The cornerstone of our democracy is the right to protest. At the moment the government is pushing through amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill that would make it illegal to protest at a range of infrastructure sites.
The Government is intending to use the latest amendment to
introduce a new offence of interfering with the operation of key infrastructure, such as the strategic road network, railways, sea ports, airports, oil refineries and printing presses, carrying a maximum penalty of 12 months’ imprisonment, an unlimited fine, or bothGeorge Monbiot citing in the guardian a private letter to members of the House of Lords
This is on top of the existing authoritarian measures in the bill. For instance, named individuals can be banned from protesting. If I write a post encouraging readers to attend a protest, I can be individually banned from protesting. If I turn up anyway, under these new measures, I can be sent to prison for 51 weeks.
Why is the government doing this?
Well, I suspect it is because they know that protest works, as demonstrated by the success of the protests to stop fracking in the UK. A sustained campaign of protest by a small dedicated group halted one of the most illogical of engineering projects: fracking for more fossil fuels while committing to reducing our carbon footprint.
Of course, Government’s backers, from the tabloid press to oil interests, do not want to see their projects and operations disrupted. But I also think this is an opportunity to score political points. Protest is controversial, and acts of civil disobedience split public opinion. In my experience of speaking to people on both sides of the picket line, it’s not that those who oppose the protest want to support climate breakdown – they just would rather the government took care of it, making the necessary legislative changes to reduce our emissions.
By squashing protest the Government believes it can take the upper hand by arresting the disrupters and claiming it is taking action on climate breakdown.
Only it isn’t. As I wrote last week, we need to make a 7% reduction in our carbon emissions year on year until 2030 in order to keep temperature rises below 1.5 degrees warming. This amounts to a transformation of society. And yet the government failed to commit to anything near this level of reduction at COP 26.
The Government has no plan to tackle climate breakdown at anything like the speed we need to avoid catastrophic climate system breakdown in the next ten years. And so it’s best hope of staying in power is making protest illegal.
Sadly, this government has form in crushing democratic protest. In 2019 Extinction Rebellion were successful in mobilising hundreds of thousands of people to protest against the Government’s inaction on climate breakdown. Rattled, the incoming Home Secretary put pressure on the Metropolitan Police to crackdown on protest. In November 2019 the Met made it an offence to protest anywhere in London.
The police showed up in their hundreds to clear protestors, including dozens of engineers, scientists, doctors, lawyers and a multitude of other protestors from Trafalgar Square (I took the photo above when they were preparing to clear us away). Though the ban on protest was later shown to be unlawful by the Supreme Court, the damage was done. People stayed away – it no-longer felt safe to protest.
What does that say about our work?
If the projects that we are working on are non-longer open to democratic challenge, then we are delivering the projects of an autocratic regime, and we are the tools of that autocratic regime.
We are no-longer ‘civil’ engineers in the service of democratic society but de facto ‘army’ engineers – or at least engineers that police and army will show up for to ensure our projects are completed.
The hard truth is that many of the projects that we are working on civil engineering and construction are not compatible with a significant reduction in carbon emissions. Some are plainly taking us in the opposite direction: for example airport expansion and development of fossil fuel infrastructure road widening. Some are highly questionable: is HS2 really the best way to spend £100billion – destroying ancient habitats at great cost in order to connect together cities that are already well connected. And some, with hindsight, will seem like the completely wrong thing to have been spending our time doing: for example, building new luxury housing while our decaying housing stock needs urgent energy efficiency work.
There is much to protest about in the work that we are doing. But even if you think there is nothing to object to in any of the projects I mention in the last paragraph, then I think it is still worth fighting to ensure that we do is built with democratic consent.
What can I do now?
The fight to protect our right to protest is not lost. As engineers, we hold considerable respect in society. We should use that position to defend the right to protest.
- Find out when the next ‘Kill the Bill‘ protests are happening. Go, while it is still legal to protest, and bring your colleagues with you, while it still legal to encourage them to do so.
- Write to your MP and ask them to oppose the motion. This is particularly important for people in Conservative-held constituencies.
- Ask your institution to speak on your behalf – they have the ear of government
Engineers are the next line of protest
With determination, we can play our part in seeing off this assault on our democracy.
But if the public are no-longer allowed to protest outside the gates, then it falls to us inside the gates to protest. People often say to me ‘what can I do – the client isn’t interested?’ Then the protest needs to go beyond what you can achieve in a design-team meeting.
Simply, these projects against which people are protesting can’t get built if there aren’t the engineers to design, build and operate them. The next line of protest is to voluntarily withdraw the brainpower from the operation.
In any protest, what an individual can give is a question of circumstance and privilege. No one should be judged for not giving more than they can. But everyone can ask, can I do more?
Whether you want to protest against your own project, the actions of your organisation or the actions of industry more widely, there are many ways to make your voice heard.
- Tell people how you feel. Share your feelings at a staff meeting. Write to the head of your company.
- Tell your employer you want to be taken off the job and moved onto something that is building a better future rather than prolonging the existing system
- Take inspiration from the Fridays for Future youth strikes and refuse to work Fridays in protest and set up a picket line.
- Coordinate with others through your union or institution to take strike action.
- Consider leaving your job to find work with an employer you consider to be more ethical.
Most importantly, for any of these forms of protest, find people to work with. Together protest movements can achieve great things. We have professional institutions and our unions that can act as our voice if we ask them to. They are places where we can find the support of others. The Government may succeed in dividing the public through fear. Within our profession, bound by our commitment of service to future generations, we can stand together.