Weary eco-activists across the country were holding their breaths in 2004. They’d been fighting an epic campaign for over seven years.
The technology they were opposing had never been used in the UK. People with experience of its effects from across the world toured the country with their stories. Regions earmarked for testing on the outskirts of cities and in rural backwaters found themselves thrust into the spotlight – needing to learn about and mobilise on an incredibly complex political issue.
In doing so they rediscovered community and built a network of solidarity across the country – gathering year on year for big demonstrations and direct action as tests were carried out first in one place and then another, and then everywhere simultaneously.
Folks based in London, Oxford, Brighton, Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester, Glastonbury and Totnes lead the way on direct action against trial sites. People were arrested for criminal damage and under obscure legislation. Short prison sentences were served and long sentences dodged in a series of high-profile trials.
The big green charities followed, running high-profile campaigns. The issue had years of newspaper backing, but grassroots campaigns only received a year or so of national media coverage. The scale of their work as it progressed was wildly under reported.
Small teams went out month after month, year after year, sometimes in cross country team ups on a remarkable scale. They made practical interventions that substantially damaged the industry’s progress. Adventures invisible to all but those who drove home at dawn, weary but elated.
The wider population moved from ignorance of the technology, to low level awareness, to majority opposition across party lines. But the incumbent government were standing by their friends in the industry.
Everyone knew that we’d won, everyone knew that the industry was massively behind schedule, but still the trials continued and the rhetoric said that the industry would push on through.
Blueprint for resistance
We were tired. Once mighty local groups had fizzled away. In the final push it felt like there was no momentum left – with a couple of dozen of us standing outside parliament with a placard that said ‘What part of ‘No Genetically Modified Crops’ did you not understand?’. While inside, Chardon LL maize, the first GM variety to be made commercially available in the UK, was granted its licence.
Three weeks later there was an announcement. The manufacturers of Chardon LL would not be putting it on the market. The company explained it’s product had been left “economically non-viable” because of the conditions imposed by the Government.
There was no ban. No formal U-turn. There still isn’t.
GM trials continue to happen with occasional campaigns against them and the threat of its return is ever present. It would have been better if we could have pushed further against the importing of GM for animal feed, and subsidies for experiments.
But fourteen years later we still live in a country that has never grown GM crops on a commercial scale. We averted increased pesticide use, the dispersal of unstable DNA, and total corporate control of the food chain. A blueprint for effective resistance was laid out.
We are powerful
I never knew how to celebrate that win, I don’t think any of us did, and so we didn’t. I always hoped that we could make it more solid. That there would be another moment we could point to when it really was over, when we were safe.
We live in late stage-capitalism. Nothing is safe; no victories are forever.
Does that mean that we never get to call our friends and tell them that we love them? We fought as hard as we could with all the skills that we had and for a little while, in a big way, it worked.
Tory rule, the rise of the far right and a US-dominated Brexit threaten to unravel hundreds of years of progressive politics on this island. Hundreds of forgotten struggles of people just like us, who threw their lives into pushing out the boundaries one tiny step at a time, from Union rights to the NHS, the protection of seeds to energy policy.
Which is why we must remind ourselves that we are powerful, why we must dig into what has worked and hold it high and learn from it.
Change and possibility
Winning is messy. It is a bit like grieving, everyone does it differently.
When we win things change, and with it all the weight of loss and possibility change too. The communities that we’ve spun around us unravel, leaving us purposeless. Shivering in the memories of state violence and suppressed fear.
Winning isn’t easy. But it is beautiful. It should be named.
It’s worth staking a claim on here and now before it passes. We are told time and again that there is no point in trying and it’s a lie. Every time me we remind ourselves of that, we make the next win more possible.
Liz Snook has been active part of the UK environmental direct action movement through a number of groups including Earth First! the Genetic Engineering Network, Frack Free Bristol and Reclaim the Power.
Image: Block Around the Clock, Reclaim the Power, Flickr.