On Monday eco-protesters glued themselves to the frame of Constable’s painting The Hay Wain and covered it with an altered version of their own, doing minor damage in the process. On Saturday, eco-protesters rushed onto the track at Silverstone. Last Friday, eco-protesters glued themselves to a Turner painting in Manchester. Earlier in June, eco-protesters… you get the idea.
For all that people mourn the decline of social capital and cohesion in Britain, there is still a great deal of trust baked into the way the country runs. It’s easy to take this for granted, because under most circumstances we simply don’t notice it. Why wouldn’t we be able to walk into an art gallery with minimal security, and stand feet away from a priceless work of art? Why wouldn’t a museum confine its protective efforts to a polite sign asking us not to touch the exhibits? And of course we can sit happily in the stands at a racecourse, with only a handful of fluorescent jacketed marshals between us and the track.
But these things, wonderful as they are, are fragile. What is so deeply infuriating about the latest batch of eco-protests is the way that they directly attack social trust. We can have nice galleries which are minimally intrusive because we trust people to treat them with respect, and that trust is repaid. When attention-seeking protesters use this trust to behave in damaging ways, that trust is broken: institutions are forced to introduce security checks, barriers, and other ways to distance people from the art. A small minority ruins a beautiful thing for everyone else.
Attacking trust in this way is an extremely unpleasant approach to protesting. It imposes costs on everybody else in exchange for a brief burst of attention. And it is a perfect summary of the approach taken by Britain’s green movements, shielded from criticism by impenetrable self-righteousness and the adulation of vacuum-skulled enablers who believe their cause is so sacred that nothing done in the name of the planet can really be wrong.
This self-evident righteousness is taken as licence to deploy ever more disruptive tactics. It’s understood, and broadly accepted, that protests will involve a degree of inconvenience. Nobody particularly likes it when a big march snarls up traffic in central London, but it’s also understood that the disruption is not the point. It’s annoying in the way that a sporting event is.
This is not true of the eco-protesters who deliberately set out to maximise disruption, hoping that by inflicting costs on the public they will be able to force the government into giving them what they want. This tactic has so far failed miserably. Their sole policy impact to date consists of the government’s policing Bill, which limits the impact of their protests. This lack of success does not mean that these actions have been harmless, however.
Even something as basic as a road relies on a degree of trust. People by and large adhere voluntarily to the rules and regulations governing their use, even when enforcement is absent. They try, as best they can, not to inconvenience other users. And they certainly don’t blockade the roads in order to score political points.
When people can trust each other in this way, it’s possible to have easy, light touch systems that generate wonderful outcomes. As the founding father of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew observed, things we are accustomed to can be deeply impressive to those exposed to them for the first time: ‘Perhaps the most impressive sight I came upon was when I emerged from the tube station at Piccadilly Circus. I found a little table with a pile of newspapers, and a box of coins and notes. With nobody in attendance, you take your newspaper, toss your coin into the box or put your ten shilling note and take your change. I took a deep breath. This was truly a civilised people.’
So many things in modern Britain still turn out to work in this fashion, dependent on invisible layers of trust. When they are weakened, we resort to wasteful, costly, and inferior solutions – like the American stores which lock everything in cabinets to prevent shoplifting. For protesters to attack this trust in pursuit of a cheap headline is deeply antisocial.
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