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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
George Monbiot

Victimise people who raise a voice in Britain? Then destroy their families? Not in my name

Marcus Decker and Holly Cullen-Davies at home in east London.
Marcus Decker and Holly Cullen-Davies in east London. Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

When the traditional ruling class was obliged to concede to demands for democracy, it gave away as little as possible. We could vote, but it ensured that crucial elements of the old system remained in place: the House of Lords, the first-past-the-post electoral system, prerogative powers and Henry VIII clauses, and above all a legal system massively and blatantly biased towards owners of property.

In combination, these elements ensured that the system remained predisposed to elite rule, even while it pretended the people were in charge. The portcullis excluding us from power has never been properly lifted since the Norman conquest. The relationship between rulers and ruled remains, in effect, a relationship between occupier and occupied.

For almost a thousand years, we’ve celebrated those who resisted in folklore and fantasy: the Robin Hood myth commemorates Eadric the Wild and other “silvatici” who held out in the woods, launching raids against the occupiers. But in the real world, few dare to raise their heads. The hatred, disgust and fear with which elite power has long regarded the people is reciprocated with fear and deference: we know what happens when we step out of line.

If this were a real democracy, it would have evolved. Preposterous rules and rituals would have been retired. Representation would have been tempered with participatory, deliberative decision-making. Instead, across the 157 years since some working-class men were first allowed to vote, the system has stagnated by design. We are still asked to apply industrial-strength credulity in accepting that our “representatives” have our best interests at heart, and will defend us faithfully for five years at a time.

But the ruling classes granted one small concession: the right to protest against the decisions they make. Since the Peterloo massacre in 1819, they knew the system had to bend if it were not to break, and upheld “the undoubted right of Englishmen to assemble together”. Nonviolent protest has long been recognised as a legitimate means of challenging and improving our political settlement. Were it not for protest, the franchise would never have been extended in the first place, and the thing we call democracy would not exist.

But as an economic elite has reasserted power, protest has become ever less tolerable. Far from being seen as an essential political modifier, it has increasingly been treated as a threat to be stamped out.

Protesting against the failure of the political class to protect us from harm, especially from the existential harm of environmental breakdown, is both rational and, in the current climate, heroic. Those who do so take on a burden of legal jeopardy on behalf of the rest of us, a burden that becomes heavier with every year, as the state throws not just new criminal measures but also new civil measures at those who dare dissent. Environmental protesters are the modern silvatici, sometimes living in the greenwood, contesting oppressive power on our behalf.

The most extreme case so far – indeed the longest sentences for peaceful protest handed out in British history – was the prosecution of two climate protesters called Morgan Trowland and Marcus Decker. In October 2022, they climbed on to the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge, which crosses the Thames at Dartford, and unveiled a banner. They received, respectively, sentences of three years, and two years and seven months.

Marcus Decker, a professional musician and teacher, told me he had tried all the “respectable” tactics: “using music to raise awareness, petitions, writing to my representatives”, before accepting that politics as usual was not going to deliver. From his childhood in Germany, and his research into earlier movements, he saw how civil disobedience could change an oppressive system.

They planned the action carefully, to minimise disruption (starting very early in the morning so traffic could easily be diverted into the Dartford tunnel, as it is routinely when the bridge is closed due to bad weather) and maximise media coverage of their call for an end to the licensing of new oil and gas extraction. They stayed on the bridge for 37 hours, before agreeing to be brought down.

Their prison terms were massively out of line with any sentencing that had gone before. Marcus was released this February, after 16 months: longer than anyone has served for peaceful protest since all adults had the vote.

You might have thought that was enough – many times more than enough – for peaceful civil disobedience. But no. Marcus is a German citizen with pre-settled status in the UK, where he lives with his family: his partner, Holly Cullen-Davies, and his two stepchildren. Any non-citizen who has been sentenced to at least 12 months in prison is, unless they successfully appeal, automatically deported to their country of origin. According to the immigration charity Settled, this appears to be “the first time in the UK that the power of deportation has been used after a criminal conviction flowing from a protest.”

Holly, a concert pianist and choir leader, cannot move to Germany: her children need to be close to their dad, and she’s committed to looking after her parents. I met them for the first time last week, and I’ve seldom come across such a devoted couple. But unless Marcus can successfully appeal, their right to family life will be cruelly snatched away. Holly told me: “It’s impossibly sad to face the possibility that we’ll be separated for life. It feels like an intolerable punishment for the whole family.”

This is just one example of the vindictiveness of a flailing political class seeking to snuff out democratic challenge. Climate campaigners have recently been deprived of their right to explain their motives to a jury, so now they are tried as if they were mindless vandals. Those who have sought to explain nonetheless have been imprisoned for contempt of court. The 69-year-old Trudi Warner is being prosecuted at the government’s behest for holding a placard stating an accepted fact of British law: that juries have a right to act according to their conscience. For the first time in living memory, a campaigner has been imprisoned (for six months) for merely marching down a street. Before our eyes, the law and its application are being radically shifted even further towards the interests of property owners: in this case, oil and gas companies.

The home secretary could cancel Marcus’s deportation with one stroke. So far, 157,000 people have signed a petition urging him to do so. As injustice is piled upon injustice, a great cruelty is being done. We need our Robin Hoods.

  • George Monbiot is a Guardian columnist. Join him for a Guardian Live online event on Wednesday 8 May at 8pm BST. He will be talking about his new book, The Invisible Doctrine: The Secret History of Neoliberalism. Book tickets here

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