There are many things that have made me proud of our daughters over the years, but with Gaia one of them was her role in the anti-motorway protests of the 1990s. She was involved in the Newbury Bypass protests, then arrested and imprisoned in Scotland for protesting the opening of the M77.
I remember the day well. I had been chairing an Environment Foundation conference at St George’s House, inside the walls of Windsor Castle. Towards the end, one of the business delegates asked what would happen when every environmentalist was “inside the tent,” with no-one “throwing rocks from the outside?” (He felt that the external pressure was vital to ensure progress.)
My reply was that he shouldn’t fret: there would always be people willing to apply external pressure.
Later that same night, back at home, we were woken by a call from a gruff Glaswegian police officer – and asked if we had a daughter called Gaia? We then learned that six young people had chained themselves to the M77 central reservation just as it was opened by the Secretary of State for Scotland.
Gaia and her colleagues, we were told, were to be detained at her Majesty’s pleasure. The laws on detaining young people appear to different in Scotland.
Allowed just one phone call, Gaia phoned her director of studies at Edinburgh University to say she was going to miss her first year University exams, due to being in police custody for an act of civil disobedience. The charge: “wilful and reckless behaviour.” He promptly sent her a hand-drawn cartoon showing her in leg-irons – and rescheduled the exams.
The saga rattled on for around a year, but in the end (pursued by the government, but protected by the police) they got off scot-free.
Now the BBC is asking whether all that tree-hugging achieved anything? And the answer, the broadcaster suggest,s is that it most certainly did. The Newbury protestors may have lost the immediate battle, but they won the war. Very few major new roads were built for a generation.
In the same way, some people are quick to say that the Occupy movement failed, but I’m not so sure. First, it sent an immediate and unmistakable message to those in power, but, second, it also helped a new generation get a taste for activism. And the right sort of activism is as essential to a modern democracy as high quality education, sustainable transport and, yes, good policing.