Skip to main content

Insulate Britain, an offshoot of the Extinction Rebellion continues to block major UK motorways, demanding the insulation of the UK’s housing stock which will ultimately reduce carbon emissions. Insulate Britain aims to popularise their cause by drawing national attention through disruptive forms of protest. Such actions do not enhance Insulate Britain’s cause but greatly discredit it.

The environmental organisation’s campaign goal is for the government to commit to insulating all social housing by 2025 and all UK properties by 2030. According to Insulate Britain, nearly 15% of the UK’s total emissions comes from heating homes, if insulated the organisation believes it will produce the greatest reduction in emissions compared with any other options, it will create thousands of jobs, as well as prevent deaths and help people living in fuel poverty. It should be mentioned that the government already has schemes in place to insulate British homes and the numbers are reported in the annual Household Energy Efficiency detailed releases.

They attempt to popularise and pursue this cause through disruptive forms of protest known as the “campaign of civil resistance”. This campaign has seen Insulate Britain’s activists block busy roads and highways, such as M25, Old Street roundabout and A40 most recently. Insulate Britain’s tactics are similar to the ones of the Extinction Rebellion, which has previously arranged blockades in London.

Disruptive protesting can be defined as a violent or nonviolent action of hindering the current state of affairs. Protestors often choose this tactic as it elicits civil disobedience and easily draws media attention. Feinberg and Kovacheff from the University of Toronto with Willer from Stanford University produced a paper in 2017: “Extreme Protest Tactics Reduce Popular Support for Social Movements”. In which, they concluded that extreme protest tactics such as blocking traffic or damaging property were greatly effective for gaining publicity, but such protest tactics also cause a decrease of popular support, as they reduce the feeling of identification with the movement and potential supporters are alienated. Such a tendency can be seen in some animal rights, far-left and far-right groups’ courses of action. 

This tendency is also reflected in Insulate Britain’s flaws and successes, although the organisation gets national media coverage and government attention, both public and media reactions have been extremely negative. In the media, stories of Insulate Britain activists blocking ambulances and people with emergency needs have widely circulated. For instance, according to the media outlets, a mother who suffered a stroke was left paralysed as she was sat in traffic for six hours due to Insulate Britain’s blockage of the M25. Through disrupting and in some cases endangering citizens’ wellbeing and lifestyle, Insulate Britain turns away people who otherwise would have supported their cause as well as losing current supporters, ultimately discrediting their cause. An opinion polling conducted by YouGov in early October found that 72% of those surveyed opposed the protestors’ actions, with only 18% supporting the actions and the rest 10% did not know. This poll clearly shows how Insulate Britain’s disruptive protests have undermined the group and discredited their cause, the environmental cause, which was likely to be supported by the public.

As the group lacks significant public support, the government is easily condemning them, with the Prime Minister saying “I don’t think these people do any favours to their cause. I think that what they do is detract from a very important moral mission that is widely shared by the people of this country”. The government has taken new powers to remove the protesters when they threaten critical infrastructures such as motorways and bridges or take direct action which causes serious economic damage. Throughout the demonstrations, 124 members of Insulate Britain have been arrested 629 times, with arrested individuals facing prison time. As the organisation continues to be criminalised their cause becomes discredited. 

On the other hand, Insulate Britain itself believes that disruptive protesting tactics were their only choice, the group’s spokesperson has said: “Marching, letter writing, and petitions have not worked”. However, previous academic researches such as the University of Washington have insisted that disruptive protests turn off the public and are limited in their effectiveness. According to the Spectator a great majority of the surveyed British citizens, 62 per cent, said they believe disruptive protests make the public less supportive of pursuing Insulate Britain’s cause compared to 8 percent who think it made the British public more supportive. 

It can clearly be seen that Insulate Britain’s disruptive protests have turned the public away from their cause. Pressure groups who fail to engage with public opinion and alienate their potential sympathisers, tend to be unsuccessful. Such practices of disrupting the public rarely aid them in championing their causes. Instead, such groups are becoming more unpopular and their causes are ultimately discredited.

Shota is currently undertaking work experience at Bright Blue. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: Jamie Lowe]