) in 1934 over concern at the treatment of hunger marchers arguing for the right to peaceful dissent. They intervened over the heavy sentencing of miners’ leaders at Haworth Colliery in 1937; stood up against police behaviour over CND and the Committee of 100 in 1960. They were there for the Kinder Scout mass trespassers in 1932 (you can now take part in a National Trust trespass trail!); and for anti-frackers in 2018.

Numerous English judges, including Lord Denning, have since endorsed the right to peaceful protest, never mind the European Court of Human Rights. Notably, Lord Hoffmann ruled in 2006: “Civil disobedience on conscientious grounds has a long and honourable history in this country. People who break the law to affirm their belief in the injustice of a law or government action are sometimes vindicated by history.” Here he mentioned the suffragettes. 

“It is the mark of a civilised community that it can accommodate protests and demonstrations of this kind.”

Hoffmann went on to urge a kind of bargain: protestors should act with a sense of proportion and shouldn’t cause excessive damage or inconvenience. The police should, in turn, act with restraint, and the courts, in deciding a penalty (if any), should take into account the conscientious motives of the protestors. Hoffmann commended conditional discharges handed down by some magistrates as an example of proportionate sentencing.

That was 2006. In the intervening 17 years it feels as if Britain has become a less tolerant society, with this current government doing its best to extinguish most forms of protest. 

In the High Court on Wednesday, five bewigged barristers debated precedent in front of three bewigged judges. Lady Justice Carr, presiding, seemed exercised that we lived in an age of escalating protest. Across Europe, China and the American southwest there was furnace heat. Rhodes was in flames. A New York Times headline that day read: “Warming could push the Atlantic past a ‘tipping point’ this century.” July looked likely to be the hottest the earth has been in 120,000 years. Meanwhile the Times on Monday splashed with: “Tory retreat from green policies to woo voters.”

Marcus Decker and Morgan Trowland were led back to their cells. They will, in due course, learn whether English law’s relative tolerance for protest is a thing of the past.