May 18, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith
The recent release of figures disclosing that of the 114 charges against protesters (including Caroline Lucas, the Green Party MP – pictured above) relating to the anti-fracking protest last summer in Balcombe, West Sussex, only 29 resulted in convictions has raised justified questions about how we police legitimate protest in this country.
Police have been accused of ‘criminalising peaceful protest’ during their £4m operation, particularly with their use of ‘Section 14’ notices under the 1986 Public Order Act – which gave the police the power “to prevent serious public disorder, serious criminal damage or serious disruption to the life of the community”, and which was used not only to explain arrests at the time but to throw an ongoing no-protest cordon around the site. These notices have been challenged now by District judges, who argue that there were unlikely to be grounds for serious concerns that the ‘serious public order’ disturbances would happen.
The whole case around Balcombe throws up some important questions for our democracy, particularly with regard to pressure group direct action. Are we a liberal democracy? To what extent should pluralism (competing groups allowed to try to influence policy and legislation, with government acting as referee) be encouraged? Who decides where the line is between peaceful and seriously disruptive protest?
If you don’t know what ‘fracking’ is – I suggest you click here. The fact that I had to think carefully about what link to provide shows the sensitivity of the issue – I chose the BBC site as I still believe in their neutrality.
My feelings on fracking are that if we have a source of energy that would enable us to cut the price of heating our homes by two thirds and stop us having to make political compromises with extremely dodgy countries with terrible human rights records (and, it ought to be said, getting involved in foreign wars) then I’m all for it. I have read and digested the arguments for and against, and I do so in the knowledge that there are many private companies who can make a massive amount of money if fracking is allowed in this country who may be ‘sponsoring’ any playing down of risks and playing up of benefits – and many environmental groups who may be doing the opposite – so I take most information with a pinch of salt. BUT in a country where some people are having to make a choice between heating or eating – surely we should be pursuing something that can make a difference there. I will look at this more closely in future articles. (But if you want a clue as to where I might go with it – read about Beckingham Marshes here.
Back to the Balcombe protests – they were, in a well functioning liberal pluralist democracy like ours – an absolutely vital part of what I in particular hold very dear – free assembly and free speech. I am concerned about the NIMBYs who actually want fracking to happen but not near where they live (although as always I would need to check how I would feel if they announced they were doing it near me). I also feel slightly uncomfortable with some of the logical contradictions of their messages – for instance the protester standing outside the site trying to stop a process going ahead which could cut gas prices by two thirds but holding a sign saying “stop fuel poverty”. I would also prefer they didn’t spread such panic (they talk about earthquakes but Professor Richard Davies of Durham University, funded by an independent consortium rather than the fracking industry, concluded that fracking “causes as much seismic activity as falling off a ladder”), But I do feel they are raising important points that must be addressed.
Most of the protesters want to stop fracking full stop, on the basis that we shouldn’t be using any more non-renewable sources of energy. That is a legitimate view that they are entitled to have and shouldn’t be arrested for. I actually suspect they won’t stop fracking, but their efforts WILL result in it being carefully regulated – which is what even its’ most confident proponents agree should happen. The role of government is hard, but would be made even harder if they are not allowed to pursue something that could make such a difference to the cost of living. There is a question sometimes used in AS politics exam which asks whether pressure groups are “serpents that strangle efficient government”, and whilst there are no right answers to that one – it is true they may slow down government, but ‘efficiency’ is about more than speed.
Protests like the one at Balcombe need to be allowed to go ahead – within limits – and I, whatever side I am on, do not want to stand back and say nothing if they are silenced by over-aggressive and illegitimate police action – because that shouldn’t be happening in anybody’s name.
p.s. just as an aside – it doesn’t help that the company looking at drilling for fracking at Balcombe was called Cuadrilla – it just sounds like a sinister corporation from a Batman movie – they might want to think about that!