Yesterday, I was genuinely unsure of how to begin this blog.
Fortunately, today David Cameron has told us that we’ll all be delighted with fracking just as soon as we know more about it.
Thanks Dave, I should have known I could rely on you…
Meet Mrs X*.
(*Before we go on, I should note a couple of things. Mrs X is almost certainly not Mrs X’s real name. In fact, she told me what her real name was (though in this world, so accurately depicted by Mark Knopfler as being filled with ‘violence and doubletalk’, how can I possibly be sure she was telling the truth?).
And I know the journalists amongst you will be asking why I’ve kept her name a secret. Well, it’s because a) I can, b) I want to because I want her to be able to do the things she wants to from a state of anonymity as long as she wants one and c) because Mrs X amuses me as a name. So that’s that.)
Now, I met Mrs X on Saturday (August 10 2013, historians from the future), near Balcombe, where Cuadrilla are currently drilling to see whether it will be worthwhile fracking in future (more on that in a moment).
I was there to visit the protest against that proposal, which was pretty famous even before the police decided to use Vulcan nerve touches to disperse peaceful protestors (Sky’s headline – Police Arrest 18 Protestors, Guardian – Anti-fracking Activists Arrested At West Sussex, Daily Mail – The Battle of Balcombe. The Daily Mail: because old ladies don’t scare themselves…). Not to worry, there’ll be more on that too.
I started by wandering down the street, saying hello to people, waving at car drivers who beeped their cars in support of the protestors, and watching bemused as the same dangerous protestors who had to be dealt with by Her Majesty’s Constabulary a couple of weeks before waved, smiled and called ‘Namaste’ to Gurkhas (I honestly don’t know why – that isn’t what this one’s about, anyway) as they drove their cars onto the fracking site.
As I did so, a woman tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I was from West Sussex.
I turned round as I said no, and there was Mrs X.
Now, Mrs X didn’t look much like your average protestor. She was pretty tall, a little bit old, with an austere shortish white hairstyle as favoured by austere tallish headmistresses since schools were invented.
She was remarkably well-spoken, smartly but unspectacularly dressed, and carrying a clipboard.
Mrs X lives in Balcombe. And though I didn’t know it then, she is the response to Call Me Dave’s assurance that the UK will love fracking, if only we could be properly informed about it.
What is that response? Well, let’s see…
Mrs X lives close to the fracking site. Everyone in Balcombe does. But she had hoped that when the drilling began, she may have been protected from some of the worst of the noise and disruption, because there is a street of houses between the drill and her own home.
No such luck, it seems: ‘I deliberately grow fruit bushes in my garden, ‘ Mrs X told me. ‘And as a result, birds come in to land and eat. It’s always been something I look forward to. There’s even a pheasant who comes in sometimes.
‘But since the drills began, there have been no birds. Not a reduced number, none at all.’
(another villager told me that in fact, since drilling began, there have been no birds, insects of animals in what’s normally a pretty animalled-up part of leafy South East England during summer months).
The lack of avian companionship has upset Mrs X. She knows she can live without it, but why should she? She grew the plants to attract the birds, why shouldn’t she actually get to see some every once in a while? First World problems? Well, perhaps. But then we do live in the First World…
In any case, Mrs X wasn’t there for the birds alone. She added: ‘They’re saying they won’t pump the polluted water they’ll create into the local reservoir, but into the River Ouse instead. But the river tops the reservoir up when it’s dry. It’s the same water source. They don’t have any idea what they’re talking about.’
It’s an interesting idea – and one which displays a certain faith in human nature (far more worrying is if in fact they do know exactly what they’re talking about).
But wildlife and waste water are just two of the things people can ‘look forward’ to changing in their environment – locally, nationally and internationally.
We’ve heard a lot in the last couple of weeks about how fracking ‘does not pollute water’. In fact, it appears it does. Reports from Norway show that 18 per cent of their wells leak. Now, we aren’t Norway (there are fewer people there, so leaks are statistically less likely to strike vital water supplies) and we may build better wells than them. Fingers crossed, eh?
But let’s say 18 per cent of wells leak. Well, that’s not so many, is it? Well, yes, as the mathematicians amongst you may have noted, it’s nearly one in five. So it is rather a lot when one considers that the leaks poison water supplies.
And it gets worse. Because the same government which tells you you only oppose fracking because you know nothing about it, and that the wells don’t leak, also tells you that fracking will solve our energy crisis. The government says we have trillions of litres of gas, just waiting to be fracked out of its current home in the ground. Like a badger. Except you can’t shoot the gas when it comes out.
The problem is, Bloomberg and the International Energy Agency are agreed that for fracking to provide what North Sea oil currently does (just half of our national fuel demand), we’ll need up to 20,000 wells, in clusters of six or seven. So that’s 3,333 clusters, in a small, pretty crowded country, and with the current statistics suggesting one well in every single one of those clusters will leak. (the same report also makes it very, very clear that fracking is not cheap, despite what the government claims. Prices will rise globally, UK prices will react to the global fluctuations, and the customer will pay more for fuel, as always. There’s no miracle in fracking. That’s why the spelling’s so different).
Simultaneously, of course, it’s just a massive V sign to the rest of the world. Around the world, floods force people from their homes, freak rainstorms followed by massive droughts destroy crops and cause people to starve to death, 98 per cent of the world’s scientists agree that human activity is causing climate change which causes these disasters to occur and what’s our response?
‘Oh yeah, climate change is a problem. But we’ve just found a load of lovely carbon emissions-producing gas to burn, so we’re dropping renewables (fuel cost of renewables: a steady zero…) and well, frankly, f**k you all.’
Still, no doubt Call Me Dave will be able to set our minds at rest with his excellent grip on science and economics.
But back to Mrs X. The clipboard she was brandishing had another purpose.
‘I’m collecting signatures from West Sussex residents so we can show the County Council there is real opposition to Cuadrilla. There have been a lot of stories about how they don’t have planning permission, but they do: it will come out of the permissions they already have. But what they don’t have yet are the licences to frack. That’s what we’re talking to the County Council about. We can still stop Cuadrilla getting those licences.’
Unlike many in the UK, Mrs X was not surprised by Private Eye’s revelation on Wednesday that Balcombe Parish Council’s Conservative membership (who would have had the opportunity to at least raise objections against the plans in the early planning application protest) waved it through with no vote.
In fact, its only mention was by one councillor, Simon Greenwood, who happens to own the land the drilling is taking place on, and stands to earn tens of thousands of pounds from Cuadrilla should fracking begin there. He mentioned that there was a plan (he didn’t offer any details of what the plan was) for part of his estate while discussing a completely different proposal.
Nor was she surprised by the same magazine’s report that Balcombe’s Parish Clerk told West Sussex County Council that the matter had been ‘discussed, and no objection was made’, even though the Parish’s records show no discussion, let alone a vote.
She said: ‘It’s even worse than they said. The clerk told the council it had been discussed, and in the last few weeks has told us that the Parish never received any communication about the fracking plan, and that the information was buried in a small paragraph of a hundred-page report to the council. Well, it can’t be both can it? Either there was no communication, or there was some.
‘No-one in the village knew anything about this. For 18 months, no-one was told anything. It’s just a really sneaky, underhand way these people have all been behaving. It’s simply not what you expect.
‘I’ve never really taken much interest in politics, though I’ve always voted Conservative, because round here you don’t really need to. You can just get on with things. But I’m not the only person living here. And no-one knew. Because the people we voted for kept it from us. We are looking at how we can legally oppose what has already been done to us. It’s not our main route of getting this stopped, but it’s one thing we’re looking at.’
At national level, Mrs X’s discomfort is hardly reduced.
‘Well, I don’t know what he thinks he’s doing,’ she said when David Cameron’s name was mentioned. ‘He obviously doesn’t know anything about fracking, and he clearly doesn’t know where the people who vote for him even live. The only place in the country fracking isn’t planned for is the Midlands, and I don’t think anyone votes Conservative there anyway.
‘And he told everyone they’d get £1m if fracking happened near their community,’ (the actual figure is £100,000, as an ’embarrassed’ Cabinet Office later confirmed). ‘Who did he think would be fooled by that? It’s a ridiculous mistake, if it was a mistake.
‘Our MP here is Francis Maude. But he’s speaking out in favour of fracking. Enough is enough. We are going to set up Conservatives Against Fracking, which will start here, but can spread wherever anyone wants it. We’ll campaign to get Maude replaced as Conservative candidate at the next election, and if he isn’t we’ll stand against him.’
(At this point, someone suggested she should stand. She looked at the floor, but brightened up as she said: ‘I’ve never done anything like that. But as an accountant, at least if I said something I wouldn’t be wrong by a factor of ten.’)
Mrs X first came down to see the protests when they started late last month. As a result, she witnessed the police activity on July 24, when officers arrested several activists – using Vulcan nerve touches (Oh, alright, pressure points) to incapacitate people who had stood in front of the gate to the site, attempting to stop the progress of lorries carrying drill bits.
She was visibly disturbed and said: ‘Well it’s outrageous. These people weren’t doing anything to the police. They were protesting against something no-one here wants and what the police did was awful. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect in Venezuela or somewhere like that, isn’t it? In a police state, I mean.’
(I spoke to another woman at the protest site, who described what the police did in some detail: ‘They picked on the men, at first. The biggest men who they obviously thought would have most chance of getting in the way of the gates. They hit some of them, then pulled them all to the floor, then they sat on them, four officers per person, and chained them up. They dragged them across the floor.
‘When people got wise to that, and started surrounding the bigger men to protect them, the police went for the women. The ones they thought were ‘leaders’. It was the same again. Using the pressure points, pulling them down, then several officers sitting on each person, then dragging them across the floor. But no-one had been violent. They were just protesting.’)
Me: ‘Did you paint this?’ Police Officer: ‘No.’ Long pause…
I have argued previously that the police at Balcombe are being used as the ‘muscle’ of Cuadrilla and/or the government – using violence to ensure the company and the government ‘secure’ what they want, regardless of the wishes of the people. As a result, I asked Mrs X who might have called the police.
Obviously, Mrs X, upstanding and respectable member of a beautiful village in South East England did not entirely engage in my mildly paranoid view of the current state of the country (even though she had just used her own direct experience to compare it to a police state).
What was more interesting was how close she did get, though: ‘No-one in the village would have done. It must have been someone else, who wants this to happen. We wouldn’t have called the police. We agree with the protestors. We join them and support them. We like them.’
Which leads to the final point. Over the last fortnight, we’ve all read or heard people (generally Conservatives, it must be said) who’ve argued that this is not a local protest. The people of Balcombe, they say, don’t care about fracking. These are weirdos coming to a peaceful place where they are not needed or wanted, to cause trouble because that’s the kind of people they are.
‘We’ve all read those stories,’ Mrs X (bless her soul) began. ‘And they’re nonsense. All of them. There is not one person in the village who doesn’t support these protestors. Who isn’t pleased and grateful for them being here, and who doesn’t want them here. We all come to see them and speak to them and join them. To let them know we are grateful and we want them here.
‘There’s a joke about it in the village. We have done what the government would want. We’ve outsourced the protests.’
She pauses, smiles: ‘We want them to be here, and we will help them any way we can.’
So, so far it’s looking pretty damaging for old Call Me Dave. The people who have already experienced fracking – therefore actually do ‘know’ about it first-hand – and happen to live in a dyed-in-the-wool Tory constituency, pretty much hate it, enough to try to overthrow their MP and indeed the government they voted for.
And despite Dave’s implication that people don’t know about fracking is because they are ill-informed, or uninterested, the reason they didn’t ‘know’ about fracking until drilling began a few weeks ago was because information about it was deliberately withheld from them by members of the Party Cameron leads – the Party they had implicitly trusted and consistently voted for.
It’s small wonder they feel cheated.
The same people – those who have to date never had any reason to believe in the police as anything other than a benevolent force for good, and that anyone who falls foul of their methods has ‘provoked’ them (even if accidentally) have now watched police activity they compare to a ‘police state’, or more accurately one in which the police are used as an arm of a corporate government, dispatched to deliver violence on people for such crimes as ‘being in front of a gate’ or ‘not being obsequious enough to lorry drivers’.
Mrs X is not alone. She’s joined by the protestors from outside her village (and coach-loads more people are set to join those already there, this Sunday), and despite the arguments of some who support fracking, she is also joined by the rest of her own community, who are outraged by the way they have been treated, and how much the Party they grew up believing in is prepared to sacrifice for cold, hard, cash.
This may not prove to be Cameron’s Poll Tax, as some have suggested. Though I’d like it to be so, the Poll Tax struck everywhere at the same time, while fracking will slowly spread across the UK like a slowly spreading poisonous thing. I hope I’m wrong, obviously.
But it’s made allies of loyal Tory voters and the so-called ‘professional protestors’ they’ve traditionally mistrusted, and all in the Tory Party’s strongest region of the UK.
This might have been a good place to have ended with Mrs X’s own joke about ‘outsourcing protest’, but I’m afraid even Frackham’s campaigning accountant was upstaged on the day by another Balcombe villager.
Sat on a foldable camping chair, across the road from the gate, she appeared to be knitting an incredibly long yellow and black scarf, about three threads in width.
Looking up, she said: ‘I don’t really know how to knit, or how to protest. But I live in the village and none of us want fracking. These people have come all this way to protest and the least we can do is show them we support them, and oppose Cuadrilla too.
‘I do know how to wash clothes. I keep wondering whether I should offer to take their clothes home, wash them and return them tomorrow. But I don’t want to offend them, they’re here helping us.’