The powerful win not by convincing the people, but by removing our tools for organising.
Mrs Thatcher’s great victory was not her privatisations. It was not her cuts, and it was not the sinking of the Belgrano. It was two things: the breaking of the unions, and the right to buy council houses. Because once labour unions were weakened, and once tenant unions were stamped out, everything else became possible.
We have lived with these defeats for a generation.
Yesterday, EDF Energy announced that they are suing a group of No Dash for Gas activists who shut down one of their power stations in October. The case threatens to be to civil disobedience what Thatcher’s union laws were to workplace organising. In the struggle of people against power, this is a vital moment.
When people take part in civil disobedience, they usually understand that they might be arrested. They know that they may receive a small or even a medium sized fine, or, perhaps, community service. But if they believe that they may need to spend the rest of their lives paying off a debt of hundreds of thousands of pounds to a company against whom they have protested, that will be a different story. And that is what these activists have been threatened with.
It is important to understand that this was a strategic decision by EDF and their allies. We have already learnt this week how fed up E.ON were of such protests. They repeatedly lobbied Ed Miliband, when he was Energy Secretary, for tougher sentences against protesters. They threatened, apparently, to pull investment out of Britain unless this happened: which shows how powerful direct action is.
In the past, such companies have been reticent to sue activists. Whether it’s the specific memory of the lengthy McLibel trial or a more general desire to stop a cycle of bad news, on the whole, the consensus has been that it’s not worth their while: the brand damage would potentially be huge, the case might be lost anyway. Better to let it slip.
And this means one thing. It is crucial, for anyone who believes that this may at some point be a useful tactic in any struggle they may be involved in, to ensure that that old calculation is proved to be true. It is vital that EDF regret this decision: that whoever chose this path has their career buried in the ash of the reputation of this megalith.
It doesn’t matter what you think of gas. It doesn’t matter what you think of nuclear, or of coal. If you believe that you ever might want to protect your rights or the future of those you love in a way that people the world over always have – by peacefully putting your body on the line – then you must teach EDF a lesson they will never forget. As their French parent company might put it, we must hit them hard, in every way we can – pour encourages les outres. Because if EDF don’t regret this, then everyone else will copy them.
It is important, though, to understand who the enemy here is.
EDF Energy is a subsidiary of a larger company: Électricité de France. The majority of their shares are owned by the French State. Add to this complexity two other things we know.
First, the papers informing the defendants that they are being sued were handed to them by the police. A suit is a civil case, not a criminal one. The police should have nothing to do with it.
This would be rather like the bobbies showing up to hand a wife divorce papers from her husband. Not only is it not their role: it is a dangerous and inappropriate abuse of their power.
Finally, we must remember the trials after protests at Ratcliffe power station. Mark Kennedy was revealed to be a man who worked not just as an undercover police officer protecting big corporations, but also sometimes as a spy directly for those corporations.
What we are up against is not one company. The line between corporation and state is greyer and greyer as previously public companies turn round and eat their former owners. We are up against the entwined power of a growing energy/state complex: an ever stronger network which is squeezing the democracy out of our country and the life out of our planet – or, at least, which will if we let them.
The activists speak for themselves:
No Dash for Gas have posted a list of things you can do to help onto their website.