Throughout the Insulate Britain protests there was a suspicion that the group was deliberately trying to get its members behind bars during the COP26 conference — a suspicion that was enhanced when a spokesperson for the group told the Guardian on 24 October:
“It’s fair to say that there is absolute disbelief and surprise that the campaign has lasted this long. We assumed that we would not be allowed to carry on disrupting the motorway network to the extent we have been. We thought that people would basically be in prison… if our actions are as dangerous and as disruptive as is being claimed, then I think the question has to be: why are we being allowed to continue day after day?
If ministers really did time their injunctions to avoid Insulate Britain activists posing as martyrs during COP26, then they have played a blinder. No soon has the circus packed up and left Glasgow that nine of the group’s members have today been given custodial sentences: two of them jailed for three months, six for four months and one of them, Ben Taylor, for six months. He was given the longer sentence after telling the court earlier this week that if he was not jailed he would go straight back out and do the same again, and that if the group was jailed ‘a hundred people will step forward and take our places. If you send a hundred of us away, a thousand people will step forward to take our place. If you somehow manage to stop all non-violent protests then things will only turn violent’.
The M25 nine, as I suppose they will end up being called, are not martyrs and no, they weren’t jailed for protesting. They were jailed for breaking a court injunction against blocking roads — contempt of court in other words. Climate protesters can be extremely legalistic when it suits them, employing every last trick in the book to try to use the courts to bend government policy in the way they want — such as through the action against Heathrow’s third runway, successful in the Court of Appeal but overturned in the Supreme Court. It doesn’t look good when they are simultaneously holding a criminal court in contempt.
My guess is that we will have a few more Insulate Britain protests but that the whole thing will now generally peter out. Taylor’s claim that a thousand protesters are prepared to take his place, and could employ violence, will I suspect be frustrated by a lack of people who are prepared to risk imprisonment. Many of the group do, after all, appear to be nice, middle class people, many of them surely property owners. If there is one thing worse than having a badly-insulated home it is having no home at all.
There are, however, two things which stand out from this case. Firstly, the delay in getting these activists into jail. The government may have avoided them becoming the centre of attention during COP26 but it has come at the cost of disruption. Many who had their lives frustrated will not be impressed. Additionally, now that Insulate Britain activists are finally behind bars, can the police and Crown Prosecution Service between them now please do the same with landowners who block byways, footpaths and bridleways? What they are doing is essentially the same as Insulate Britain, albeit without a political cause: they are interrupting the right of people to go about their daily business. If the courts were to get heavy with this group, too, it would underline the message that Insulate Britain has not been picked on for its political beliefs or its protesting, only for blocking rights of way.