Stephen Daisley Stephen Daisley

How we should deal with Just Stop Oil

One need not cast around for signs that Britain is no longer a serious country, but the indulgence with which Just Stop Oil is treated stands out more than most. The doomsday cult has now sprayed Stonehenge in orange cornflour to protest our failure to shutter every industry in the land and relocate the entire population to a cave. Apologists for these insufferable toerags wave away objections, sighing that it’s just cornflour and no long-term damage has been done.

Don’t mistake these excuse-makers for libertarians. The Venn diagram of people who are relaxed about Just Stop Oil’s methods and would also be relaxed if a group called Just Stop Immigration were using the same methods is two circles that will never intersect. Whenever someone bemoans ‘overreaction’ to a Just Stop Oil stunt, always interpret that to mean they support Just Stop Oil. 

Don’t mistake these excuse-makers for libertarians

It is not true that spraying orange cornflour on Stonehenge or chucking tomato soup on a van Gogh does no long-term harm. It undermines the unspoken system of trust upon which so many social arrangements are predicated. Every time Just Stop Oil pulls one of these stunts, it increases the likelihood that museums, galleries and heritage sites will put more distance between their wares and the general public. Places and objects that, at present, any ordinary member of the public can view up close and perhaps even interact with will eventually become sights to be peered at from a distance, behind protective screens or over the shoulders of burly security guards. There is a price to teaching public venues to be suspicious of visitors and it is a price we all pay. 

Another harm inflicted by Just Stop Oil is to our national self-worth. Stonehenge is a piece of our history. Seeing it vandalised inflames the anger of patriotic Britons. That sentiment might be unfamiliar to Just Stop Oil and its fellow-travellers in politics, media and civil society but it is very real for millions of people in this country. Stonehenge is also world-renowned, one of those places that comes to mind when foreigners are asked to list symbols of Britain. Defacing it, even temporarily, when those images are then carried across the globe, damages our country’s dignity. It makes people think less of us that we allow our heritage (or our art) to be degraded in this way. 

I have previously proposed modest legal remedies to address this problem, but if I really had my druthers there would be nothing modest about how I’d deal with these self-righteous fanatics. Not only don’t I like their methods, I don’t like them. I don’t like their towering certainty, their tantrum-throwing brattiness, their impatience with gradualism and the political process. I don’t like that half of them are called Oscar and the other half India. I don’t like how thoroughly they ooze privilege, safe in the knowledge that any legal consequences will be minimal and the costs covered by Mummy and Daddy. I don’t like that if they were called things like Liam and Cheryl and daubed a national landmark as a dare while on the piss, the law would clobber them and their escapade wouldn’t serve as a colourful story to blush about one day in a job interview for the civil service or the City or the third-sector. I don’t like how many of them are boomers, who should be spending their retirement on more wholesome pursuits like casual racism and objecting to every planning proposal in a 200-mile radius. 

That’s all very uncharitable of me, but it speaks to a frustration I – and I suspect many others – feel at the failure of authority to rein in this tiresome rabble. It makes me, someone who believes in the need to reduce emissions, wonder if pausing or reversing these efforts a little might deter future displays like the one at Stonehenge. With apologies to Jim Malone, you wanna know how to stop Just Stop Oil? They pull a flour spray, you pull a new drilling licence. They send one of your artworks to the restorers, you send one of their climate targets to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way, and that’s how you stop Just Stop Oil. 

Or you could use the criminal law to do what it’s there for and attach such penalties to these actions that the cost of going ahead with them far outweighs the fleeting thrill of virtue they bring.