The right to protest is a distinctive feature of democratic, liberal societies. Yet the way in which many leading British politicians are currently talking about Just Stop Oil might make you think otherwise. Far from engaging with the issues at stake in these protests, politicians appear to be encouraging the wider public to ignore them or even oppose them.
Having seen their initial protests largely ignored, Just Stop Oil members have been making more disruptive (but non-violent) protests lately. They’ve been present at high-profile sports events like Wimbledon and the World Snooker Championships.
Policing minister Chris Philp dismissed the temporary delays caused to such events as “completely unacceptable”“. He argued that “the vast majority of the public are appalled by this very, very small, very selfish minority” and called on those not protesting to intervene.
With the UK government announcing new licences for oil and gas drilling in the North Sea, it’s clear that collective action that allows people to demonstrate their disagreement in peaceful ways is needed. In apparent contradiction to warnings about the climate crisis, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s commitment to the green agenda is wavering.
Meanwhile, Keir Starmer, the leader of the Labour party, has cancelled a plan to fund the transition from fossil fuels to green industries from the first day of government, should he win power. His response to criticism on this change was to turn on protesters.
He said: “The likes of Just Stop Oil want us to simply turn off the taps in the North Sea, creating the same chaos for working people that they do on our roads. It’s contemptible.”
Diverting the conversation
Referring to people defending the environment as a “minority” that acts against other citizens polarises society and marginalises protesters’ claims. It depicts people’s demands as somehow niche rather than amounting to a highly pressing threat to the majority.
One of the features of language is that when we talk, we only focus on one or, at most, a few aspects of a particular object or event. A lot will inevitably remain unsaid.
Still, when what remains unsaid is one of the most obvious elements of any given topic, what is missing becomes as informative as what was said. In this case, the focus on tactics instead of the substance of the protest betrays an unwillingness to engage with the climate crisis.
The government has put forward the home secretary Suella Braverman rather than the environment secretary to respond to the Just Stop Oil protests (itself a signal that they are seen as a public order issue more than anything else).
Braverman has referred to people protesting for environmental reasons as causing “havoc and misery”. Environment secretary Thérèse Coffey, meanwhile, doesn’t appear to have made any public statements regarding the matter.
To say that people are protesting and not mentioning the reason for the protest leaves the story incomplete. That’s something that rarely happens when UK politicians talk about protests in other countries.
Last year, Sunak referred to women protesting in Iran as displaying “the most humbling and breathtaking courage” in sending “a very clear message that the Iranian people aren’t satisfied with the path that the government has taken”. Here the focus of the conversation is placed on protesters’ claims.
But when talking about protests held in the UK, the debate looms over the disruption caused, as if the core message were secondary or even dispensable. It is only when the core message is ignored that politicians can refer to those acting in defence of human and nonhuman lives as “selfish”.
In the absence of meaningful political engagement, conversations about Just Stop Oil protests in the UK have strayed mainly into tactics and disruption at expense of their core message. However, politicians in democratic nations have a responsibility towards the electorate to engage properly with what citizens demand, not just with the way they make their claims heard.