Handling protest (3 of 3)

Second note following evidence to the JC on Human Rights, 21 October 2008

(1)  Clarification on the severity of different sorts of protest
(2)  Clarification on the success of different sorts of protest

(1) Clarification on the severity of different sorts of protest
Evan Harris asked me for a map of the seriousness of problem different sorts of protest presented. I should have replied that the spectrum in my written evidence (vociferous, vigorous, vicious and violent) provides a way of calibrating any particular activity.

But it doesn’t really help us spot classes of action which are likely to be, say, vicious.

I take it that we are discussing demonstrations and direct action and that merely vociferous protest is unexceptionable.

I should have given more examples of how difficult it is to detect the seriousness of vigorous, vicious and violent protests merely from, say, their targets.

In general one would say that harm to people matters more than harm to property. But screaming vile abuse at a person in a business centre may carry less menace than spray-painting their car in a private driveway. A letter bomb at work may carry less menace than a polite phone call to an employee at home. Slight damage to a small trial GM crop threatens an entire science but would be trivial in a normal potato field. Slight damage to a waste pipe threatens a giant nuclear plant in a quite different way to the same sort of damage to a smokestack in a fossil fuel plant. Occupying one crane may bring a city centre to a standstill, but occupying another might be merely comically spectacular.

(2) Clarification on the success of different sorts of protest
I stick by my statement that demonstrations and direct action have seldom achieved their goals.

More usefully to the committee, I should have said that it isn’t obvious what sort will succeed. Certainly success is not proportionate to vigour.

Protest does sometimes succeed. Theatre companies are widely said to be avoiding certain religious subjects because of Sikh and Muslim protest.  (Christian outrage has been unsuccessful.)

Sometimes protest is a bit successful. Many infrastructure projects have suffered some delay and cost increases as a result of protest, but have gone ahead in the end. (The anti-road campaigners claim indirect political success, but I doubt it.)

In some cases direct action has backfired. Britain has lost some facilities but been rendered a uniquely strong centre for animal research as a response to protest. The anti-fur campaign persuaded some firms to abandon the trade but others were emboldened to fight on all the harder and overall the trade thrives. GM crop research may go abroad as a result of field trial damage but it may just become less transparent at home.

Causes seem to succeed or fail according to subtler processes of change. Demonstrations or direct action for Ban the Bomb, Not In My Name, No Nukes, May Day, The Third Battle of Newbury, Liberty and Livelihood, Fathers 4 Justice, Fur Is Murder and other causes seem not to have much budged public opinion or Parliament. (One might count Drop The Debt a success.)

Very vigorous direct action has a surprisingly poor record. Wapping and the coal-miners’ strikes did not budge policy. The effect of the Shoreham live veal export protest is harder to analyse: the trade was unpopular without the street protest.

The record of riots is very mixed. The May Day riots irritated the public. The Poll Tax was hugely unpopular, but I suspect the riots against it were too.

Wide-scale neighbourhood riots have a better record of success. Brixton and Toxteth influenced events.

My conclusion is that the illegality of most extreme protests is not justified by an argument that they have effected change in a unique way.

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Publication date

09 November 2008