Insulate Britain are the heroes we need

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Since the first time they blocked the M25 on Monday 13th September, Insulate Britain (IB) have become one of the most controversial and discussed protest groups with a speed that puts almost any other campaign to shame.

The network (largely made up of experienced activists), which demands that the UK government to fund and take responsibility for whole house retrofits of insulation in all homes in Britain by 2030, starting with social housing, has repeatedly blocked major roads (often the M25), causing mass disruption lasting hours and leading to hundreds of arrests. Wednesday 17th November saw nine Insulate Britain members (often referred to as the ‘Highway Nine’) imprisoned for several months, each on contempt of court for openly defying injunctions granted to Transport for London and National Highways, with a further 23 being expected to be summoned to the Royal Courts of Justice in the coming days and weeks. One of the imprisoned, 44 year-old Emma Smart from Dorset, is at the time of writing on hunger strike.

Following their imprisonment, hundreds of people, many from the much larger allied movement Extinction Rebellion, rallied on Saturday outside the same court the Highway Nine were sentenced at, before proceeding to block Lambeth Bridge and Vauxhall Junction in a solidarity demonstration, leading to 120 arrests.

Imprisoned IB member Emma Smart is currently on hunger strike

Nine activists are currently in prison for violating injunctions

IB’s disruptive actions have led to widespread condemnation by politicians and anger from many motorists, with a survey released on 8th October showing 72% of public opposing their actions. But their aim is not to be popular, it is to create change. Friends of the Earth, an environmentalist group with far more moderate tactics, was launched in 1969 and whilst it has its successes, it has so far failed to create the movement needed to adequately tackle the climate and ecological crisis. Groups like Extinction Rebellion, launched in October 2018, have massively influenced public opinion and completely transformed the conversation around climate change, despite having an a public approval of only 17% and there being massive backlash (although not as much as towards Insulate Britain) against its tactics of nonviolent direct action.

IB have noble aims – if implemented, their demands would drastically cut the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions due to a lowering in amount of energy demanded, and massively reduce fuel poverty. 10,000 people a year are dying in cold homes. Fuel Poverty Action, who have been campaigning for housing and heating which are both affordable and sustainable since 2011, have publicly supported and worked with IB to make available to them the experience and perspectives accumulated in their decade of campaigning for insulation.

Their protests are inconvenient and annoying to many, but they have to be. Decades of inaction by successive governments despite knowing of the climate and ecological crisis have forced activists to go far beyond the standard tactics of a march and rally on a weekend to be able to create the changes necessary. The issue can no longer be avoided – the lack of meaningful action that has come out of COP26 has been proof of this. IB have received lots of criticism for being a largely white and middle class group – unrepresentative of the public at large – and whilst this may be true, it is almost inevitable that those involved in political activism, and especially parts of its with much higher consequences, will be those more privileged, mainly due to more free time and ability to deal with more legal repercussions.

Activists have repeatedly blocked major roads, including the M25

Civil disobedience isn’t the first stop for most activists when attempting to create change. But openly breaking laws has a history of success: many in the Civil Rights Movement in the United States occupied spaces via ‘sit-ins’ and the Suffragettes chained themselves onto railings but also went as far as smashing windows and blowing up post boxes. When imprisoned, they often engaged in hunger strikes, something that one IB member is currently doing as mentioned earlier.

There are already signs that IB’s tactics are working – both Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer have begun to talk about the issue much more than before. The Opposition Leader said that insulating homes will be Labour’s “national mission” less than two weeks after IB first blocked the M25 and Mr Johnson has encouraged individuals to insulate their homes to improve chances of getting a mortgage. Whilst the Conservative Party’s standpoint on who’s responsibility insulation is appears to be quite different, the fact they are now talking about it more than previous autumns and winters shows how IB have influenced the political agenda.

As unfair on┬ámembers of the public as IB’s protests may seem, they have put their own liberty at risk (and in some cases lost it) for the good of us all. If politicians will not push for meaningful action, someone needs to and that is exactly what Insulate Britain are doing.