How the weak can conquer the strong

Last October, 21 climate campaigners from the grassroots group No Dash for Gas broke into EDF's new gas-fired power station, scaling two chimneys and occupying the plant for a week.

Ben Stewart: 'The activists knew intuitively to frame the EDF lawsuit as a classic David vs Goliath fight.' (Credit: Belinda Lawley)
Ben Stewart: 'The activists knew intuitively to frame the EDF lawsuit as a classic David vs Goliath fight.' (Credit: Belinda Lawley)

They were charged by the police with aggravated trespass but then, last month, they were also served with a civil lawsuit by EDF. The French state-owned energy giant was suing them for £5m.

The campaigners faced losing their homes or paying a proportion of their salaries to the company for the rest of their lives. They were scared, but then they opened their laptops and got organised.

They knew intuitively to frame the lawsuit as a classic David vs Goliath fight, the sweet-spot of any insurgent activist campaign. The demand for £5m was presented not only as a threat to environmental progress, but as a broadside against something most of us hold dear - the British tradition of civil disobedience.

The activists listed the campaigners who, down the decades, would have been neutered had a similar suit been served on them, and the social progress of which we as a nation would have been robbed. They were inviting us all to identify with them and join the fightback.

Public figures recorded short videos declaring: 'I am No Dash for Gas.' An online petition was launched in the name of one of the activists' parents. At one point more than 1,000 people an hour were signing it. As the message was amplified across social media, national broadcast outlets caught up. Last week EDF caved in.

EDF's capitulation statement included the announcement that Will Hutton will chair an inquiry into the relationship between protesters and power companies. The gas campaigners have declined to take part - they see this new Hutton Inquiry as a self-serving PR move made in the wake of a stupid decision born of hubris. It's designed to set parameters on protest.

Activists know well that direct action can speed up the national conversation and force uncomfortable issues on to the agenda. It is asymmetric campaigning, the way the weak take on and beat the strong, and there can be few better examples of its effectiveness than the events of this past month.

Ben Stewart is head of media at Greenpeace.

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