Memories of youth seldom fade. I still recall a teacher in my far-off schooldays who seemed more interested in demonstrating his own intellectual prowess than in leading young minds to new ideas and concepts. ‘Liberty or licence’ (see below) was one of his favourite topics for essay-writing, without bothering to explain the difference in advance.
It was this recollection which struck me forcibly when watching the disruptive activities of a self-appointed climate change group called Extinction Rebellion which organised widespread demonstrations in London over the past week. They caused mayhem, including almost bringing the capital to a standstill. In so far as anyone can determine its motives, the group is demanding radical though undefined action by British authorities against the effects of climate change and global warming.
These events are particularly interesting because I think one can draw from them lessons of a general nature.
The protesters claim that causing maximum economic disruption will make the politicians listen, and they say they are settling in for the long haul. But people ask why they should target their own country when Britain’s performance in relation to the issue has been relatively good. A Google check reveals the UK’s Climate Change Act of 2008 committed Britain to cutting carbon emissions by 80 percent (on a 1990 baseline) by 2050 and that the nation is on track to achieve that, with emissions already 38 percent lower than in 1990.
There have been similar demonstrations elsewhere in Europe; in Rome, and also in Paris though apparently unconnected to the violent ‘yellow vests’ rioting that is still taking place there. Despite the seriousness of it all, there has been surprisingly little US television coverage.
The protesters in London congregated in the busiest areas like Oxford Circus and Parliament Square and succeeded in shutting down one of the main bridges across the River Thames while also interfering with the Docklands Light Railway and threatening to close down parts of the city’s famous Tube network. London’s traffic, including emergency vehicles and bus services, was severely disrupted. Millions of ordinary people were inconvenienced and their lives made a misery - not least those in need of medical care so that actual lives were put at risk - and traders and shops lost business. Ironically, the resulting traffic jams and fumes from idling vehicle engines created more of the pollution and damage to the environment against which the demonstrators were protesting.
To my mind, all this raises three main questions about demonstrations and civil liberties; namely, can such mass action affecting others ever be justified, what is the role of the police and is such action likely to be effective?
Going back to liberty and licence, these are essentially two aspects of personal freedom. It is widely accepted that liberty is about the ability to do, without hindrance by government or anyone else, what is generally regarded as good and proper and morally right. But this has to be exercised according to certain rules of society without which there would be confusion, chaos and anarchy. Everybody, of course, has to act within the law, not least that on defamation, slander and libel; and there have to be restraints on behaviour that menaces society.
So, ideally, as well as being free to express one’s own opinions and exercise one’s own rights, all should treat others fairly and respect their rights in return. By contrast, the other aspect of freedom is licence or the ability to do whatever someone wants through excessive or unsocial behaviour with a complete lack of restraint; and, just to muddy the waters, some people even argue that any action by an individual is defensible as an act of freedom itself.
Whatever view one takes about this, in an ordered democratic country there can be no justification for civil disobedience at such a level that it violates the rights of millions to go about their everyday lives peacefully and without interruption. The right to protest is an essential part of democracy. But any claimed parallel right to make the lives of others a misery, on the grounds that a cause is sufficiently important to justify extreme action, is not.
As for the police, their initial softly-softly approach was clearly mistaken. They seem to have based this on the non-violence of the protesters. The evidence shows that, when circumstances demand strong action, the British police can be as tough as their counterparts elsewhere in the world, using batons, teargas and other devices - though not water cannon which is deemed to be inappropriate in British conditions - and making arrests if protesters become aggressive and violent. However, in the case of Extinction Rebellion they underestimated the extent of the disruption and chaos and failed to realise they have an obligation to serve the whole population and not pander to protest groups, whatever the worthiness of their cause. The initial police response was seen by many as inadequate and even shameful. But, subsequently, the Home Secretary (Minister of Interior equivalent) declared the full force of the law should be applied against anti-social protests and, as a result, the policing has become more robust, with those involved being moved on and some 700 arrested.
The effectiveness of last week’s demonstrations is hard to judge. Unlawful protests tend to achieve little other than catching people’s attention. It appears the British public broadly agrees with its government’s plans to tackle global warming by reducing carbon emissions. So the protesters’ action in disrupting the lives of millions may have backfired by damaging their own cause. Instead of participating in debate and dialogue, they have risked alienating the very people whom they are seeking to convince.
In summary, I believe it is reasonable to conclude that in a civilised society a fundamental requirement should be to protect and enforce, as a priority, the public’s right to go about its lawful daily business freely and without obstruction or any kind of hindrance.
Turn on the tap to help boost the economy
As an outsider who has been fortunate to be able to observe the Bahamas for many years, it has always intrigued me that in an archipelago spread out over such a large area so much of the nation’s vast potential has not been adequately exploited.
In an excellent article published in The Tribune earlier this month, Richard Coulson pointed out that, with modern communications, geographical distance between islands is becoming less of an impediment to travel and development and that the nation’s combined landmass dwarfs that of most of its Caribbean neighbours. He also contended that to achieve economic growth and other expansion there was a need for more human resources – and thus new immigration policies – in a country that is basically underpopulated.
In my own view, the unique advantages enjoyed by The Bahamas, of which proximity to the US is a significant one, should be routinely promoted and publicised more widely, particularly further afield in Europe and elsewhere. Too often, I have heard visitors talk about the country basically offering the traditional sun, sea and sand without realising how much more it is able to provide.
There is not the space here to describe those advantages in detail. But looking at the topic prompts one to reflect once again on the apparent need to utilise more effectively the untapped resources of the Family Islands - including opportunities for eco-tourism - in order to develop a more robust economy for the benefit of all Bahamians. I hope to return to this subject in a future column.
When an English poet missed home
‘Oh, to be in England now that April’s there’ is the first line of 19th century English poet Robert Browning’s famous work ‘Home-Thoughts from Abroad’, and is often quoted by British expatriates. The poem was written when Browning himself was abroad and was missing home. It has sometimes been regarded as representing nostalgia for a romanticised world left behind by a traveller, and it is reputed to have aroused such emotions in the hearts of colonial administrators stuck alone in an uncomfortable environment somewhere in an empire that extended across the globe and on which, it was said, the sun never set.
In today’s world, this work - together with another much lauded poem entitled ‘A Shropshire Lad’ by fellow Englishman, AE Houseman, describing the local countryside - is good for attracting tourists as, by common consent, Browning’s poem in particular paints, vividly and accurately, a glorious picture of rural life in England awakening once again to the joys of spring. His work is a description of the power and wonder of Mother Nature, with the resurgence of the land and plants together with the re-emergence of animals, birds and other wildlife from the ravages and hibernation of winter.
This is the annual miracle that he describes so realistically - with April the harbinger of warmer days and new life to come - in a poem that has been well known to generations of English people. Some say it is also a time for human beings to make a fresh start in a spirit of optimism when it is better to seize the moment than indulge in endless nostalgia. Carpe diem.
• Peter Young is a retired career diplomat and former British High Commissioner to The Bahamas where he is now a permanent resident.