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Tyrants and Radicals

by Bryan Gibson (author of The Pocket A-Z of Criminal Justice)

(page 2 of 4)

Moving the World on
Most events in our radical heritage perhaps rank higher than watching the sun come up behind ancient stones (although even that is a matter of opinion), but the principle is what is important. Not everyone wants to be the same, believe in the same things or to agree with the status quo, vague notions of Britishness (whatever that is), or increasing curbs on a true democratic process and people should be free to peaceably express this according to their own culture, lifestyle and conscience, which in theory they can, subject to longstanding rules about doing so within the law and some recent powers, controls, restrictions and forms of censorship. Not yet as bad as during some historical clampdowns, but getting there.

Dissent does not need to be on the streets of course, viz, The Penguin Book of Twentieth Century Protest edited by Brian MacArthur (1998, Viking) that reproduces several hundred extracts from the pens of people as wide-ranging in outlook as Keir Hardie, George Bernard Shaw, Beatrice Webb, Bertrand Russell, Arthur Koestler, George Orwell, Arthur Scargill, Kenneth Tynan, Fidel Castro, Bernadette Devlin, Sarah Hipperson, Peter Tatchell, Paul Foot and Tony Benn. At the opposite extreme, it may sometimes be legitimate to go further than wielding the pen, starting with civil disobedience. This may mean that offences are committed, prosecutions launched, people imprisoned or worse (some to become martyrs to a particular cause); but there are also instances of juries refusing to convict in the face of plain facts, what is sometimes called “pious perjury”. There are always a number of jurists, philosophers, criminologists and other thinkers who are prepared to explain how and why such disobedience may be more legitimate than the actions of the state itself.

In its series of articles, the Guardian has instanced events such as the Peterloo massacre (1819) when the militia was set upon people campaigning for “one man, one vote”, the Battle of Cable Street (1936) that led to the banning of private armies, military uniforms and the Public Order Act of that year that is still used, the Tolpuddle Martyrs (1834) from Dorset whose joint actions against their employers triggered the trade union movement, and the Putney Debates (1647) when The Levellers called for opposition to Oliver Cromwell’s increasingly authoritarian stance – as well as a motley collection of riots – including those over the original poll tax as part of the Peasants’ Revolt under and against Richard II, the first rising by the lower orders. There are countless lesser known, more deeply buried, sanitized or obliterated events.

The Big Issue
The bomb-prone Angry Brigade or Stoke Newington Four (some say Eight) from the late-1960s into the early 1970s can attest to the close attention paid by the authorities to certain activists. So also can members of the Committee of 100, the hard core of nuclear protesters working in parallel with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), including the philosopher Bertrand Russell who was, with others, sent to prison for direct action in causing disturbances at American airbases in Britain in the late-1950s as part of their protests against nuclear weapons (having been given the option of promising to behave and staying out of gaol, which they refused). Likewise, there was always a long queue of “peace wimmin” from Greenham Common ready to sit in the road and later, following their arrest, on the steps of Newbury magistrates’ court – or sometimes for snipping the wires of the perimeter fence.

The threat from which the public must be protected changes over time and was at its height in the UK during the troubles in Northern Ireland and when the Irish Republican Army (IRA) was active on the UK mainland especially. The big issue is now Muslim extremism which has triggered legislation capable of swallowing up all forms of dissent, physical, oral or written. The future depends on how you define, interpret, expand and thus criminalize the now potentially very wide notion of “terrorism”. Like treason, terrorism is a malleable concept. Mission creep is a constant danger. Overreaction and hidden agendas are always a risk. The whole situation is blighted not by a need to respond to a small cell of oddballs living in Stoke Newington or a Republican group with a discernible if sometimes wavering political agenda, but the fact that war, terrorism, truth, religion, emergency legislation and trust have all become intertwined in the fight against a largely shapeless and invisible enemy. As a result, we can all become terrorists now at the flick of a switch.

Undercover Curiosities
In Britain, people have traditionally objected, protested, demonstrated, dissented and generally remonstrated with government and others in authority when dissatisfied, even if, as is now regularly disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (and so long as it continues to deliver what it says on the tin), such people were in the sights of, or infiltrated by, MI5 and Special Branch, or in earlier times under surveillance after the blueprint established by Sir Francis Walsingham under Elizabeth I. Nowadays, all sorts of ordinary people are being encouraged to spy on each other after the manner of Orwell’s 1984: neighbours, colleagues, workmates, taxpayers, car mechanics, doctors, dustmen, bank managers, accountants and solicitors. At the same time, Britain has become “The Surveillance Society” in which, according to the latest reports, it now leads the western world, like a modern-day KGB or Stasi.

In the 1930s, if you were a weekend rambler, you could trespass on Kinder Scout in an early bid to establish a right to roam and sing, as the late Ewan McColl did, of being “a work slave on Mondays” but “a freeman on Sundays”, but this might mean that you were labelled “communist”, treated as subversive and placed on a watch list. If you stepped too far out of line you could be leaned on in some way, possibly arrested or harassed. I know one police officer who packed in his job, bought a guitar and set out to make his way around the English folk music circuit. He even released a number of records in his new guise. In retrospect, I have often wondered whether he ever gave up being a police officer at all. It is a long way from Kinder Scout to Forest Gate or Stockwell Underground Station but the mindset created by surveillance should be kept an eye on (sic).

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© Bryan Gibson 2006. This article appeared in Justice of the Peace in February 2006

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