Thursday 23 February 2017


Minnesota women's march against Donald Trump. Fibonacci Blue, wikimedia
In 1987, I cut a single strand of the wire fence at Burghfield Royal Ordnance Factory, and was arrested and charged with criminal damage. I defended myself on the grounds that Burghfield was manufacturing nuclear weapons and that I was acting to prevent a crime (the defence of necessity, the crime being the possible annihilation of millions of people). This was at a time when the stationing of Cruise missiles on British soil was seen by many as a threat to our survival, escalating the risk of nuclear war (and indeed, accidental nuclear war did once happen.) I was convicted, of course, though Reading magistrates were both respectful and sympathetic.

I wrote about this action in the newsletter of a Christian community we were then part of, the Othona Community, and one member took strong exception to my action, writing a letter attacking me and comparing me to Hitler and Mussolini. I've often wondered what he based that on (he didn't explain) but I think he meant that I was trying to undermine the democratic process by using direct action. I should have been content with the ballot box, and my pointless vote in a safe Tory seat.
I'm on the left, in a paper 'radiation suit.'

I don't feel I was trying to overturn the democratic process, but only to use the law to argue that nuclear weapons were contrary to international law, a belief I still hold. Unlike Hitler or Mussolini, I did not mobilise thousands of thugs to beat up political opponents, or abolish democratic institutions, murder people, or sack them en masse or herd them into concentration camps.

However, I've been thinking about this, because I keep reading on Facebook threads, and hearing from US Presidents on Twitter, the idea that one shouldn't protest at all in a democracy, but should accept that 'we won.' Also that 'you lost.' Of course, a majority of US voters did not choose Trump, but a narrow majority of voters did cast their votes to leave the EU (one of the contexts in which I encounter this assertion). 'The people have chosen,' we're told, though in the case of the EU it doesn't seem to me as clear as it does to the Daily Mail or Theresa May exactly what they chose.

Consider this idea, though, that if the majority have chosen a particular course of action (or President, though that's the electoral college), the others should pipe down and abandon their principles.Should they?
Democracy is the will of the people, this theory states, and opposition is treachery towards the people (which is why the Mail was baying for the High Court judges' blood on the issue of Parliament deciding whether to Brexit or not).

However, democracy means that there is an opposition. In our own country, it's even deemed to be Her Majesty's Opposition. Jeremy Corbyn is not thrown into the Tower, but invited to the Palace and made a Right Honourable. A victory in an election does not give the winning party the right to occupy all the seats in Parliament. Even in autocratic times, monarchs had to get their policies through Parliament, though sometimes they locked the members in till they'd done what was required of them, and of course Parliament was far less representative than it is now.

Radical Whig Charles James Fox; plenty of people wanted to shut him up.
The British constitution (and this IS a historical issue, for it goes back a long way), is based on the idea that whatever choices are made at any one election can be reversed at the next one. Does one therefore abandon one's ideas till there is a chance of another election? Of course not. What we're being told about Brexit is that it's a once for all decision, done and dusted. But that completely contradicts the nature of democracy. Even in the era when the vote was restricted to property-owners, so we really had an oligarchy rather than a democracy, Whigs alternated with Tories, and when one side was in Government, the other side were on the cross-benches, putting their point of view.

Another aspect of democracy is lobbying. Not pure, maybe, but it happens. Interest groups make representations to government. These may be business groups, they may be charities, or professional associations, or campaigning groups. My husband, who is an environmental consultant and Vice President of the Chartered Institute of Wastes Management, regularly goes to Parliament to address a special interest group, which is attended by many MPs across party lines. This is another practice which goes back a long way; and I see mass demonstrations as another form of lobbying, particularly since they are seldom events all of their own, but are usually underpinned by hours of hard work, writing to MPs, leafletting, petitioning (even back in the '80s), programmes of public information through Press and nowadays social media. This was the case with women's suffrage, with the campaign against child prostitution or the compulsory and abusive medical examination of any woman deemed to look like a prostitute, which Josephine Butler campaigned against.

photo: Women's Library
There is nothing about traditional democracy that suggests it's a crime to inform the electorate. Some might think it's necessary for democracy to work properly, particularly when there is a vocal and often misleading tabloid press, funded by big money and, many would argue, dedicated to spread propaganda that suggests the tyranny of the market is the only way to organise society.

Where this rhetoric of 'You are in a minority, so you should shut up,' comes from, is somewhere else, and there are sinister antecedents. Hitler, indeed, and Mussolini, and Stalin, all three of whom would have had me in a camp licketty-split for my mild act of civil disobedience. In Nazi Germany, everyone was told that the people 'das Volk', agreed with Hitler, and anyone who didn't was isolated, made to feel they were mad, demoralised. It's because of this that only those who had established existing networks (Communists, members of the Confessing Church, some Catholics, Quakers ) could achieve any act of resistance. I remember being driven along the motorway towards Berlin, going through the German 'Democratic' Republic, in 1972, and seeing a poster: REFERENDUM ABOUT (I forget what). ALLE SAGEN JA. (Everyone says yes). This was not a simple piece of campaigning or exhortation. It meant: You will say yes, if you know what's good for you. And these referendums were used to silence people, to validate the regime. You are alone, was the message, no-one else will think of dissenting.

Does majoritarianism trump (sorry, definitely a pun, alas) ethics and human rights? If a majority want us to murder people, to exploit other countries and steal their wealth, to lock dissenters up in prison, torture people the security services suspect of terrorism (partly because someone else has given them their name under torture), in the worst case, to annihilate an ethnic group because you hate them, should everyone go along with that? You alone have these crazy humanitarian views, the majority says, everyone else agrees that the Jews should be destroyed. Or the Armenians, or the Tutsis, or the professional classes (in the Cultural Revolution). Or that black kids should be shot down with impunity by whoever wants to, like Trayvon Martin, whose parents, protesting his murder, are pictured here.
Or civilians drenched in napalm and Agent Orange in the Vietnam war. It was Nixon, I think, who coined the term 'the silent majority' to silence protest about THAT.

Shall we follow Hitler and demonise those who stand out and follow their conscience? Do you prefer Adolf Eichmann to Bonhoeffer, the Scholl siblings, Oskar Schindler, Pastor Gruber who helped many Jews get out of Germany, Elisabeth Abegg who hid them in her homes; Maria von Maltzan who did everything she could to save lives, even those of animals who she certified unfit for combat? These people were, officially, criminals.

When I was one of the million plus who marched against the second Iraq war, Tony Blair told us that we shouldn't march because in Iraq there was no right to protest. If you take that statement apart, it says: We are going to war to implement regime change in Iraq. The current regime is wrong, because people aren't allowed to protest there. Nevertheless, it is wrong to protest here. WHAT??

photo: William M. Connolley: Wikimedia
But we don't go to war over human rights, or hardly ever. Instead, in the name of pragmatism and trade, we welcome mass murderers and heads of terror states to our country and the monarch entertains them at Buckingham Palace. Saddam Hussein was put into Iraq by the British and for years he was 'our bastard', so his despotism was OK.

I marched against the Iraq war because I believed the UN inspectors who said there was no evidence of weapons of mass destruction (the ostensible reason for fighting), because I thought it would destabilise the region and encourage Islamic fundamentalism (it has), because I thought it was about giving the US and the West access to a lot of oil.

Critical though I am of our first-past-the-post electoral system, we have in this country an admirable tradition of free speech and freedom to express our opinions and find out like-minded people and allies. It isn't perfect, of course: we've had the Peterloo Massacre, the despicable clampdown on reformist organisations in the aftermath of the French Revolution and still more disgracefully, we failed to allow our colonies that freedom. Still, imperfect as it is, it has remained a vital thread of British political life up till the present day.

Democracy needs protest, as long as it is peaceful. To shut up if you haven't got what you wanted is the last thing anyone should do in a democracy, unless what you want is to abolish democracy itself.


Susan Price said...

Completely agree with you, Leslie.

Those who voted Remain have not only a right to peacefully campaign for their point of view, but a duty. Anything else, as you say, makes a nonsense of democracy.

We wouldn't even have the democracy and political freedom we have if people in the past hadn't campaigned and protested and even fought wars. We wouldn't have a parliament, or manhood suffrage, or votes for women. We would, possibly, still be an openly slave-owning society.

Lydia Syson said...

With you all the way...

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

The shutting down of the debate, post-referendum, has been one of the most undemocratic things I've seen in my lifetime. We always have the right to speak, argue and protest.

Miranda Miller said...

Absolutely, Leslie. I thought my marching days were over but I can see I'm going to be like the octogenarian I saw on the Women's March last month carrying a placard that said:" Do I really have to go on another fucking march?"

Leslie Wilson said...

Maybe I'll make myself such a placard.. though I can't do standing nowadays, and am nervous about being kettled as a result. But I'm with the marchers, every step of the way.