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 trick)?
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.