October 29, 2021

Insulate Britain, the radical offshoot of Extinction Rebellion, presents a strange conundrum. Where XR aimed to build a broad-based coalition of support — apologising when they overstepped the mark — Insulate Britain’s campaign of civil disobedience targeting commuters at rush hour in and around London seems explicitly designed to alienate as many ordinary people as possible. Since its campaign began in September, footage of activists being shouted at or dragged off the roads by angry motorists has gone viral, overshadowing the group’s core demands that the Government pay to retrofit insulation to Britain’s unusually draughty housing stock.

Last week, after some negotiation, being passed from activist cell to cell, UnHerd was granted access to a group of Insulate Britain protestors preparing to disrupt rush hour traffic in the City the following day. I wanted to find out who they are and whether they think their campaign is working. Arriving at their safehouse — an Airbnb flat off the Edgware Road — we were welcomed by their organiser Louise Lancaster, a middle-aged teacher from Cambridge. With a few exceptions, the activists were middle-aged or impeccably middle-class retired professionals from Middle England: as they hugged and grazed at the buffet, the atmosphere seemed more like a Church of England social than that of a radical protest group. 

 

Yet all were united by a firmly-held belief that the climate crisis presented such an urgent, apocalyptic threat that the only course left was direct action. “I’m prepared to lose my liberty, lose my home that I love, not see my family, have everything taken away by the government,” Biff from Canterbury told the group, as they took turns introducing themselves. “Because I’m raging now. And I’m absolutely disgusted at the criminality of this government. They are condemning our children and our grandchildren to war and starvation. Our children are going to be the cannon fodder in what’s coming and what’s looming, and the Government are just lining their pockets, and blinkered to what’s going to happen to this country.” 

David, a white-bearded retiree, agreed, arguing that “anybody who understands this problem now, and does not begin to act — not write to their legislator or MP — get out into the streets, make themselves known and tell the Government this is unacceptable, and join with others around the world. They will be in a state of complicity. They’ll just be observing the end of humanity. And knowing that it was coming.” 

Yet there seemed to be a curious mismatch between the apocalyptic scale of the climate threat — which absolutely accords with the scientific consensus — and their proposed solution of insulating homes. Britain accounts for a mere 1% of global carbon emissions, and by their own reckoning, leaky insulation accounts for only 15% of that 1%. Surely there were more pressing targets for their campaign? Why not campaign for an increase in nuclear power generation, which underwrites France’s vastly superior carbon efficiency compared to the UK? The response was one of horror: despite claiming there were only a few years left to save human life, the activists cited the millennia-long storage times for radioactive waste as a reason to discount the idea. “Nuclear power stations need extreme control,” argued Margarita, a retiree. “And if we lose that, you know, if there’s social breakdown, what happens, is those power stations could become extremely dangerous.” Instead, they argued, home insulation was “low-hanging fruit”, a concrete and easily-achievable goal behind which the public could finally be rallied to the looming urgency of the climate crisis.

The advanced age of Insulate Britain’s activist base is striking, and judging from the tone of much online commentary, which snarkily portrays them as baby boomers who have enjoyed the most comfortable living conditions in world history now seeking to enforce eco-austerity on the downwardly-mobile young, it’s an Achilles heel for the wider movement. Why does their demographic skew to the old in such a pronounced way? “I’ve got the time,” answered David: “I’m here because I can be here, there are millions of people who aren’t in the fortunate position that I’m in, I’ve had my career, I’ve paid my mortgage. I passionately am concerned about humanity going down the pan while I watch.” 

Judy, 82, from South Wales, argued that her age provided her with the breadth of personal experience to understand just where the world was going wrong. “For one thing,” she said, “I’ve been around longer than other people to pollute this planet, and you know, to contribute to the state we’re in. But I also remember what the world was like when I was young and what the countryside was like, what it was like to travel and the beautiful places and the wildlife, which is all being destroyed by what we’re doing. And it’s not necessary. It doesn’t have to be that way.” Arrested four times since September, Judy insisted that direct action was the only way: “I marched against the Iraq war. There were a million of us, and bloody hell, what notice did anybody take? Sod all, it was. And so we’ve got to do this disruption, we’ve got to do something that makes people get annoyed, really get annoyed.” 

If that’s the plan, it’s working. If Insulate Britain has intruded into the public consciousness at all, it’s through all that footage of their tiny cohort of activists blocking ordinary, possibly previously sympathetic, drivers from going to hospital or taking their children to school — footage the activists claimed was being disseminated by a hostile Right-wing press “inciting murder”. As Louise shared the plan for the following day’s action — blocking traffic on Southwark Bridge in the heart of the City — she took great pains to stress that they would allow emergency vehicles through on cycle paths, and that the assembled protestors should visibly empathise with stranded drivers’ annoyance: “We are aware that we are creating the situation that other people are suffering from, and we need to support them as much as we can.”

During rush hour the next morning, the group put this empathic approach to the test. They gathered as inconspicuously as possible in a small garden near the chosen location before walking to the access road north of the bridge and sitting down in the road. There they unfurled their banners, some gluing their hands to the asphalt. Immediately, they drew the ire of stranded drivers who yelled, honked horns and tried to drive through them. One black NHS worker trying to deliver medical supplies and an angry man with a thick Iraqi accent claiming he had a sick child in his car were both allowed to drive through the sit-in after voluble protests. It was striking to watch, as white-haired representatives of Middle England were abused and dragged off the road by London’s multiracial working class. “You know, it is terrible when people start screaming at you and don’t understand,” reflected Margarita, who had glued herself to the road. “And you do sort of start questioning yourself. But yeah, we’re just doing it because we feel it’s got to be brought out, the whole issue, you know the insulation will definitely help but the climate crisis, people don’t seem to take it on board.”

After half an hour of abuse and anger — and very occasional gestures of support — the police arrived, dealing with the protesters with a tenderness which contradicted the Government’s stern warnings of a crackdown. The whole scene seemed to express a deep, essential Englishness, as young coppers tried to dissuade women who could have been their grandmothers from obstructing the highway, then unglued them and softly prised them away from the road towards a markedly amicable arrest. I’ve covered many demonstrations in London, from student protests to EDL rallies, and have never seen such gentle policing. “They probably won’t thank me for saying they’ve been helpful,” Judy said of the police surrounding her. “But they have been, they’ve been great. And we’ve talked to a lot of police officers and a lot of them say, ‘yeah, we think about our children and our grandchildren as well you know, we’re not looking forward to the changes that are going to happen in the world.’” 

I asked Susie, a fortysomething mother of two from Cambridge, how she felt about being arrested, as the police prepared to carry her into the waiting van.“Compared to the climate crisis? It’s a doddle. It doesn’t mean I want to be arrested, doesn’t mean I want to face court. doesn’t mean any of that. But compared to the climate crisis, being able to do this now while I’ve got food in my belly, a warm roof, my kids looked after: bring it on.” 

Yet as the Government gears up for next week’s COP26 climate talks in Glasgow, Insulate Britain’s direct action campaign seems more divisive than effective, however compelled their activists may be to feel they are at least doing something. 

In the context of a Conservative government struggling to commit its own party to Johnson’s Net Zero aspirations, Insulate Britain’s campaign has functioned as a lightning rod for critics of any action on climate change at all to portray those concerned as middle-class cranks, divorced from the needs and aspirations of ordinary working people. In reality, the decisions that will really make a difference on climate change will be made in China, America and India: British politicians’ time may be better spent focusing on building domestic resilience to the seemingly inevitable disaster than frittering away political capital tinkering at the edges of a process they are more or less powerless to prevent.