UKIP leader Nigel Farage caused a stir some days ago when he said that violent protest might be the only way southern European countries could save their democracies. I interpret his comments as a warning rather than a call to arms, and he has said this sort of thing to the European Parliament before now. The horrified reaction of some people might better be directed at those Western powers who vigorously encouraged revolution in Libya and have recently been subverting the government of Syria, to the great harm of many of its people.
Alternatively, Farage's critics could be consistent in a different way, by upholding the right of people here to demonstrate in rowdy ways when their voices are otherwise ignored - or at least, to show some understanding of why it happens. Have we so soon forgotten the Poll Tax Riots of 1990?
In the eighteenth century, when MPs came from boroughs with an electorate of as few as three voters and most men and all women were disenfranchised, and when the Riot Act of 1714 included the death penalty for serious damage to property, there were still occasions on which crowds would run through Whitehall breaking windows to show their displeasure, or (for example) surround Pitt the Younger's carriage shouting "Bread, bread!". Conversely, when things were going right they could show their approval directly, as when cheering men detached the Prime Minister's horses from his carriage, put themselves between the shafts and pulled him home.
Now, Downing Street is gated and guarded, and the noise of protest must not reach the leader's ears. Try to make a point by parking your truck outside, or even just reading the names of British soldiers killed in Iraq, and you will be swiftly arrested. Often what is done in the name of security or public order is merely about preventing embarrassment to the powerful. Think of Brian Haw, who camped outside Parliament for ten years to shame the occupants about the Iraq war, and the squalid effort to silence him by using a new Act of Parliament (SOCA, 2005) - which he successfully overcame because his demonstration had started before the Act came into being. This shabby attempt should be periodically publicised as a standing reproof to MPs.
The fact is that when democracy is broken, people will find other ways than the vote to register their views. It's far from ideal, and the electoral reforms of 1832 and later were supposed to give a voice to the gagged; but if Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition is ineffective (if not actually in agreement with the government of the day, e.g. on the European Union), then a dangerous pressure will build up in the machine.
Unfortunately, the cyber-spy society in which we live has enormously strengthened the ability of the powers-that-be to monitor and suppress dissent, and they don't like information being used in the opposite direction. Like Daniel Ellsberg, Julian Assange, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden have all annoyed governments by shining a light on the latter's filthier activities. Ellsberg was lucky, as it turned out: he got support from the Press, and an Alaskan Senator who put 4,100 pages of the secret documents onto the public record, and many of the public were behind him in his opposition to the Vietnam War. But the rulers have learned since then, and know how to frighten and confuse us so that we don't make the same kind of fuss on behalf of modern whistle-blowers.
And as for mass demonstration and direct physical intervention! Even the critics of the government are conflicted. For example, "Archbishop Cranmer" yesterday deplored fracking protestors' "claimed right to break the law; to enforce where they cannot persuade, for [...] the ordinary rules of democracy cannot apply to them." Yet today he observes, "A modern, secular democracy provides for no peaceful means [for the people to withdraw their consent], especially since differences among mainstream parties are fading away."
To those who govern us, silencing the people may seem like a good thing, but in the long run it is like a dried pea stuck in the escape valve of the pressure cooker, or an engine without a governor: the failure of proper feedback allows the machine to become dysfunctional to the point of self-destruction. Effective opposition makes the system work better; if only the Opposition understood.
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