Is our reaction to protest just ‘Plane Stupid’?

The Heathrow activists were told yesterday to expect prison sentences, but how different are they to the suffragettes (or any other protesters you care to name from the pages of history) who endured jail and force feeding in the pursuit of votes for women. Most of us think of these women as heroines and without their passion, vigour and single-mindedness, the vote would have been much longer coming.

Now likening the Heathrow protesters to the fight for women’s suffrage is bound to raise a flurry of protest (boom, boom!). But in 50 years’ time will their fight to protect the environment and public health be seen as completely rational and one which a conservative (with a small ‘c’) society struggled to fully grasp at the time? And is it symptomatic of our furore to the disruption of law and order that we demonise protesters, much like we did with the students and more latterly, the junior doctors? It’s much easier to view protesters as raving, loony lefties who should get a job or be grateful their lot like the rest of us than process not only their views but the reason they felt they had no other option but to take to the streets (and runways).

Whilst we British may embrace our national characteristics of tolerance and liberty, fiercely defending our right to voice our opinions, we’re also afraid of anarchy and anything which upsets the status quo.

Just like the suffragettes, the Heathrow 13 from the group Plane Stupid are largely middle class professionals, not that just because you are middle class you shouldn’t face the full force of the law, but thereby lies the rub; the nature of protest often leads to hitherto law abiding citizens finding themselves sailing very close to the wind. I was listening to one young woman interviewed on LBC radio yesterday who is due to be sentenced on her birthday and she was concerned how her bosses are likely to react.

Now those of you not seasoned protesters who have never in your life stood up to be counted are likely to be saying ‘tough, they knew the consequences, they shouldn’t have done it in the first place’. As a veteran protester, I absolutely uphold the right to protest even if sometimes you may find yourself not acting strictly within the parameters of the law as it was with the Plane Stupid activists who faced charges of aggregated trespass and entering a restricted area. In my day it was CND, the poll tax, anti-apartheid (long before most of my contemporaries had even heard of Nelson Mandela) and supporting the Greenpeace ship The Rainbow Warrior against whaling and dumping of nuclear waste and 40-odd years later, as but one example, we consider much of Greenpeace’s campaigns to have been absolutely on the nail, but at the time they were largely viewed as political deviants.

Now I know there are sound safety concerns about Plane Stupid’s protest which saw them chain themselves to the fence and meant planes couldn’t land or take-off, for those which were at the end of a long haul flight, fuel would have been a concern whilst our heightened sense of terrorism sends us all in a flap at any sign of a security breach.

To be fair, had I been on one of the flights or waiting to board a delayed flight, I would have been calling for their heads on spikes. But had I been the daughter of a shopkeeper whose business had been targeted by suffragettes, my sentiments would have been similar, perhaps a bit more demure given I would have been a product of Edwardian England.

So let’s park the personal. Our history is littered with protest, which has arguably led to our proud heritage of free speech and our liberties which many of our grandfathers and great grandfathers died defending in WWII. But it is ‘balanced’, for want of a better word, with the heavy hand of the establishment whose members invariably have a vested interest in keeping things as they are, on an even keel with the apple cart well and truly stable.

From the Peasants Revolt in the Middle Ages to the suffragettes and beyond, even to Nelson Mandela himself, change has been caught up with protest, criminality and even violence. But, all the above are examples of great wrongs being put right, right? We can now look back 100 years or in the case of Greenpeace to the 70s and 80s and tip our proverbial cap that they called it right. At the time, though, the majority didn’t think the wrong was so wrong.

It is difficult for us to imagine how a third runway at Heathrow really is such a huge wrong or injustice. Plane Stupid argues the expansion of Heathrow and its environmental impact particularly on climate change including the effect on health from air pollution is too high a price to pay.

Whether you think they are right or not is perhaps not the real question. We should be asking whether it is right to send these people to prison and what end does it serve?

Writing The Guardian in 2009, Ben Wilson, author of What Price Liberty? published by Faber and Faber, argues Britain’s innate fear of anarchy and chaos is just as prevalent as its protest heritage. He refers to the fight for civil rights and liberty as a ‘guerilla campaign’ rather than ‘all out war’ where often what appears to be the defeat of protesters and their leaders held to account is viewed as ‘losing’ when, in fact, without them, change would have been far longer coming. As such, this has helped mould our view as the protester as someone undemocratic, a threat to the common good and distinctly unBritish. We should all be good citizens and go about our daily business of earning a living, paying our taxes and spending our money to boost the economy rather than loudly demanding our government do something.

Emily Davison
Emily Davison who died four days after stepping out into the path of the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913 source: BBC/Hulton Archive

Women’s suffrage was a long battle which saw the lives of middle-class and ordinary women, although much of the evidence suggests working class activists were treated more harshly, turned on their heads with many making huge personal sacrifices, for some like Emily Davison, it meant giving their lives, in the pursuit of women’s suffrage.

Our view of the suffragettes today is of brave women who fought valiantly and righteously against the narrow-minded establishment keen to keep women shackled to the hearth, their husbands, brothers and fathers. Around 1,000 women were imprisoned although the outbreak of WWI saw militancy give way to patriotism and women labouring to support the war effort which eventually secured them the vote although it wasn’t until 1928 that women’s votes were given parity with men’s.

Hence there are two distinctive views on what won women the vote; hard work and patriotism or without militant action women would have waited much longer for political recognition. And perhaps this will shape our view on the environment. Climate change is on the agenda and, inevitably, our behaviour will change, most likely as a result of legislation, some of us will think this will be a natural progression of increased knowledge and wider understanding whilst some of us will be convinced change only occurred as a result of the direct action which preceded it.

Whatever happens or whatever we decide in terms of our approach to climate change, imprisoning the Heathrow protesters has to be somewhat heavy handed and unnecessary, a throwback to what should be a bygone era where people who stand up to be counted are unceremoniously put back in their place.

Photo montage (L-R): Suffragettes taking part in a pageant organised by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, June 1908 source: The Guardian from Christina Bloom/Musuem of London; protester ‘chained’ to the Heathrow fence source: Plane Stupid; no third runway protest source: Plane Stupid; suffragette poster evoking the national personification of John Bull source: Museum of London


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