A showdown against this HS2 project was probably inevitable, but what will it achieve?
A small group of brave and crazy protestors have - once again - dug themselves underground, trying to obstruct a large and damaging transport project. This time, it is HS2, but the tactic harks back to the 1990s when direct action halted "the biggest road building programme since the Romans". At least one of the people underground is a veteran of the protests that defined a generation.
Coincidentally, my book Roads Runways and Resistance from the Newbury Bypass to Extinction Rebellion was published just a few days ago. It tells a 30-year story of those protests - and several others. Over two years I interviewed more than 50 ministers, advisors and leading protestors including Dan Hooper - aka Swampy - who made his name in a tunnel, and is now helping the HS2 protestors underground in Euston. Two chapters tell the inside story of HS2 and how it came to spark such widespread protest.
None of the anti-roads protests ever succeeded in stopping a road project once building had begun: the chances of stopping HS2 at this stage seem rather remote. So is any of that sacrifice worth it? The answer is usually: yes. But rarely in the way the protestors, or their opponents, imagine.
The famous moment when ‘Swampy’ emerged from the tunnel in Devon, surrounded by policemen twice his size, came towards the end of the anti-roads protests in 1997, but the first tunnel was dug three years earlier in East London.
More than 300 houses in Wanstead and Leytonstone lay in the path of a motorway extension, now part of the A12. Protestors occupying the condemned houses declared an independent republic of Wanstonia, issued their own passports and made a nine-year-old boy minister of education (he might have done a better job than some others).
During 1994 and early 1995, they developed techniques that many would go on to copy: building tree houses, bunkers and ‘locking on’ to concrete fixings. As bailiffs and contractors evicted them they took refuge in the remaining houses until someone had the bright idea to build a shallow tunnel connecting a house about to be seized with another one further back. This confused the contractors, who could not understand how protestors kept reoccupying a house they had already secured.
Putting yourself at risk is a key element of non-violent direct action. Tunnelling struck a particular chord across a generation of middle England brought up on stories of British prisoners of war escaping from the Nazis.
When Dan Hooper emerged blinking in the light of TV cameras, he became an instant celebrity and the friendly face of youthful radicalism. That celebrity came at a high personal price. It caused tensions with fellow protestors and persecution by some elements of the media - until Hooper disappeared from public view. Even some academics criticised him for trivialising the issues, but that image, friendly and unthreatening to middle England, would prove critical to the ultimate success of the movement.
I met Dan Hooper and his family early in 2018. As he reminisced about his exploits, fascinating his children, neither of us knew that the following year, he would be arrested again. And I would be arrested for the first time - taking part in actions organised by Extinction Rebellion.
By contrast, the campaign against HS2 emerged from middle England, in Conservative-voting villages in Buckinghamshire and Warwickshire threatened by the new high-speed line.
For many years it used entirely legal means, though as one if its leaders told me: “We always felt when the bulldozers came, people would be willing to lie in front of them.”
When the bulldozers finally did arrive, the impetus for direct action came from people in Extinction Rebellion joining the few original campaigners who had not burnt out in the meantime.
The story of HS2 is one of Politics overcoming rational objections and public opposition. For most of the book, I try to tell a story in the words of people on different sides, keeping my own views for the final chapters.
That proved rather difficult with HS2. Anonymous sources inside government told me how the project started with a preferred solution. Political prestige and (unsubstantiated) economic beliefs made high speeds paramount. Alternatives were fudged to show HS2 in the best possible light. Options that might have brought more transport benefits and caused less environmental damage were never seriously considered.
The story of how cost overruns were repeatedly concealed from parliament and the public is truly shocking. A whistle blower who was talking to me at one stage suddenly stopped replying. Then I read about legal threats made by HS2 Ltd to silence its former employees.
Lawyers acting for the company argued that if certain documents were made public, “detractors of the HS2 programme may use such information to renew their criticism of the HS2 programme, which could result in cancellation of the HS2 programme by the government". Full marks for honesty.
A showdown against this project was probably inevitable, but what will it achieve?
It is extremely unlikely that any government would halt the first phase now underway. However, the National Infrastructure Commission has questioned the benefits of extending HS2 beyond Birmingham and Crewe. It has called on governments to improve existing rail links in the North instead.
Direct action against Phase 1 might just tip the political balance of those decisions. Meanwhile, the road building programme is expanding once again. The same tactics will be needed there.
Roads Runways and Resistance describes seven protest movements. All of them achieved some impact – stop HS2 less than the others, so far.
In all of those cases, public opinion was critical. During 1996, as bailiffs evicted protestors from the Newbury Bypass, public opinion became more hostile than it has ever been towards road building.
During 2019, as Extinction Rebellion occupied central London, public and politicians became much more concerned about climate change. The interaction between public opinion, the media and political factors beyond the control of protestors makes the outcome of any protest movement difficult to predict. There is, unfortunately, no blueprint for success.
None of the protest movements succeeded in directly changing or stopping anything, although many protestors believed that they might. That mistaken belief is probably necessary to motivate people to continue making the sacrifices on which non-violent direct action depends.
Steve Melia is a Senior Lecturer in Transport and Planning at the University of the West of England. His book, Roads, Runways and Resistance, is published by Pluto Press.