Artillery Row

Law and disorder in Cambridge – whose side are the police on?

A mob vandalises Trinity College – and the college authorities and police look away.

The late Clive James recalled earnest discussions he enjoyed with fellow student radicals in the 1960s. The tolerant liberalism of the West was a façade, they agreed. Try smashing-up the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, and you would soon experience with what force the British state retaliated when its interests were threatened.

This observation, along with the boast of some passing LSE students who explained that they were going to strike a blow against capitalism by fiddling with the electric wiring on a new housing estate, convinced James that if this was revolutionary action, then perhaps it was not for him.

After nearly four intervening decades of relative somnolence, Cambridge’s radicals – both town and gown – are this week once again testing the tolerance of the political order they seek to overthrow. As in the Sixties, their choice of targets is risibly parochial, but their objectives are global.

The Cambridge branch of Extinction Rebellion (XR) brings a Bond villain’s approach to climate direct action: if its demands are not met immediately then the world will fry. In their own estimation, XR activists are seers, the few gifted with the will to do right against wrong in a simple Manichean battle for worldwide survival. In common with religious and political fundamentalists, XR does not concede the legitimacy of alternative perspectives. This righteousness exclusivity entwined with contempt for other views has something of Jonestown about it.

And of Cambridge in 2020.

Protest need not be polite. But XR is not an environmental organisation campaigning through persuasion. It has no interest in engagement. It is a cell with total certainty about the virtue of its commitment to Year Zero economics and the re-ordering of society. If it was not so childish, XR would be a fanatical force for our times, a Khmer Vert.

First, XR demanded that Cambridge City Council surrendered its authority to it. XR would then create its own ruling “Citizens Assembly” which – unlike the City Council – would not be democratically elected and would invest itself with the power to take whatever measures were necessary to solve the “climate emergency.” It might be imagined that taking over the central institutions of the People’s Republic of China would be more effectual, but that would have involved boarding a flight to Beijing.

XR is a fanatical force for our times, a Khmer Vert.

Rather than ridiculing the threats of the XR activists as the delusions of a self-important cult, Cambridge City Council agreed to a Citizens Assembly being set-up to advise it on environmental matters. This gesture XR rejected out of hand. They wanted total power, not to be palmed off with consultative jaw-jaw. So last Thursday, XR activists invaded a City Council meeting, occupying the chamber and preventing a budget-setting meeting from concluding. Disrupting planning for public services – what jinks!

On Sunday, XR upped the ante, beginning a week of disruption to Cambridge. Marquees were erected blocking the Fen Causeway and Trumpington Street (the main south-west routes into the city centre). Emergency services were re-directed (although the activists said they would let through ambulances if they considered the situation required it).

Inconveniencing as many people as possible was the objective – otherwise how else would they ensure that their demands were met? “If they don’t give in to our week-long road block we will continue to escalate from there. This isn’t the end, this is the beginning,” warned XR Cambridge activist Tilly Porter, who is studying philosophy at King’s College.

That escalation began on Monday, with XR activist marching up to the entrance of Trinity College where they ripped-up and destroyed the lawn in front of the college. Their rationale for this act of environmental destruction was to draw attention to Trinity’s plans to extend facilities to the Port of Felixstowe on farmland it owns in Suffolk which, as an XR tweet claimed – with default exaggeration – was “land we need for our survival.”

Trinity does not share XR’s insistence that all construction be halted and all fossil fuel use immediately ended, or it would commence divestments from environment-related schemes and companies. It shows no signs of doing so. But does the college possess the courage to defend its own front lawn, let alone its portfolio of investments?

Trinity’s new master, Dame Sally Davies – appointed last year after what the college described as “a global search” – has yet to raise her head above the parapet. This coyness is a far cry from her days as England’s Chief Medical Officer where she had no shortage of opinions about regulating the lives of others, particularly the snack-eating classes. But when faced with a mob at her own Great Gate – she is nowhere to be seen or heard.

We can, perhaps, no longer look to Oxford or Cambridge as great citadels of courage. But more depressing still is the attitude of the Cambridgeshire Constabulary.

We can no longer look to Oxford or Cambridge as great citadels of courage.

When XR commenced its week-long blockade of the southern approach roads into Cambridge the police turned up to provide additional barriers so that traffic was diverted. It is noteworthy that the police officers see their role as facilitating an illegal act in order to minimise friction, rather than to uphold the law and remove the obstructions to public rights of way as the 1980 Highways Act directs. The Constabulary has defended its decision to facilitate the blockade by citing College of Policing guidelines noting that the Human Rights Act defends peaceful protest in this way, potentially overriding whatever the other statutes might say.

The Human Rights Act provides no defence however for what the police did (or rather didn’t do) next. In their own words, the police “attended” the destruction of Trinity’s lawn. “Attended” in this sense means stood around and watched. But what they were “attending” was an act of criminal damage. They did nothing.  Nor did they intervene when the activists moved on to despoil the front of Barclays Bank.

Responding to angry residents querying the constabulary’s inaction whilst property was threatened, Peterborough and Cambridgeshire’s acting police and crime commissioner, Ray Busby, issued a statement stating that, “the Constabulary is in a challenging position where they will work in partnership to provide a proportionate policing response to the protest, balancing the needs and rights of protestors with those impacted by the protest.”

The police do indeed have a responsibility to safeguard the rights of protesters carrying out their activities peacefully and within the law. But the contention is that XR’s actions in Cambridge are in disregard of the law. Even if we accept the (contestable) intervention of the Human Rights Act in permitting the blockade of important highways, there is no “balancing the needs” when the police stand back and let these protesters vandalise college property. What, thus far, has commissioner Busby and his chief constable done to safeguard “those impacted by the protest”?  Then again, if Trinity won’t stand up for itself … why should anyone else come to its aid?

If the 1960s radical students of Clive James’s acquaintance wished to test the limits of Cambridge’s forces of law and order in 2020 they would be perplexed to realise that they could now attack a college’s property whilst its porters and senior fellows watched without so much as a gesticulation, or break the law and find a chief constable waving the traffic on for them.

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