If it's Tuesday it Must
Whatever happened to the road protesters?
The Ecologist, March 2001
Recently I was asked to appear on BBC radio to talk
about the Government's new road building programme (34
seconds please, and make it controversial). Before the
programme, the commissioning editor was thrilled to
learn that, once upon a time, I had been a road protester
myself. Had I been up any trees, then, he wanted to
know? Down any tunnels; that sort of thing? A few, I
said, since you ask. So what did I think of Mr Prescott's
planned new bypasses? Outrageous, I spluttered. Naturally.
So, he asked, with all these new roads roaring across
protected downlands in your general direction, will
you be back in the camps? Can we expect to see you strutting
around in climbing harnesses drinking herbal tea from
dirty cups? Will you be chaining yourself to bulldozers
and getting all teary-eyed about rare snails? In short,
are you going to put your money where your mouth is
and get back up them trees?
What, me? I said. You must be joking. I've got a meeting
at four o'clock.
A lot of British environmental activists of my generation
(still on the right side of 30, but not for long enough
to want to talk about it) were blooded in the road protest
camps of the 1990s. They were magical, bizarre, inspiring,
depressing, frustrating, empowering places. They gave
people a chance to use their own hands to defend a very
real landscape, a very real natural beauty, against
the idiocy and spite of a very unreal government.
I lost my eco-virginity at Twyford Down in 1993. I
turned up a slightly cynical, badly-dressed student
and left three days later, after a short spell in Southampton
nick, as the blazing-eyed, still badly-dressed eco-bore
I am today. Similar things happened to thousands of
others. Twyford, Newbury, Solsbury Hill, Wymondham,
Wanstonia, Pollock - these are names that politicised
a significant section of an entire generation.
So where are they now? And why do I get the feeling
that it won't be like that again? Even though the government
plans to build bypasses over the next five years that
will destroy watermeadows, SSSIs and protected downland;
which will encourage car use and fail to relieve local
traffic for any more than a few years? All the arguments
are the same; it's only the landscapes that are different.
And who's to say that the beauty of St Catherine's Hill
or Penn Wood (RIP) was any more special than the beauty
of the River Camel (Weymouth relief road coming your
way) or the Avon watermeadows at Britford (watch out
for that old Salisbury-bypass-disguised-as-a-widening-scheme
True, the scale is different. Horrible though Prescott's
road package is, it's nothing compared to the Tories'
famous boast that they were undertaking 'the biggest
roadbuilding programme since the Romans'. Also, of course,
the political landscape has changed; no longer are we
living with the fag-end of a dying, discredited government.
Today, we drive down the Third Way together, in our
air-conditioned Mondeos (leather upholstery, airbag
as standard) towards Tony's New Dawn. Somehow, it's
just not the same.
But it's not just that. Another reason that the road
protests could never happen again on that scale is that
the people who made them happen have moved on; and the
movement they kick-started has moved on with them.
If there was one thing you learned on a road protest
camp, it was to make connections. You asked yourself
what the big picture was here. Why's this really happening?
And you worked out that the big picture went something
like: new roads for big lorries for new supermarkets
for pointless new consumer goods made in poor countries
by rich companies in a fast-growing global market which
constantly needs more roads, more lorries, more supermarkets
and less of everything that gets in the way.
When you saw the connections like that, you realised
that fighting the roads was tackling the symptoms, not
the cause. Today, less than 10 years later, the result
of that collective realisation is making itself felt.
The anti-roads movement has, in a sense, gone global.
The concerns that motivated people to fight against
roads - environmental destruction; powerlessness; the
erasing of local differences; the sham that is 'democracy'
- are the same concerns that motivate people to fight
against globalisation, the WTO, the World Bank - the
whole shebang. Where did all the road protesters go?
They headed for Prague, but got stopped on the Czech
border because the tyres on their vans were bald.
In other words, the movement has moved on. It's a good
thing; if it's to effect real political change, it needs
to keep growing. But let's hope it doesn't ignore the
local in its search for global solutions. Let's hope
that the temptations of a trip to Seattle don't blind
us to what will soon be happening in the Eden Valley
and the Norfolk Broads.
Let's hope, in other words, that I am utterly, gloriously,
wrong: that history does repeat itself; that the road
protest camps spring up again; that Labour has to back
down as the Tories did. Anything's possible. But probably
not if people like me sit here writing about it instead
of doing it.
I think I've still got that climbing harness somewhere.