Is Protest and Direct Action Always Legitimate?

By Stewart Ross, Chair, Canterbury Commemoration Society

‘When I stepped onto the motorway, ‘ Insulate Britain’ protestor Revd Dr Sue Parfitt told the court at her trial for contempt, she had acted ‘out of love’ and ‘in obedience to God’s call’.

How come? The ‘pain and inconvenience’ she admitted causing, and for which she apologised, was ‘highly proportional in its minimal effect compared with the utterly appalling degree of suffering and colossal degree of disruption’ coming our way with the ‘impending climate catastrophe’.

In short, the end – avoiding a boiling world – justified the means – blocking a road. It’s an old justification that goes back long before Machiavelli, though protestors normally put a more positive spin on things – ie immediate discomfort (setting fire to letter boxes, etc) is justified by vastly greater comfort (votes for women) in the long run.

So what can we, ordinary citizens who don’t fancy supergluing themselves to the M25, do if we feel angry about something done, or not done, by those in authority? Some say that in a democracy the ballot box is protest enough: if we don’t like our governors, vote them out. But that might be too late, especially if they have taken an irrevocable step such as bulldozing through your back garden or even as taking you to war.

Protest, therefore, is a valid and legitimate way of making one’s opinion known. But does it work, and how far should one go? Whether or not it works usually depends on what proportion of the electorate the authorities believe the agitators represent. Thus the anti-Poll Tax protests succeeded because they persuaded the government that persevering with the measure would lead to electoral defeat, while Ban the Bomb and Stop the Iraq War failed because governments did not believe they were endorsed by sufficient numbers.

Protest Handbook, lesson 1: use every means you can to get a majority – or what looks like a majority – to back your cause. No matter how fervent, four people with a dog and placard in the High Street won’t change a bean.

Is law-breaking or even violent agitation ever justified in a representative democracy? The instinctive answer is no. Indeed, such tactics can set a cause back by turning neutrals against it. In response, Rev Parfit would argue that being a damned (or blesséd) nuisance, even though it alienates in the short term, keeps a concern in the public eye. In the end, they hope, this will lead to the authorities taking the desired action.

Howard Zinn, the radical US anarchist-socialist, went even further. As laws were imposed by unrepresentative authorities, they could and should be broken. Thus ‘protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy [but] is absolutely essential to it.’ This was the sort of line taken by IRA apologists.

From the pages of A Man for All Seasons, Sir Thomas More rises for the defence: ‘This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast … And if you cut them down … do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?’ Wise words, Sir Tom. Women did not get the vote because they chained themselves to railings or went on hunger strike; they were enfranchised after demonstrating during World War I that they were capable of doing things previously believed to be a male preserve.

Protest Handbook, lesson 2: Protest by all means – indeed, a vibrant democracy needs activists to bring issues to public notice and keep governments on their toes – but keep the law on your side. Though you might not like all it says, it’s your only shelter from the cruel, icy and indiscriminate blast of chaos.

Stewart Ross

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