On protest

Protest that endures, I think, is moved by a hope far more modest than that of public success: namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one’s own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence.

Wendell Berry,. What Are People For?

As I write this, the present government of the United Kingdom is preparing to pass legislation that will make public protest illegal. It contains plenty of other objectionable measures, but this is the one getting most attention. Its announcement naturally provoked public protests – which were of course pointed to by the government as further evidence that such things cannot be tolerated.

I am not sure, actually, that public protest has ever accomplished a great deal in terms of convincing governments to change their mind. There was, for example, an enormous rally in 2003 to protest against the UK’s involvement in the second Gulf War; the reported number of people involved varied depending on whether the newspaper reporting it was for or against the war, but it was certainly very large, on the order of hundreds of thousands in London alone. We joined the war anyway, and the electorate failed to eject the New Labour government at their next opportunity.

Long before that we had the Chartist movement, which aimed at turning Britain into a democracy – something it has never actually been, despite what people say. Their methods consisted of drawing up a charter stating their demands, holding public meetings, and submitting petitions, all of which were ignored. When the rest of Europe was ablaze with revolution in the heady year of 1848, the Chartists submitted a third and final petition. (Of course these days we have online petitions, which allow public opinion to be ignored much more efficiently.) Needless to say, the practical upshot of all this was essentially nothing.

Given that governments can and do ignore these events, it is perhaps surprising that they are so keen to restrict them. They already require police permission to occur in the UK, and are banned from taking place in Parliament Square, where Members of Parliament might be obliged to take some notice of them. I can only suppose that it is part of the growing tendency amongst governments across the world to feel that people should just shut up and do what they are told.

The ongoing pandemic has offered many opportunities for this tendency to display itself, in the UK and elsewhere. In a recent essay, Paul Kingsnorth has surveyed a few of these, and it is already looking quite disturbing. In parts of Australia, we have already reached the point at which citizens are being put in internment camps by the military. I don’t think you have to be paranoid to find this a worrying development. The same goes for compulsory vaccinations, as we are now seeing in Austria, and soon in Germany too by all accounts.

This is not a public health issue, by the way. The vaccines do have a value in terms of reducing the severity of the disease, should you be infected by it. If you are likely to be severely affected, I advise you to get the jab; I have myself. But they do very little in terms of reducing transmission. It therefore makes very little sense to vaccinate and re-vaccinate people in low-risk groups, especially when you consider that none of these drugs has passed the normal clinical trials (nor are they likely to, given that the control groups have now been vaccinated).

What this is about, increasingly, is governments asserting their authority over individual citizens. It may well be that for many, perhaps most, people it is more rational to risk infection than to risk taking the vaccine – leaving aside the possibility that it may well not work against the variant du jour in any case. But rationality has nothing to do with it. The government wills it thus, and therefore it must be so, and anyone who doesn’t like it will feel the full rigour of the emergency legislation.

Emergencies, of course, can go on for a long time. Income tax was brought in back in 1798 to pay for the Napoleonic Wars. Those must have been some pretty expensive wars, because we’re still paying the tax. (It did go away briefly in the early nineteenth century, to be fair.) Once governments have powers, they rarely choose to relinquish them. Even if the current government is forced out of office at the next election – which seems vanishingly unlikely – I doubt whether the current bill, doubtless law by then, will be repealed wholesale. A show will be made of getting rid of this or that provision; they might even re-legalise public protest. But they will keep as much of it as they dare.

So what can we do? Should we all take to the streets? Perhaps if enough people did so the system would be swamped, but that is a little akin to the idea current in my childhood that if everyone in China jumped up and down at the same time it would cause an earthquake. (If you want to do that, fracking is much more practical.) In other words, it probably isn’t going to happen. How could such protests even be organised in an age when telephone and digital communications are monitored both by governments and by corporations whose interests those governments serve?

We live in dark times, but there is always something to be done. We can all put a little grit into the gears of the machine from time to time. There is a lot to be said for opting out of those things we still can: such institutions as Buy Nothing Day are helpful (and of course can save you a packet too). Passive resistance can be surprisingly effective. The best way to get a bureaucrat to ignore you is to be slightly more trouble than you are worth. Let the good soldier Švejk be your role-model.

The art here is judging what you can get away with. Big obvious things, like going on one of those illegal protest marches, will probably land you in jail. But there is always a gap between the official reality depicted in legislation and the actual situation. That is the space you want to inhabit. If rules are bent often enough then they cease to be enforced and eventually become unenforceable. The rules governing corruption in public life in the UK are approaching that point now, for example, as the case of Owen Paterson demonstrates.

MPs, of course, get to change the rules that govern them (and sufficiently senior MPs get to ignore them altogether). The rest of us don’t have that luxury. Time, however, is on our side. All governments rely on the consent of the governed, and if that consent has to be extorted by force then an expensive and potentially unreliable machinery is needed to do the extorting. I am not sure, for instance, that the current UK government is as well-beloved by its police as it might need to be, after long years of “downsizing.”

Let us remember that even large things that appear permanently established may not in fact be so. When I was growing up, the Soviet Union was one of the great givens of geopolitics. Then, quite suddenly, it went away. Perhaps history will surprise us again. For this too will pass.

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ozymandias”

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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