Fracking, democracy and the people’s right to protest

‘We the people have won before. We will win again.’ Former leader of the Green Party Natalie Bennett on Cuadrilla’s injunction against fracking protesters in Lancashire and parallels with the events unfolding in Westminster.

Extinction Rebellion protester with placard reading 'Climate Justice'
Extinction Rebellion protester with placard reading 'Climate Justice'

Anti-fracking campaigner Anne Power, who got involved in direct action in her 80s, at the protest in Manchester

Natalie Bennett

There’s irony in the location of many of the Manchester courts, facing across a narrow street the People’s History Museum. The law has so often been used by the rich and powerful against the people, and that’s what was happening there this morning.

An incredibly broad-ranging, restrictive injunction brought by the private fracking firm Cuadrilla had led to three defendants, known as the Preston New Road Three – Katrina Lawrie, Christopher Wilson and Lee Walsh – appearing before the court, with the potential to be facing up to two years in jail.

There have been attempts to challenge that injunction, with its serious restriction on the democratic right to protest, but on Sunday night the refusal of a judge to cap the potential costs of the challenge forced Friends of the Earth to withdraw its case.

But should it have been needed, the People’s History Museum was there to remind the PNR Three and their supporters that although it has often been tough, and there have been many setbacks, the people have won many rights in the past – from the vote to the right to form unions to equalities laws – and defended them against powerful, wealthy opposition.

Not that such a reminder was really needed this morning, for the mood outside the court was buoyant. Supporters marched down from the Extinction Rebellion Deansgate shutdown, news filtered in of the Barclays Bank ‘glue on’, and a busload of supports came direct from Preston New Road where a huge group of local residents, many of them previously not engaged in the protest, marched at the weekend, after Cuadrilla shook their homes with a 2.9 fracking-induced earthquake. 

Change is possible – indeed inevitable – and we can make sure it is in the right direction

Two protesters with a large banners: 'No to planet profit'
More protesters outside the courts in Manchester

And as we sang, danced and spoke, an electric free bus, travelling one of three routes through Manchester centre now, regularly passed us, a reminder that change is possible – indeed inevitable – and we can make sure it is in the right direction.

Many of those speakers were making links beyond the issue of fracking, beyond even the pressing climate emergency, out to the state of Britain today and what is unfolding down in far off Westminster, where we have a government threatening to ignore the rule of law, the dictates of Parliament, to try to force through a crash-out Brexit.

Reference was made to the environmental implications of that, but also to the far broader view: the fact that the project of establishing democracy and ensuring human rights, something that has never been given but has to be taken, is still far from complete in the UK.

This weekend I was listening to a podcast on the history of Rome. We know that Boris Johnson is keen on Roman history; perhaps, I’d suggest, he might look to back to the agitation by the plebians that led to the Law of the Twelve Tables – the codification of Roman law that meant everyone had access to and could know the rules under which they were being governed.

That’s something that we haven’t yet secured in Britain, with our unwritten constitution and our severely discriminatory law that favours those with cash to burn, like Cuadrilla, over local communities. But the determination to match what the Romans set out as at least a principle in 450BC is growing fast in the UK.

There’s a saying that feels just right in this tumultuous week, a reminder and an inspiration: we are the many, they are the few. That was true of the plebians in fifth-century Rome. That’s true of Cuadrilla, it’s true of the Barclay bosses, and it’s true of Johnson’s loyalist MPs in Westminster. It was evident outside the court in Manchester this morning.

They are on the wrong side of history; we, the people, are on the right side.