In 1998, backed by Friends of the Earth and the Soil Association, I challenged the legality of a GM maize trial bordering the farm.
While the case awaited judicial review in the High Court, there were marches and protests, which culminated in the trial crop being destroyed (something I did not support). The case brought attention to the risks of GM crops, and helped to mobilise the popular resistance that has kept GM out of British fields and, for the most part, off shop shelves.
I feared no legal repercussions from my protest; whether you support GM or not, few would disagree that such issues should be subject to open debate, informed opposition, and legal challenge.
Yet under Priti Patel’s proposed Police, Crime, Sentencing & Courts Bill, protest deemed disruptive would be made virtually illegal, and anyone even vaguely associated with organising such a protest – such as by carrying leaflets or placards – could face up to 51 weeks in prison.
There are also restrictions proposed on judicial review (the process through which the lawfulness of the decisions and actions of a public body, including the government, can be challenged in court) under the Judicial Review & Courts Bill.
Freedoms which I took for granted 20 years ago suddenly seem precious and fragile. Tolerance, collective responsibility, and informed, open debate are essential to safe governance; seeing the country I love replacing these with a narrative of division, hatred, and fear of the ‘other’, to justify the withdrawal of democratic rights and liberties, fills my heart with sadness and my stomach with foreboding. Are we sleep-walking into Erdogan’s Turkey or Museveni’s Uganda?
I would much rather be writing about the artichoke suckers we planted out last week, which look so fine and strong, or our plans for tree planting this winter. Riverford has made a small corner of the world kind and safe, and it would be easy to hide there. But the latest changes to this bill were proposed in response to environmental protestors, and no person (or farm) is immune from their implications.
As the famous post-WWII confessional goes: "First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I am not a socialist." Then the trade unionists, then the Jews.... "Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me."
The context is not comparable, but the message stands; I feel compelled not to hide in my fields, but to raise my voice – for the fight against climate catastrophe, and for all protestors. If you feel so inclined, you could write to your MP in protest of the bill, or sign Liberty’s petition here.