If the name Richard Walton is unfamiliar, there is good reason for that. The former head of the Counter-Terrorism Command (SO15) 2011-2016, and Commander at New Scotland Yard has spent the majority of his career working in clandestine services, where a premium is placed on privacy and has only recently become a relatively well-known public figure.
On July 16, 2019, together with Tom Wilson, he published a lengthy (76 page) and meticulously sourced (496 citations) policy paper for Policy Exchange concerning Extinction Rebellion (XR), a UK-based campaign of the Rising Up! Network, itself a direct-action project funded by Compassionate Revolution Ltd.
Over the past few days, the authors have been subject to broadsides from “journalists”, the founders of XR, as well as those who feel threatened by their report’s revelations. Policy Exchange, the think tank under whose aegis the report was published is labelled “right-wing”, while the paper itself is decried as a “tangled collocation of scare terms and dog whistles”.
Criticism of the report has followed two broad vectors, neither of which address the actual content of the report. This is crucial (and unsurprising) as the report is sourced almost entirely with quotations, statements, press releases, or posts from Extinction Rebellion, its affiliates, its leadership, or prominent members. Instead, criticism attacks the publishing organization (Policy Exchange) its funders (purported to be Exxon, Mobile, Shell and other ‘climate baddies’) or the author(s), in this case, Richard Walton.
What Walton and Wilson do is examine XR, its origins, its structure, finances, and goals, mostly from XR’s own reporting, and uncover what can only be described as an anti-capitalist/anti-democratic campaign overseen by a revolutionary council with departments handling a wide variety of competences.
Following the second vector, Walton’s conclusions are lambasted as a “tangled collocation”. Indeed, that critic (Nick Hilton) is absolutely correct as the report does come across as tangled, confused and antithetical, but owing to XR’s ideology (or lack thereof) and not the author’s comprehension of it.
XR’s ideological confusion is endemic of most modern societies, particularly in those where identity politics have overtaken coherent ideological conflicts based along philosophical/political divides. Whereas in the past, most revolutionary groups adhered to an ideology, in the post-Cold War era, these distinctions have all but disappeared, with many groups adopting elements of antagonistic programs at will, with pragmatism and achieving objectives as the only real discerning criteria for inclusion/exclusion. As noted above, owing to popular non-acceptance (in the UK) of anti-capitalism, it has been consciously sidestepped as often as possible by XR’s organizers, while still being a core element of XR’s program.
Specifically, XR calls for decentralization and as a “self-organising system” purports adherence to this principle. Yet, in one of its programs designates planned (i.e. centralized) economic measures as the vehicle to disengage from capitalism, which by their very nature can only be dictated at a national (i.e. centralized) level.
RU!N, of which XR is a project, called in February 2019 for “power [to] be decentralised” and voiced opposition to a “national assembly, insisting that ‘direct democracy mandates regional and local assemblies which inform a national body.” How power can be decentralized and a national assembly opposed, while at the same time a “national body” to govern local and regional assemblies be created defies logic.
Finally, despite the three years Gail Bradbrook and Roger Hallam (two XR co-founders) theoretically hashed out their ‘self-organising system’ concept, and their preference for “anarchism”, they appear to hold inordinate sway over the group and its actions via a “Rapid Response Team” which looks rather like a revolutionary council in structure with them on top. One veteran member of XR even notes that “Roger is used to thinking, ‘If I put forward a proposal, it will happen.”
All of these factors illustrate the disconnect between what XR proclaims, and how it truly operates, signs not merely of “Analysis of anyone’s speech and texts [drawing] all sorts of conclusions” as an XR spokesman noted in response to the report, but rather its platform and future program.
Ignorance of the underlying problem
Once criticism of the paper has been done away with the actual content can be examined, and is shocking. XR’s working groups operate within a “Rapid Response Team” which consists of Political, Actions, Art, Movement, XR Youth, communities, Regeneration, Self-Organising Systems, Guardians and Media circles. The Rapid Response Team meets depending on the scale of actions planned, and their frequency. Why a non-violent environmental NGO needs a “Rapid Response Team” is not clearly answered.
Further, XR insistence that their group is leaderless and based on “the people” do not stand up to what happens internally in the organization. Concerning cancellation of the Heathrow Drone Attack, Farhana Yamin, a veteran member of the organization is quoted as saying “in the old days maybe that would have just gone through….” Insinuating that the group is used to operating based on a top-down structure and not a “collectivist” one.
Most worryingly, the radical and extremist rhetoric permeating statements from XR leaders is a grave cause for concern. Gail Bradbrook said in April 2019 that “we are at a choice point; do we want more democracy or do we want less, because this democracy is not working for us—in my view it’s a fake democracy.” Her lack of regard for the present democratic system in the UK, with its replacement by a “national assembly” is reminiscent of the Jacobins who ushered in a revolutionary reign of terror in France in the 18th Century.
Similarly, Roger Hallam’s February 2019 statement that “We are not just sending out e-mails and asking for donations. We are going to force the governments to act. And if they don’t, we will bring them down and create a democracy fit for purpose. And yes, some may die in the process.” shows that leaders of the movement are ready for individuals to die for the cause, and that the existing system will be brought down by force if necessary. In the face of such statements, it is difficult to write off XR’s program as “harmless”.
At the present, XR’s strategy for handling the Walton/Wilson report is hoping that it will go away while sardonically lampooning its charges. A few responses have attempted to latch on to the “extremism” charge, with one commentator noting that “the only extremism I’ve experience in Extinction Rebellion is extreme love.”
Unfortunately, for all of the work, time and energy put into creating their report, considering the short public attention span, Richard Walton and Tom Wilson’s report will not be heeded, save for at the policy/decision-making levels. Should XR engage in continued radical/extremist behaviour resulting in serious injury or death, the report may be re-evaluated, however, as a means of stopping XR, it is simply not the right medium.