SoupGate, the radical flank and the politics of good taste 

October 20, 2022

     By Duncan Green     

You’ve probably seen the Just Stop Oil protesters throwing tomato soup over Van Gogh’s Sunflowers at the National Gallery this week – the video on Twitter has over 35 million views, and everyone is talking about it. In particular, a big debate about whether this is just vandalism or smart protest. Tom Aston reflects.

In an interesting blog, James Ozden criticizes those talking heads in the UK who argued that disruptive protest is not the answer. I couldn’t help but laugh at someone on Twitter who gave the action “0/10 for theory of change.” But, I guess the correct score rather depends what the question is. What was the goal, what are the expected outcomes, and how durable are these likely to be?

For Ozden, the key outcome seems to be to ‘get you international media coverage and millions of people talking about you.’ Emma Jones of Just Stop Oil also said “it works, it grabs people’s attention,” and the soup-thrower, Phoebe Plummer, suggested that “we’re getting the conversation going so we can ask the questions that matter.” So, they seem to agree this direct action was about attention. I’m not at all convinced this is the most important outcome, but it frames the discussion.

Ozden argues that the presence of a “radical flank” increases support for a moderate faction within the same movement. The evidence is actually rather flimsy – I’ve got some further notes on that, if you’re interested.

In contrast, I first heard of SoupGate on Novara Media, an excellent left-wing media outfit that I recommend. I was expecting them to wholeheartedly embrace the direct action. But Aaron Bastani thought the tactics could prove potentially unwise by “attracting the wrong kind of attention” and might perhaps be poor strategy. Similarly, he criticised what he considered the “thoughtless, stupid direct action” of Extinction Rebellion when two members climbed atop a tube train and delayed London commuters. In his view, this was even less defensible because it interfered with ordinary people going about their work rather than posh toffs like me going to art galleries. I think Bastani made some good points you can listen to below. 

However, his co-host Michael Walker disagreed:

 “It doesn’t matter whether the public like the action, what matters is if the public care about your cause.” 

I think that’s a very astute point. Emmeline Pankhurst made a similar one (“We don’t intend that you should be pleased.”). He then suggested that perhaps the public might call into talk radio and say “their ends are valid but I don’t care about [or for] their means.” Such public support could be helpful. 

Who’s The Audience?

I suspect many people who argued that they got the tactics wrong are people like me. As a member at both the National Gallery and the Royal Academy, I don’t like desecration of art (unless that is the art — e.g., Michael Landy’s Breakdown), especially because it leads to protesters being misleadingly branded as uncultured, anti-culture barbarians.

Of course, “life is more important than art,” but I have no idea why these are considered mutually exclusive options. Moreover, I don’t understand the targeting. Do you? Why are art galleries the target and not, say, statues of oil barons or disreputable politicians? And if you really want to attack the National Gallery, why not attack the Sackler Wing? There are better trophies to deface, more problematic histories to tell, and more nefarious funding to expose. Or go next door to the National Portrait Gallery (were it open) which ended BP sponsorship earlier this year. If there was a strategy, it’s wasn’t clear to me. Emma Brown of Just Stop Oil and Ozden later insisted that the “radical flank” theory was the strategy.

Does Public Support Matter?

Just Stop Oil’s peers, Extinction Rebellion, has very low levels of public support in general. Nonetheless, it’s also plausible as Ozden suggests, that they played at least some role in the wider increase in Britons saying that the environment is a top national issue, even if that role is probably overstated. Today, according to YouGov, only 26% of the public think the environment is the most important issue, far behind the economy at 67%. So, Just Stop Oil does have an attention problem to address, and perhaps they do need to “get the conversation going” again, as Plummer suggests. But, will greater attention translate into influence?

Which members of the public support or oppose probably matters at least as much as support from the general public. The media landscape is a key part of this. It matters relatively little whether Novara Media support you, I’m afraid, but as Ozden suggests, if talk radio opinion leaders like James O’Brien admit they’ve changed their views on Extinction Rebellion and there are opinion pieces written about them in The Times newspaper admitting they were right, then there’s clear progress in the discourse. 

Beyond the politics of attention though, what matters is what such attention translates into and whether any of this is durable. Ozden notes that: 

‘Even though Extinction Rebellion has some of the lowest public support, they seem to have caused an increase in UK climate concern, led to new environmental groups in over 1100 cities and probably significantly reduced UK carbon emissions.’

As Naomi Hossain reminded me, this might fit Tarrow et al.’s argument on unity and numbers in their Worthiness, Unity, Numbers, and Commitment (WUNC) conceptual framework.  

What About the Backlash?

When Owen Jones asked whether this will provide a rationale for the government to clamp down on all forms of protest, Emma Jones argued that “I think we are putting government in a difficult position.”

Yet, in direct response to Just Stop Oil’s efforts over the last fortnight, departed Home Secretary Suella Braverman vowed to crack down on “eco-zealots” in the Public Order Bill. We already have hostile legislation on protests in the UK, and it seems this direct action will amplify the tenuous justifications from the Home Secretary regarding supposed “public interest.” The Home Secretary brought forward an amendment with harsher sentences for protesters on the 18th October 2022 (see here for details). The two protesters themselves have been charged to pay £5,000 in damages. So, if Just Stop Oil’s target were government policy, the action probably backfired in the short term.

A large recent study on key protest issues in the 21st century found backlash in most cases. So, the trade-offs are a legitimate concern more broadly.

Whether raising public attention through direct action translates into significant policy change for the better over the medium term is still a matter for reasonable debate. We should be debating whether Just Stop Oil’s tactics fit within a coherent strategy or not, as Bastani suggests. We should be assessing their “theory of change,” and the underlying “radical flank” theory itself. We should also be asking questions about the relative costs and benefits. And this direct action allows us to do that.

There’s no question that it has raised public attention. But only time will tell whether SoupGate contributes to greater concern over an existential cause, and whether that translates into any meaningful policy change in the UK. If indeed it does work, we’ll have to rethink plenty of ideas about what works in campaigning, and those pesky theories of change.

October 20, 2022
Duncan Green