Last Thursday’s full meeting of Dorset Council contained one of the least edifying experiences of my time as a councillor so far. The final substantive business was a motion proposed by the Conservative councillor Louie O’Leary that was both unnecessarily divisive and seemingly a complete waste of time. It was even questionable as to whether a debate on the motion should have been permitted at all. In the end, however, despite a proposed amendment (which failed), the motion was passed. But what was actually achieved by the farce?
The motion, as proposed, was:
On Remembrance Day when as a nation we pause to recognise the sacrifice made by those who serve to defend our democratic freedoms and way of life activists from Extinction Rebellion hung a climate change banner in front of the Cenotaph.
That Dorset Council condemns the behaviour and actions of Extinction Rebellion for their actions at the Cenotaph and their total disregard of those who gave the ultimate sacrifice; and for their continued disregard of the law.
In the first place I fail to understand why we spent time debating it. Surely there are more important issues to debate? Issues that directly affect the lives of Dorset residents! It was even questionable whether we should have debated it. The Council’s ‘Rules of Procedure’ state quite clearly that to be valid a motion should be “about a topic or issue related to the responsibilities of the Full Council or which directly affects the Council or the district, or is about a topic or issue related to the responsibilities of the Full Council or which directly affects the Council or the district.” An event that occurred in central London is obviously none of these, and although this point was raised by several councillors, somehow the motion was deemed valid.
Secondly, I fail to see what the motion claims: It accuses Extinction Rebellion (XR) of displaying a “total disregard for those who gave the ultimate sacrifice”. How? Their banner read “Honour their sacrifice” and their wreath was laid in a respectful manner by a British army veteran. A letter sent to all Dorset Councillors by West Dorset MP, Chris Loder, attempted to paint a different picture, claiming that “He walked over wreaths that had been solemnly laid”. Now I know that these things are all down to interpretation, but I watched a video of the event (posted by the Daily Mail on YouTube) with close attention, and to my eyes the person laying the wreath trod very carefully to avoid disturbing wreaths already laid. Further, after laying the wreath the person stood in solemn silence for two minutes. How can such actions be deemed a “total disregard for those whose who gave the ultimate sacrifice”?
The motion also talks of XR’s “continued disregard for the law”. I am not aware of any law having been broken at the Cenotaph, and have read no claims that they were. This, though, brings us to the what I think was one of the reasons for the motion. In order to bring in charges of a disregard for the law you are required to go beyond this particular act and comment on their wider actions, a move which drew the Council into condemning Extinction Rebellion’s ongoing campaign as a whole. I think many Conservatives, particularly the Leader of the Council and the portfolio holder responsible for our Climate and Ecological Emergency Strategy, were aware of this, and were at pains to point out they were not condemning the campaign (which they have to work with) as a whole. This move, of course, played to the Conservative ‘law and order’ card, so was bound to get support. But let’s not forget how important breaking the law has been for so many campaigners over the centuries, as a colleague of mine pointed out in the debate.
I fully accept that not everyone approves of their campaign tactics, but XR’s attempt to awaken us to the realities of climate change will be viewed by future generations with both gratitude and respect. Awakening us to these realities may well require a few lines being crossed (including legal ones) and a few feathers being ruffled. The bottom line here is these inconveniences will be nothing compared to those we will suffer if we do not take many of the actions XR is calling for, including armed conflict in pursuit of scarce resources and habitable locations to live.
There was though, perhaps, another reason for the motion being proposed. For a reason which I failed to understand at the time, there were vigorous calls for a recorded vote. This means that the minutes record not only the total number of votes cast in support, against, and those abstaining, but how each councillor actually voted. Why was this deemed necessary? It certainly was not because it was such a vital vote they wanted to be extra careful of mistakes. No, the only reasons I can think of is that certain councillors think it will be an advantage to be able to ‘accuse’ other councillors of supporting what they perceive as a law breaking political campaign. These councillors are probably ‘climate sceptics’, if not out and out anthropological climate change deniers, who see the changes that XR are demanding to be at best unnecessary, at worst part of some radical left-wing plot to bring down ‘the establishment’, and who want to be able paint certain other councillors with the same brush. If I’m correct, it looks as though politics may start to get a little livelier at Dorset Council!