Editorial: The voice of disruption
I ended last month’s editorial on the climate crisis with the conclusion that ‘I need to put my history books to one side and take to the streets’.
Saying I’ll do something doesn’t always make it happen, but this time it did.
For the first time, I joined Extinction Rebellion and sat in the middle of a street in London. I marched with a flag. I got training. As promised to the longsuffering Mrs T, I didn’t get arrested.
None of it came naturally, as I illustrated by wearing a jacket and tie. And as well as laziness and self-consciousness, two questions stood in my way.
One was: Don’t you just damage your cause by annoying people? The answer that convinced me was another question: What, according to Guinness World Records, was the largest protest in history? The answer is Stop the War. A million people in London, three million in Rome. It stopped nothing at all. What would have happened if they had all sat down in the street? Martin Luther King and Emmeline Pankhurst knew that a government that does not hear the voice of justice hears the voice of disruption.
The other question was: Is it worth it? Can I make a difference? Can we succeed in averting catastrophe? My answer to that is a story. William Wilberforce devoted twenty years of his life to fighting the slave trade because he became convinced he would have to give God an account of his life – what he had done with all his great wealth and influence. Identifying the slave trade as the greatest evil of the age, he helped lead the huge national abolitionist movement of petitions, boycotts, meetings and songs.
After his abolition bill failed in Parliament in 1789 and again in 1791, activists gave up and the movement collapsed. And yet Wilberforce kept bringing his bills year after year, losing again and again. His reasoning was that God had never promised him success, only called him to action. Success or failure were in God’s hands; what was up to Wilberforce was whether he tried.
Then Ireland joined the UK. It did not occur to anyone that this had anything to do with the slave trade, but when Wilberforce brought yet another hopeless bill, every Irish MP voted for it, Ireland having no slave trade. Though it still took a few more years, abolition became law.
Wilberforce would not have succeeded if success had been his motivation. His great concern was to be faithful to his calling, so he continued in the face of failure, which is why he succeeded.
I’m not, obviously, comparing my brief flag-waving jolly to Wilberforce’s world-changing exertions. But I have learned from him that ‘What difference will this make?’ is not always the right question.
I guess I didn’t put my history books to one side after all. Oh well, you can’t do everything.
This article was published in the October 2021 edition of Reform