The striking young woman wore a miner’s hat and an air of insouciance as she strode across Parliament Square with her head in the air. Apart from the long cape bearing protest slogans draped from her shoulders, she wasn’t wearing much else – definitely not naked but not a million miles away from it.
She certainly stood out among the crowd of climate protesters who, at lunchtime on Monday, were gathered around the little green at the back of the square, which lies directly to the west of the Palace of Westminster. Parliament Square is often the focus of mass political protests in London.
Monday was the culmination of the Big One, four days of demonstrations by climate groups, including Extinction Rebellion (XR) whose activists spent much of the last four years throwing paint and gluing themselves to various structures.
At the dawn of 2023, XR promised to shift tactics to prevent alienation of the public. Less disruption of ordinary people and more courting of them. The shift was evident this weekend, as XR protesters and others held marches and events around the city. They largely kept off the middle of the main roads and let the city get on as normal.
After a Just Stop Oil protester mounted a snooker table during the World Championships in Sheffield last week, there were fears XR might disrupt the London Marathon on Sunday. Instead, they marched to the Home Office and left hundreds of origami boats on the steps of the building bearing personal messages for various politicians.
The Monday lunchtime protesters, including the curiously-clad caped woman, staged a concert on the lawn beneath the statue of former British prime minister, George Canning. He was fond of a bit of unorthodox action himself – while foreign secretary in the early 1800s, he once settled a political dispute by engaging in a pistol duel on Putney Heath with Lord Castlereagh, secretary of state for war.
The XR protesters relaxing in the Canning statue’s shadow were more peaceful. They held flags and banners while a man with a guitar sang Barry McGuire’s 1960s anti-establishment anthem, Eve of Destruction.
There have been warning signals recently for protest groups that the “system” is beginning to lose patience with the heavily disruptive tactics that seemed more commonplace towards the end of last year. Last month, two protesters were jailed for contempt after ignoring a judge’s gagging order not to cite the climate crisis in front of a jury at their trial for causing a public nuisance by blocking a major junction last year. Giovanna Lewis and Amy Pritchard spent most of March in prison for simply citing the reason for their protest in their closing speeches.
Last Friday, climate activists Morgan Trowland and Marcus Decker were jailed for three years and two years and seven months respectively for a protest that crippled the M25 motorway last October. Using ropes, they scaled the Queen Elizabeth II bridge at Dartford Crossing, which links the motorway to East London. The bridge had to be shut one morning from 4am until 9pm the following day as Trowland and Decker dangled 70 metres above ground. The traffic was carnage.
Still, many were shocked at the severity of their sentences.
“You have to be punished for the chaos you caused and to deter others from copying you,” said the sentencing judge.
On Monday evening, Trowland’s Twitter account carried messages purporting to have been posted on the prisoner’s behalf. One cited lines from the Fields of Athenry: “Against the famine and the crown, I rebelled, they cut me down ...”
The big fear of authorities is that protesters may try to disrupt the coronation next weekend of King Charles. If a long weekend of carnival-style protests can be called the Big One, what might you name a protest if it managed to halt the Gold Stage Coach as it ferried the king and queen on a procession back to Buckingham Palace?
Graham Smith, chief executive of antimonarchy group Republic, insisted to journalists on Monday morning that while his organisation will have “up to 1,000″ protesters along the route of the procession, “we won’t seek to disrupt anything apart from the [king’s] PR”.
He suggested his group might blast a few speakers. “There could be some booing,” he said.
A separate, non-aligned protester escaped a jail sentence recently for throwing eggs at Charles last November in York. Smith insisted no foodstuffs will be chucked the monarch by his group next week. “We won’t be throwing anything apart from our voices,” he said.
That doesn’t mean that some other protest group won’t try something to get noticed by hundreds of millions of people on television next Saturday. Britain in all its glory awaits its newly-anointed king.