By Ron McKay

“You’re just a load of incompetent, middle-class, self-indulgent people who want to try to tell us how to live our lives. That’s what you are, isn’t it?”

The subject of Adam Boulton’s ire was a spokesman for Extinction Rebellion whose protests have brought parts of London to a halt for almost a week and effectively closed North Bridge in Edinburgh on Wednesday, a young man who had, like Boulton, gone to a top fee-paying school, but had then taken a diametrically opposite course. The Sky presenter’s outburst may, in part, have been because of the difficulty he had negotiating the barricades to get into the broadcaster’s Westminster studio, but it pretty much summed up the established media’s attitude to the climate demonstrators.

But is it true? Well, if you believe that the principal organisers – who by any description qualify as middle-class – are pulling the strings, then the class part is accurate. However, the protesters are so broadly-based in age and background – from grizzled veterans of many a protest, to OAPs on a day out, to dozens of students and schoolkids on half-term break – that short of checking their accents and bank balances it’s impossible to condemn them all by class.

But incompetent they certainly are not, blocking bridges, bringing traffic to a halt, getting arrested, as hundreds of them have been, and palpably succeeding in catapulting the issue of climate change once again to the top of the agenda.

Boulton’s target was 21-year-old Robin Boardman-Pattison, who had gone to the £17,500-a-year boys’ school, Trinity, in Croydon. He has a long list of protesting stripes, from campaigning against Heathrow expansion to spray painting “Make Ecocide Law” near the doors to Bristol Magistrates’Court. He walked out of the interview leaving Boulton to mutter “jolly good” to an empty chair.

The Bristol University language student then became the target of right-wing media, from the Guido Fawkes website to The Sun and Telegraph, branded a hypocrite for enjoying previous holidays in the sun and on the ski slopes.

Previous successful mass protest movements – like Stop the War and Hope Not Hate – have been organised by the Trotskyist Socialist Workers’ Party, following the Leninist dictum of vanguardism – spearheading the struggle – but there are no SWP fingerprints on this. Indeed the party, while backing XR, as it’s known, has been left very much in the slipstream.

The roots of this movement were planted by the Occupy movement which sprang up in London in 2011 when hundreds camped out in front of St Paul’s Cathedral, having been blocked by police and a High Court injunction from bedding down in Paternoster Square in front of the Stock Exchange.

George Barda, a Greenpeace activist, was one of the principals then, as he is now. He went to the Winchester public school. He formed the limited company Compassionate Revolution with Dr Gail Bradbrook, another Occupy protester. Barda describes his co-director as the “godmother” of the XR movement.

The two Compassionate Revolution directors say the company was created to “enable people power in the face of corruption of our democracy by vested interest”. The mission statement goes on to say that people “may be willing to undertake acts of defiance, some of which could be illegal” in pursuit of social and environmental justice.

The “godmother” has an interesting and colourful background. She is a mother of two with a PhD in molecular biophysics who describes herself as a “neo-pagan”. She credits hallucinogenic shrubs and potions for “rewiring” her brain and giving her the “codes of social change”.

Compassionate Revolution was instrumental in setting up and funding Rising Up!, a coalition of protest groups which had met in the Occupy movement. Last May, that morphed into XR, which is partly funded by the company. Other financial support comes from philanthropic foundations and crowdfunding – an online crowdfunding target of £100,000 was exceeded and the latest one has again been beaten, with over £275,000 and rising as this newspaper went to press.

XR is an avowedly non-violent organisation which promotes civil disobedience, including lawbreaking. Like other revolutionary groups it works on a cellular principle, small group decision-making, with strategy and working groups planning mass actions.

XR has more than 100 groups across Britain, including those in Edinburgh and Glasgow, and up to 10,000 supporters taking part in the London protest alone. It has also spread to dozens of other countries, including India, South Africa, with the present campaign involving people in at least 80 cities in more than 33 countries.

Prior to the present protest, in November XR blocked bridges across London and in February took part in the UK-wide school strike. On April 1, during a Brexit debate, a group of their protesters stripped off in the House of Commons.

George Barda utterly rejects the “smear” that XR is a middle-class, self-indulgent protest movement. “Who is middle-class and who is working-class now? Most people are struggling whether they are working or not. There are thousands of people here in the streets [of central London], people from all walks of life, of different ages and demographics and ethnicity. It’s a popular broad-based movement.”

The focus of the protest has been deliberately targeting London which, as he says, “still legislates on most matters and still has the power”. This is about, he continues, “making a viable biological basis for our future”. Most people, he argues, have their eyes open to the consequences of continuing on the present course and the policy of simply doing nothing, or not enough.

“Climate change is certainly on the agenda, but it’s at number 19 or 20. What we’re trying to do is put it where is should be, at number one.”

A 1968 protest slogan, which appeared on banners and walls from Paris to Chicago, was “Be realistic, demand the impossible” – and that’s what Barda’s opponents are throwing at XR, that getting down to net-zero emissions by 2025 can’t be done.

He responds that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that global warming will reach 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels between 2030 and 2052, with potentially catastrophic consequences for humans, animals and the entire ecological system: “They’re saying it’s unpragmatic of us to demand what science is telling us about the rate of climate change and what we need to do.”

The UK Government target is to reduce emissions by 80% of 1990 levels by 2050, reducing by 3% a year, but even that modest target, it is predicted, will not be met. It also wants all vehicles to be electric by 2040, which motor manufacturers warn will not be possible without increased cash incentives.

“If we took this seriously,” Barda argues, “we’d be working out how to stop rolling out petrol cars within a couple of years, not by 2040.”

He accepts that people are being inconvenienced by the protests, that deliveries are being held up, people are being late to work or for appointments, but that it’s a necessary tactic.

“This isn’t about blaming individuals for a problem, this is about recognising the powers that be are hugely influenced by powerful interests such as the fossil fuel industry,” adding that “unless you’re Donald Trump there is no meaningful doubt climate change is caused by the amount of carbon we are pumping out into the atmosphere”.

More than 500 protesters have been arrested since Monday, with three who climbed on to a train carriage and glued themselves to it still in jail after bail was refused. Thousands more have risked criminalisation by joining in.

When will it end? “The rebellion is until we win,” he answers firmly.