Last week I arrived at the European Parliament in Brussels and discovered next to the main doors a life size model of a whale made from plastic bottles. Its presence indicated a week of campaigning by the World Wildlife Fund for Nature to draw attention to the problem of the 8 million tonnes of plastic waste in our oceans that is killing and harming marine life.
The very fact that we are now more alive than ever to campaigns such as those on plastics shows that when enough of us engage, change for the good will follow.
Before becoming an MEP I worked for the development charity Christian Aid as their head of campaigns, which involved lobbying members of parliaments and carrying out attention seeking campaign stunts similar to the plastic whale.
What makes a successful campaigner?
First and foremost campaigners need to be impatient. Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, the President of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, became increasingly impatient with the injustice that was apartheid the older he became. In his final years he was even more worried that he would die before apartheid was defeated. This impatience led him to demand ever-greater efforts from the staff and supporters of the Anti-Apartheid Movement.
In so doing he would tell the story of a visit he had made to his spiritual home, the College of the Resurrection at Mirfield in Yorkshire. There, over dinner, he had fallen to discussing the pros and cons of buying a new suit at such an elderly age with his fellow octogenarian priests. However their deliberations were soon overridden by the most ancient member of the College with the comment, “New suit, new suit, I worry about buying green bananas!”
Campaigners are right to be impatient when they see injustice. They are right to be impatient with a world order that allows poverty to prosper in a world of plenty. They are right to be impatient when they cannot see change coming.
The second attribute campaigners need is persistence. Persistence to work tirelessly in practical ways to root out the injustice they have identified. More often than not this injustice will have many causes, all of which have to be addressed and defeated.
We see this persistence writ large in the history of the campaign against the slave trade. Wilberforce, driven by his Christian faith, time and again brought before parliament the bill to abolish slavery, only to encounter defeat. Eleven times he tried, over 18 years, before he finally succeeded, before his persistence was rewarded.
The third and final attribute of a successful campaigner is optimism. Optimism that environmental destruction can be reversed, that climate change can be stopped. Optimistism that the structures that favour the rich and powerful over the poor and marginalised can be challenged and changed for good. An optimism that enabled the Reverend Martin Luther King to talk with unshakeable conviction that one day – one day – they would reach ‘the promised land’. It is an optimism that was echoed on Saturday at the royal wedding in Bishop Michael Curry’s powerful sermon.
The last campaign I worked on at Christian Aid was for tax justice and recently this campaign achieved a significant victory when the UK government agreed to require British overseas territories to introduce public registers of beneficial ownership.
This means that companies based in places like Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, and the British Virgin Islands will have to reveal the identity of the individuals behind companies — the beneficial owners.
This step will help overcome some of the obstacles to accessing information about these owners, making it easier to follow the money back to its source. This increases the likelihood that those engaged in illegal acts will no longer get away with crimes such as tax evasion, money laundering and corruption.
When companies pay their fair share, just like the rest of us, it contributes towards the fight against poverty and injustice. Having public registers does not mean the end of the campaign for tax justice, there is still much more to do, but it’s an important step along the road. A ‘step’ that has taken 10 years to achieve, which is a useful reminder of the three key attributes needed by successful campaigners for justice - impatience, persistence and optimism.
This column was originally published in The Journal newspaper on Wednesday 22 May.