By P.A.J. Waddington
I’m not claiming to be clairvoyant, but the current controversy concerning Cuadrilla’s fracking site at Balcombe, West Sussex, is eerily similar to one of the five scenarios that form the foundations for the book I and my colleagues, John Kleinig and Martin Wright have recently published. (Our contributors — police officers and academics — attempt to solve these wickedly contrived scenarios that pose acute dilemmas to hypothetical police officers.)
Envisage a police force in whose area a nuclear power plant is due for renewal on its current site. A private overseas company, about which there have been recent negative exposés, is to build it. Protests are planned, but there is no intelligence suggesting that violence will be used, although protesters plan to invade the site. On the other hand, the company is threatening government that if protesters succeed even in disrupting this operation, they will withdraw from all future power plant construction. The government communicated this message to the police, with the added reminder that such power plants are part of the ‘critical national infrastructure.’ So the police find themselves in a dilemma: the recent strictures of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary — that police have a duty to facilitate peaceful protest — should still be ringing in their ears, but raw national interest has a firmer grip on other parts of their anatomy. (As some American wit once said, “When you got ‘em by the balls, the hearts and minds will follow.”)
A similar situation has arisen in Balcombe: Cuadrilla is a business and if protesters succeed in shutting down an exploratory drilling sight, they will increase the costs of such exploration and deter this and other energy companies from conducting further explorations — which is precisely their strategic aim. The police would hardly need reminding of this reality and they would be aware that energy production is essential to the national interest — unless we close the looming energy gap the lights will go out. We need not search for a shadowy figure communicating these imperatives to the police, all they need do is to read the newspapers and watch television.
For environmentalists, fracked gas poses almost as big a threat as nuclear power. If it turns out to be abundant, is cheap to exploit, and produces lower carbon emissions than other fossil fuels, then not only the United States, but other countries too, will be tempted to rely on it. This would not only continue to produce dangerously high carbon emissions into the atmosphere, it would do so for longer because the incentive would be to continue fracking rather than developing alternatives. For environmentalists now is the time to act, because they can make a significant impact on the costs of exploration. It is a case of passion versus interests.
The police are caught on the horns of this particular dilemma because, on the one hand, the protesters are merely asserting their rights under the European Convention and there has been no hint of violence. Don’t forget, as HMCIC pointed out, that protest can be both ‘unlawful’ (much of it is) whilst still being ‘peaceful’. On the other hand, if the police facilitate peaceful protest designed to disrupt the drilling operation, they may be harming the national interest. It isn’t simply a case of police standing between parties opposed to each. It is a conflict essentially between the law and the national interest.
As a student of protest politics, I find this particular case fascinating. There is no lack spokespeople promoting sadly neglected causes célèbre, such as the current campaign to cease the consumption of octopus (although why anyone would pay to eat rubber defeats me!). After all, ‘save the whale’ and the campaigns against seal culling, became the pin-ups of the early environmental and animal rights movements. Such campaigns have seen considerable success with global restrictions on whale-hunting enforced (with limited success) for years and the annual seal cull a thing of distant memory. So why aren’t we as concerned with the humble octopus as we are about fracking?
Well fracking illustrates a well-known truth about protest politics: size matters and friends in high places matter even more. Fracking is such a potent issue because it unites two sources of concern that are only rarely bedfellows: environmentalism and Nimbyism. Environmentalists don’t want any form of energy production that increases global warming. They are quite content to cover the rural hinterland in wind farms, but a fracking plant — no thank you! Nimbys want their enjoyment of the surrounding countryside to be left unspoiled. They revolt against the prospect of wind farms and the idea of fracking plants blighting the view. (I write this as an unapologetic Nimbyist, as I gaze across the rural idyll in which I live!) The overlap is purely tactical: join forces and achieve the limited goal.
Protesters are invariably uncompromising about their causes, but their passion is only rarely understood and even more rarely evokes agreement from a wider public. It is a fact of life that those groups who lack public understanding of and sympathy for their cause can be policed more robustly than those who enjoy understanding and sympathy. Consider how football supporters were, and still are, treated by the police. If the police did likewise to Save the Children, there would be hell to pay! Environmentalism has succeeded in winning significant rhetorical support in the public sphere, but suffers from its hippie associations. Because fracking stimulates our Nimby instincts, they can rely upon powerful, articulate people who represent a local community in a leafy village to spread the message. I’m willing to wager that there are, among the good citizens of Balcombe, a clutch of media people whose skills are being used to maximum effect.
So the scene is set. The police find themselves torn between powerful, contradictory forces — national interest and passionate opponents. We’ll just have to await developments to see how police in a real-life, wickedly difficult scenario actually resolve it!
P.A.J. Waddington is Professor of Social Policy, Hon. Director, Central Institute for the Study of Public Protection, The University of Wolverhampton. He is the co-editor of Professional Police Practice: Scenarios and Dilemmas with John Kleinig and Martin Wright, and a general editor for Policing. Read his previous blog posts.