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Climate Camp: Wat Tyler would have felt at home among the 'fluffys' in Blackheath

Climate Camp: Wat Tyler would have felt at home among the 'fluffys' in Blackheath
The green activists might be posh, says Ed West, but even the leaders of the Peasants' Revolt were "middle-class" by today's standards
By Ed West
29 Aug 2009

History records that in the year 2009, the peasants of England rose up in protest, marching on Blackheath to demand change in the kingdom. They came from up and down the land – from Crouch End and Hampstead, from Chiswick, Richmond and Notting Hill, and some even from Gstaad and Verbier.

It might appear typically British to obsess about class while the earth burns, but what seems to distinguish the colourfully attired protesters at the Climate Camp set up in south-east London from previous revolutionaries is the overwhelming dominance of posh, upper-middle-class white people. In fact, since Climate Camp started three years ago, it has become the cheapest – and chic-est – date in the summer festival calendar.

Perhaps that is why, when organising the week-long protest which began last Wednesday, the activists chose the location where Wat Tyler led the Peasants' Revolt in 1381. Let us hope history does not repeat itself: the revolt degenerated into a pogrom, with drunken Kent and Essex men murdering any taxman, cleric or foreigner they could find, and Tyler was stabbed to death by Sir William Walworth, the Lord Mayor of London.

The closest thing we have to Walworth today is Steve Bullock, the Mayor of Lewisham, who has done the next best thing to getting his knife out – writing a blog comparing the Campers to football hooligans and arguing that they are seen as "self-indulgent" by people struggling during the recession. Although passionate about the environment, Bullock, a former van driver, neatly represents the class conflict between green campaigners and the working class, who tend to be apathetic about political protest of any sort, and especially the tree-hugging variety. One veteran of the green movement lamented the Campers' "young, white and middle-class" nature, adding: "It is not a broad-based representation of society at the moment. The diversity on offer is poor."

Still, the Campers are implacably opposed to the City of London and capitalism and all that stuff, so on Friday they targeted Canary Wharf. A photo appeared on Twitter showing a group carrying a banner outside a bank, with a friend writing approvingly: "You can tell this is right, just look at the NATURAL GLOW, People helping People, BEST DRUG." On the left of the photo, helping to hold the banner, was a refreshed-looking banker, laughing his head off.

Yet despite some smart slogans, such as "Because nature doesn't do bail-outs" and "We are armed only with peer-reviewed science", the biggest criticism of Climate Camp is that it offers no solutions. The goal is to "draw attention" to climate change – hardly a subject that lacks awareness.

The first Climate Camp event took place in 2006 outside Drax coal-fired power station in Yorkshire. The following year the essentially leaderless group erected tents outside the perimeter fence at Heathrow in protest at a proposed third terminal. It was a great PR victory, helped by an almost Mandelsonian slickness when dealing with the press, such as the provision of a media tent where journalists could be briefed.

Already, however, the coalition had splintered. After Drax, the "spikys", the more anarchic wing of the anti-capitalist movement, left in disillusionment at the pacifism of the "fluffys". Last week, a "spiky" outfit known as the Whitechapel Anarchist Group – "the Wags" – objected to the Camp's "fluffy" leaders meeting "the pigs", as anarchists still call the police.

But both sides came together on Wednesday at the six "swoop points" in the centre of London – including the Bank of England, the headquarters of BP, and Stockwell Tube station, which has become a focal point for anti-police protest since the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes – while they waited to learn where the Camp would be held.

At noon, the location was passed on by phone and Twitter, and Campers swiftly arrived in Blackheath en masse on bicycles, the vehicle of choice for any urban eco-warrior both out of environmental correctness and because of how useful they are when escaping the law. Soon enough, dozens of amateur and amateurish "citizen journalists" were filing news reports on YouTube, showing campers trundling along with their rucksacks, smiling the self-conscious smile of middle-class British people caught doing something slightly embarrassing.

Aside from "raising awareness", the camp is also spreading the idea of sustainable and communal living, an increasingly common phenomenon in the UK, influenced by hippy communes, monasticism and American-style survivalism. The compostable toilets grabbed most people's attention, but the social structures were also curious, following the Zapatista model in which no decision is taken without the consent of everyone. The Campers have even developed their own way of voting: "Wave your hands with your fingers pointing upwards to indicate your agreement."

Yet within every commune lies the seeds of tyranny. Journalists complained about being asked to sign "codes of conduct" if they wanted to stay on the heath overnight, even though it is common land (conditions include "no interrupting" and "no informing"). Even the Camp's "tranquillity area", which features "a team available 24 hours a day to support the Camp in challenging oppression, resolving conflict and keeping to collective decisions", sounds like a Stalinist take on a health spa.

The attendance at Blackheath shows that Britain's environmental protest movement has become the most active in Europe. But despite the sympathy they attract, it is hard to see the public taking the Campers to their hearts. Perhaps it is their naive politics, or that they are loud and young and having fun, or that so many could afford to get to the protests at July's G8 meeting in Italy via train, rather than flying coach class.

Yet the children of the privileged have often formed the nucleus of radical protest movements, from the student demos of 1968 back through the Suffragettes and the Chartists. Even the Peasants' Revolt was not called that at the time (rather, "The Mad Multitude"), and its leaders were "middle-class" by today's standards. So perhaps if Wat Tyler, Jack Straw and John Ball were alive they would be camped alongside all the Lotties, Tristrams and Cecilias.


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