The right to protest
By Chris Sams
We live in one of the most democratic countries in the world with freedoms that some countries can only envy. Britain led the field in parliamentary reform, abolition of slavery, franchise, even democracy with many of our political philosophers contributing to American and French revolutions. The right to protest and groups lobbying parliament have been an integral to the evolution of our current state and without it we may have not become the world super power we did but does it still have a place in our current democracy and what form should it take?
Going back two centuries the country was full of corruption and in dire need of political reform. Parliament was rife with corruption and full of MPs who were elected by a minority of voters to represent their needs over that of the actual constituents. Even worse were the pocket boroughs and rotten boroughs where the landlords would either rig the election or use bribery or coercion to get votes. Movements like the Chartist lobbied parliament and protested for reform. At St Peter's field outside Manchester on 19th August 1819, a mass protest was policed by the militia and the Cavalry into the protestors killing fifteen with horse and sabre killing a few people in the "Peterloo Massacre." Moving forward to the twentieth century, with the growth of socialist movements, the Fabian society and the Labour party more and more groups began to protest and lobby the government. The Suffragettes are the probably the most memorable group of protestors from the turn of the century, they demonstrated, launched attacks on MPs and public property even the famous assualt on the King's horse at the grand national that killed the Suffragette, the horse and the jockey. Their protests are well documented as are the Govenment's oppressive "Cat and mouse acts" to try and bring them under control. What is not so readilly documented is the work of the much larger Suffragist movement who lobbied he government and had peaceful protests. It is also quickly forgotten that the Liberal parliament was already looking into changing the franchise and it was the war work that really swayed the opposition factions. Post war there was the general strike and unions protested against the governments reactions to economic policy post 1929 crash. The Government was forced to react to protests and the calls from the populous to do something for the greater good whether it was to reform the political and voting system, the granting of franchise, improving living standards or repealling unfair taxation and economic policy.
We are lucky to live in a country where freedom to protest and speak are often taken for granted. In many places around the world, even now in the twenty-first century, there is still intolerance, tyranny and oppression. In Zimbabwe President Mugabe has held onto power and disregarded electoral results for years, Somalia and Sierra Leone are no better than warzones with widespread anarchy. Palestinians are trapped in the West bank unable to protest against the Israeli government and nigh on forgotten by the world. Other countries like Burma and North Korea have harsh military governments that oppress any form of protest and brain wash their people into submission, in fact North Korea is practically a feudal state ruled over by the elite. The Freedoms and rights that we cling to and are vocal in defending are often lacking in other countries. As a Liberal (and libdem) I believe in the globalising belief and teachings of Mill and Paine that should, as Trotsky tried to do with Communism, be exported to the world, well where applicable without impinging on religious belief or culture, so that all can speak with equal voice. However it is a pipe dream that will not become a reality in my life time nor even my daughter's. We lose sight of what is important in this country and there are some who will protest at the drop of a hat at every government decission and complain about their rights being impinged upon and I wonder if they realise how lucky they are to live in this free society compared to many places around the world.
Does the right to protest still have a place in today's society? Arguably yes, after all it is your right to and everyone has freedom of speech. If anything I encourage people to protest peacefully for something they believe in, wheher it is against a coal fired power station at Kingsnorth, proposed High speed railway through your rural village or at a government's proposed action. When war in Iraq loomed a million people marched in London peacefully protesting, even during the media grabbing riots there were the silent majority of peaceful protestors who are rightfully disgruntled. It gives me hope for the future of this country that young people are willing to fight and stand up for what they believe in and are interested in politics and current affairs. What is interesting though is that the whole protest revolves around money. Don't get me wrong it is a sizable increase but we never had demonstrations like this over the introduction of control orders or ID cards which seriously attack personal freedom, government proposals for six new nuclear powerstations, compulsory equal pay for women in the workplace...
If you read the Tweets of Laurie Penny or similiar activists or listen to certain media streams you could get the impression this is actually an ideological war in the same vain as the student protests in 1968.
Tweets like "... what parliament does, the streets can undo." [@pennyred 7th/1/2011 (although that may have been the chant at the demo.) ]
When I went out on strike last year as a member of the PCS union over proposed chjanges to the civil service compensation scheme we were met with similiar people. Anarchists, scoialists and Marxists who saw the cause as something they could subevert or rabble-rouse. Protests are not primarily there to bring about a regime change but to show people's dislike for one or several joined issues. It's as if our struggle is being hijacked for their own ends and to a degree tars a genuine cause with the Governmental label of "The usual rent a mob and political malcontents."
Tacked on to these political malcontents, who at least have an opinion and a political statement to make whether or not it is conneected or not, is the groups of genuine trouble makers and people who just want to cause damage and ruck with the Police force. These are the people who generally turn up in balaclavas, or carry crowbars, or seen jumping barricades on a loan charge towards the police lines. These are the people who dawb graffiti on statues, smash public buildings, attack the royal car, break into Tory HQ. These are the people that give a genuine cause a bad name and bad media attention and can turn the public support away from it and more importantly an MP's. Why should an MP show support for a cause which has caused untold amounts of damage and cost the Taxpayer and public purse a lot of money. It would be easy for "... the government to forget about student power and focus on more pressing matters." [D. Fowler "Youth culture." p.165]
As a quick attachment to the last paragraph I would also like to make it clear that I did not think the Police response was always right. Kettling is often being to quickly used and in the cold weather that hung over Britain at the time it was genuinely unfair on those genuine protestors who just wanted to go home. Coming from a family of Police officers across the last hundred years and haing heard of my grandfather's account of a Workers riot in the 50's I can also understand the Police response to sometimes to overreact. They are under a lot of stress and are criticised whatever their course of action. I do not agree with the way protestors verbally abuse Police officers when they are doing their job... Then two weeks later complain that the Police do not do enough to assist them when they become a victim of crime.
Finally I come to the protests on the 7th January 2011 in Cowley street to mark Nick Clegg's birthday. Now I may be loyal Cleggite and proud Liberal Democrat but why has the protest become so personal? Mr Clegg is not an evil dictator, he is not solely responsible for parliamentary decissions or policy. Why attack him personally? His Facebook page has comments that threaten his person, his personal property and the well being of his wife and children. Surely this is not the country our grandparents fought for? Also... just an observation but 150 people on a wet Friday afternoon is not a mass movement of the people... More people went to go and see Gillingham FC play away yesterday that hardly makes them the people's choice for football.
Protesting and demonstrations do have a place in today's society. The voice of the common man and on issues are easilly lost in the shouting and debating of the halls of Westminster and occaisionally it needs to be shouted by many. Demonstrations have helped forge a country where freedom and democracy has evolved and the people are lucky to have the voice they do in a world that is often contrary to it. Debate, lobby parliament, march the streets waving placards but don't allow the cause to be to coloured by criminals and thugs or your political message skewed by political radicals. This is your country, your government you must do what you can to make it a better place but not to the expense of the common law. I hope that Minister Hart's comments in 1968 on youth movement will not come to fruition.
"Like the elephant it is easier to recognise than to define, even if identified it is far from clear how it concerns government." [Ibid p.165]